COVID-19 pancemic: Paying a heavy price for procrastination

Dr Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*

The entire world including India is currently battling its worst health emergency in the form of the coronavirus outbreak that is spreading its tentacles rapidly across the world. What started as an epidemic mainly limited to China has now become a truly global pandemic?  The disease has been detected in more than 208 countries and territories, with Italy, the US and Spain experiencing the most widespread outbreaks outside of China.

The most powerful country US is has become vulnerable and clueless. Though it has shattered and battered the arrogance of many rulers of rich countries, still instead of fighting it in unison, attempt is made calumniate, slander each other. In India attempt is also made to blame certain minor community. Had powerful countries including India had taken proactive step much earlier, the Covid-19 would not have assumed such gargantuan proportion and had not devastated world economy threatening   onset of depression.

The theory that Covid-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus, is a conspiracy has been gaining in currency for over two months. Social media is abuzz with claim that SARS-CoV-2 is a bio-weapon prepared by China or purposefully manipulated virus to exert its suzerainty by demolishing America. Some prominent persons fuelled it by giving their voice. Influential US Senator Tom Cotton in TV interview is one of them. An American singer, Keri Hilson linked the novel coronavirus outbreak with the China’s new technology headway with 5G network of telecommunication. China launched its 5G technology in November 2019.

US President Donald Trump had branded it as “Chinese virus” as his administration blamed China for Covid-19 becoming a pandemic and potentially the biggest economic crisis of all times. A lawsuit has been filed in the US against China seeking compensation more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of China. The petitioners seek $20 trillion from China accusing it of releasing a bio-weapon in the form of novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2.  Scientists, however, don’t agree with the conspiracy theory.

Prof Partho Sarothi Ray, a PhD holder in molecular virology from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, was among the community of scientists who engaged with the WHO to study of the coronavirus and formulate policies to tackle the pandemic .According to him it is a zoonotic virus, originated in wild animal in Wuhan in China. In this case, the virus can infect humans because it developed a mutation which allowed it to bind specifically to a protein on human cells. That allowed it to jump from another species to humans. Research has found that a virus that is 96 per cent similar to this one was found in bat and 99 percent similar virus has been found in Pangolins. So, ideally it came from bat, transmitted to Pangolins and then to human body.

This “COVID-19” crisis could have been prevented in assuming pandemic had WHO taken proactive step .When on December 31, 2019, China alerted WHO to several cases of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, a port city of 11 million people in the central Hubei province, the WHO maintained stoic silence and capitalist countries maintain silence because China is a communist country. Rather led by US, capitalist countries spread canards against China instead of taking proactive step to tame spreading of covid-19. They thought that it will destroy China only and will not stretch to other countries.

What is reprehensible is that on January 23, the WHO said that the outbreak did not yet constitute a public emergency of international concern and there was “no evidence” of the virus spreading between humans outside of China. What is disconcerting is that after one month, outbreak, on January 30, the WHO declared coronavirus a global emergency as the death toll in China jumped to 170, with 7,711 cases reported in the country, where the virus had spread to all 31 provinces.

On February 5, more flights evacuating US citizens returned from Wuhan and the WHO reaffirmed there was “no known effective treatment” for the coronavirus. On February 11, the WHO announced that the new coronavirus would be called “COVID-19”.On March 11, WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, as Turkey, Ivory Coast, Honduras and Bolivia confirmed their first cases. The  delay, dithering, procrastination  on the part of WHO and other international agencies to guide various countries to take proactive step much earlier than they took  is mainly responsible for Covid -19 assuming such alarming, grisly proportion.

However, when various countries knew about corona virus, they started making blockade against China. While blocking was necessary, all countries should have come forward how to contain it in China and prevent it intruding in other countries. All rich countries did not perform their jobs perfectly may be out of arrogance and insensitivity.

However, Mangolia sealed its over 4,500 km borders with China. North Korea, China’s ally, banned entry of people from China and also Russia in January itself. But in the era of globalization China is not confined to China only. It is a global phenomenon. The virus spread to Europe and other countries through Italy. Italy sent the coronavirus patient in about 50 countries. Italy is the Chinese gateway to Europe and has bigger business relation with China. China is a main source for cheap labour to Italy. Italy being is a crumbling economy depends heavily on Chinese aid.

When India and other countries were blocking the arrival of passengers from China, Italy considered it a “racist” approach misunderstanding the basic scientific law of physical distancing which is called as social distancing by many people. The Italian government avoided imposing a wider and stricter lockdown earlier on, except initial restrictions that focused on 11 areas Rome placed in a “red zone”. There was a proposal to isolate people coming from the epicenter, coming from China. However, the Italian government balked at the idea of singling out travelers coming from China out of concern it could be construed as racist.

