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OP-ED: Pandemic unleashed: Covid-19 in South Asia

  • Published at 10:43 pm July 9th, 2020
India ambulance
India could soon become the worst-hit country / BIGSTOCK

Politicizing the pandemic response will only make matters worse

After Italy and Iran, then the United States, now it’s our part of the world where Covid-19 is exploding in full force. 

Earlier this week, India passed Russia into third place amongst nations with the highest number of infections (it ranks eighth in deaths). Everything the country tried -- including the world’s strictest lockdown -- failed to produce substantial results. 

According to the latest projections from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists, what’s coming next will be unimaginably worse. By the end of this year, we will see “hundreds of millions of cases concentrated in a few countries estimated to have insufficient responses given perceived risks (primarily India, but also Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the US).”

This horrifying scenario is outlined in “Estimating the Global Spread of Covid-19,” a new paper by Hazhir Rahmandad, Tse Yang Lim, and John Sterman which closely examines data from 84 countries. 

Six months from now, say the MIT researchers, India will be the worst affected country in the world, with over a quarter of a million new cases every day, followed by the US (95,000) and South Africa (21,000). What is more, “actual cases are far greater than official reports suggest [and] the majority of people remain susceptible.”

Will that kind of astonishing spread -- and unthinkable loss of life -- at least usher in the relief of “herd immunity” where enough people have become immune (in this case, by surviving the virus) to offer indirect protection to the general populace?

Unfortunately not, say Rahmandad, Lim, and Sterman, who state unequivocally: “Herd immunity due to infection remains far from reach … absent notable improvements in country level responses or breakthroughs in vaccination or treatment, the outlook for the epidemic remains grim, with most nations settling into a steady state of cases and deaths.”

These are devastating findings for everyone everywhere, including countries which seemed to have Covid-19 under control, but then found the contagion roaring back. The latest reversal was in Israel, now registering over 1,000 cases per day (in contrast to just 20 in May), which has once again imposed stringent restrictions.

But even in this shared global misery, the varied but also distinctly connected responses of India, Brazil, and the US -- not coincidentally the three worst affected countries in the world -- stand out for baffling eccentricity, and abysmal fumbling that transformed health care emergencies into humanitarian disasters.

The main factor in common between these three giant countries on separate continents is the cult of personality. Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald Trump each endeavour to project forceful personas that embody patriarchal control and nationalist fervour. 

But you can’t bully a virus.

Thus, it has been fascinating to observe Bolsonaro after he himself contracted Covid-19 this week. Still full of his characteristic blend of bluster and cartoonish machismo, he took off his mask in front of the Brazilian press to declare: “You can see my face, that I’m well. Everything is cool.”

Still on camera, he swallowed a dose of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which he has -- contrary to the counsel of two of his own health ministers, both of whom he sacked -- incessantly promoted as a miracle cure. But, just beyond these ludicrous antics, looms an extremely unfunny reality. The contagion Bolsonaro dismisses as gripezinha, “a little flu,” has already killed 70,000 Brazilians.

Donald Trump had his own famous flirtation with hydroxychloroquine, which he touted for weeks as a “game changer.” Last month, he seemed to indicate that he’d taken some. “It certainly didn’t hurt me. I feel good.” 

There are indeed persuasive indications this synthesized version of quinine -- originally derived from cinchona bark that was traditionally used in several parts of Asia to combat malaria -- can produce positive results in treating some Covid-19 cases. It is also true that many medical personnel in India are taking it prophylactically.

However, we also know these measures have not been sufficient to abate the pandemic in India, or anywhere else (although there does appear to be an anomaly in the death toll in the sub-continent, where the recovery rate is much higher than other parts of the world).

Yet, even if these are desperate times, they cannot be navigated by desperate measures. Regrettably, it appears the Indian government could be heading in exactly that direction.

On July 2, the paramount health research body, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which is working on an indigenous Covid-19 vaccine alongside Bharat Biotech International Limited, sent a letter to partner institutions that contained the astonishing assertion: “It is envisaged to launch the vaccine for public health use latest by August 15, 2020 after completion of all clinical trials.”

The president of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Prof Partha Majumder, said this is “unheard of [and] gives a bad name to the industry of biomedical research and pharmaceuticals.” 

Politicizing the pandemic response will only make matters worse. 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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