By contrast, to counter the “racist” move, the mayor of Florence even launched a “Hug a Chinese” Day initiative shortly after President Donald Trump and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced travel restrictions on China. This also meant hugging those coming from Wuhan and other coronavirus-affected places in China. This was happening in the first week of February, by when nearly 400 people had already lost their lives in China.  However, China should have opposed it.

Italy by then had reported coronavirus outbreak with index patients being a Chinese couple who had returned from Wuhan. The country also suspended flights from China. But hundreds afflicted with Covid 19 had already arrived in Italy from China. They were not aggressors but victims, and carriers of the noxious virus.

The pattern was almost the same in the whole of Europe. Cases continued to multiply in Europe where transport flows uninterrupted and without screening. By the time, Europe realised it, the constituent countries had either sent out the index patient to many parts of the world, or shipped virus reinforcement in the countries where Covid-19 had arrived directly from China

On January 30, when death toll hits 170 in China, India confirmed the first case of coronavirus in Kerala, a student at Wuhan University in China. The case was confirmed to the government by the National Institute of Virology. India banned only inbound passengers from China in first week of February having had three novel coronavirus patients between January 30 and February 3 – all returning from Wuhan, the Chinese city where Covid-19 broke out..

China worry had been taken care of. But India also did not take any proactive steep at that time. It did not sealed boarders and did not take step checking, screening those coming to India from other foreign countries or keeping them in isolation or quarantined. The health ministry totally failed to act according to situation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s action plan to contain the spread of Covid-19 has so far seen steps such as a ‘Janata curfew’ on 22 March followed by a strict 21-day lockdown from 25 March  besides  delayed sealing India’s borders by banning all international flights and  skimpy financial package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore . After many states had resorted to lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s took recourse to that path. India had enough times to take measures before declaring lockdown, but was busy with some other extraneous jobs like Namaste Trump,   horse trading by  present political dispensation and oath taking in MP.

India, in comparison with the USA and China, was quick to observe a complete lockdown but  did so without proper appraisal of factors that include ensuring food security , distribution of resources, safety, shelter, and  financial support to the marginalized, vulnerable sections of the society, especially the daily wagers , unorganized, migrant workers and  small business. Since, India did not report any further novel coronavirus case through February and it had greater chance to take many preventive measures and strengthen health infrastructure, food security.

Dilapidated public health infrastructure, excessive dependence on the informal sector and a lack of constructive, proactive measures is likely to leave a lasting impact on India’s poor and marginalized, vulnerable, but its repercussion on the economy will have cataclysmic impact on the nation as a whole. Experts suggest the number of infections could be much higher as India’s testing rates are among the lowest in the world.

What is more reprehensible is giving communal colour to Covid 19 to divert the attention of people from real issues..  In an article, a BJP MP accuses Tablighi Jamaat of involvement in “various terrorist acts” across the world over the last three decades and alleges a conspiracy by the Jamaat to spread COVID-19 in India. The religious congregation of Tablighi Jamaat at Nizamuddin in New Delhi, which has emerged as one of the major coronavirus hotspots in the country should have been stopped.  But programme might have been fixed many months before and permission might have been given some month before. However, Delhi police should have withdrawn permission when threat of Covid is looming large. This did not happen because government was not proactive and in hibernation at that time.

However, many stories of superciliousness, arrogance are related to pandemics. Among the most infuriating is the West’s failure to learn from history: the Ebola crisis in three African countries in 2014; Zika in 2015–16; and recent outbreaks of SARS, swine flu, and bird flu and coronavirus.  Research suggests that outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, bird flu and now Covid-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise.

Three influenza pandemics occurred at intervals of several decades during the 20th century, the

most severe of which was the so-called “Spanish Flu” (caused by an A (H1N1) virus), estimated to have caused 20–50 million deaths in 1918–1919. Milder pandemics occurred subsequently in 1957–1958 (the “Asian Flu” caused by an A(H2N2) virus) and in 1968 (the “Hong Kong Flu” caused by an A(H3N2) virus), which were estimated to have caused 1–4 million deaths each. The first influenza pandemic of the 21st century occurred in 2009–2010 and was caused by an influenza A (H1N1) virus.

In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the well-being of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems. A number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses. Wanton disruption, destruction of ecosystems quavers viruses and they loose from their natural hosts.

When that happens, they need a new host and enter human beings. It was human activity, such as road building, mining, hunting and logging, that triggered the Ebola epidemics. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals. Pathogens (i.e., infectious agent, or simply a germ) are crossing from animals to humans, and many are able to spread quickly to new places.

The obsession of GDP growth and amassing wealth more than required has led to rapid destruction of ecosystem such as environmental degradation, rise in global temperature, meting of glaciers etc. Hence change must come from rich advanced countries. We must think about global bio-security, protect biodiversity and halt environmental degradation.

 

 

The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]

 

 

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of  Sambad English.

 

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