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OP-ED: Till death do us part

  • Published at 01:42 am December 2nd, 2020
Covid-19 structure
Photo: Reuters

The death toll wrought by coronavirus affects each and every one of us

At RMAS, the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, I was training to live by the academy’s dictum “Serve to Lead.” Sandhurst is the world’s leading military academy for training of the officers of the army, and I was exposed “au naturel” to the most rigorous of the training manifest, physically and psychologically defying human endurance and at times beyond, merrily deliquescing the human physique and psyche with startling synchronicity. 

The harshness is unparalleled, insubmissive even to the most deific. Added to that tourney during the superhuman stint at Sandhurst, was the apostasy of the promulgation of whispers about the death of a fellow trainee officer during one of the exercises, the news seeping out to us in dribs and drabs, heightening the disquiet. It was all hush hush and one was speaking about it in profound covertness. 

A fellow officer in my training group, who had actually been decorated for his role in the 1982 Falkland war as a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO), mentioned to me his experience during the initial encounter in that war. He commented with absolute conviction that the situation pertaining to death cannot be appreciated until it hits someone on the face, or until you see your comrade next to you dead by the fateful bullet-strafing from the Argentinian attack aircraft, the fear of death only then dawns on you.

I notice similar psyche in people travelling through the devastation being perpetrated by the present viral pandemic. Unless public health measures are imposed and executed with an iron fist and with military precision, people seem to be averse to paying any heed and in fact are happy to disregard and disavow the government’s plea for adherence to prescribed public health measures. 

Such public health measures have been designed to mitigate the risk, slow down, and reduce transmission, prevent infliction by the virus, and save human lives. It appears that the concept of saving human life falls to deaf ears, until such time as the fatality consummates a particular life belonging to a particular individual, in other words, the individual is disconcerted only when it impacts on them directly. 

Alas, by then, that particular person has already lost the golden contingencies to save their own life. Not until the torpedoes from the British nuclear-powered hunter submarine HMS Conqueror sunk the Argentinian Navy light cruiser ARA General Belgrano, and killed 323 Argentinian naval personnel, did the Argentinians realize how serious was the effect of the war. They believed prior to forced occupation of the Falklands that Britain being so far away from the islands were incapable of launching the counter-attack until the British Armed Forces demonstrated their capability to fight back even at a distance of over 12,000km from their homeland. Argentinians had to pay very dearly for their stoicism. 

Similar apathy, amounting to sheer disdain, is being observed in the battle against coronavirus in most countries that follow liberal democracy, government passiveness being adscititious to such apathy in some. Particularly now, with the advent of a number of vaccines against the coronavirus, demonstrated to be safe with an efficacy of around 95%, the euphoria is threatening to swamp any effort pertaining to slash down the virulence and the fatality from the virus, to a minimum acceptable level, prior to the time required for the application of the vaccines. 

However, the path to salvation is not plain sailing as the majority of us would like it to be. In this context, let me take this privilege, clearing the controversy on some of the figures declared in the press release on Oxford vaccine results recently. It is important to understand that only limited data may be declared in a press release. The actual data is presented in the peer reviewed scientific journals and to the regulators prior to their acceptance for public use. 

Oxford/AstraZeneca had declared efficacy of 62%, 70%, and 90% of the same vaccine, confusing common people, and in the absence of complete data even many a member of the scientific community. In the Oxford vaccine phase III trial, half of the subjects received placebos and the other half the vaccine, selected at random, twice at a gap of a month. A group of subjects of substantial numbers accidentally received an initial dose that was half that of the normal dose. 

In this group, the vaccine was found to be 90% effective against the virus. The larger group that received two doses of the same volume of the vaccine had an efficacy of 62%. The researchers then combined the two results and calculated the average overall efficacy of 70%. I had predicted that the Oxford result would be announced in mid-December, and my gut feelings are that the regulations pertaining to vaccine trials may have forced them to declare their result early. 

Given the CDC criteria for permission of a vaccine for public consumption requirement over 50% efficacy, any of the above figures declared by the Oxford vaccine authority are more than good news. 

Coming back to the discussion on the importance of strictly adhering to the declared public health precautions, I would continue to emphasize on the acceptance and self-imposition of those measures before the disease -- its severity does touch each of our lives: “Donec mors nos ex parte.” I continue to witness the blatant disregard for the regulations, which are the only path in the prevention before the vaccines effectively control the pandemic, and there is still a long way to journey before that objective is achieved. 

Despite the request by the US president-elect and instructions from the Centre for Disease Control, in the US, a record number of Americans have travelled over the Thanksgiving holiday, exponentially increasing the potential for a massive surge in infection, hospital admission, and death, when the figures for each of those variables now are at the highest level. 

In Europe, the authorities are bracing themselves for a surge during the Christmas holidays. The scenario in Australia, New Zealand, and the countries of East Asia couldn’t have been further different from the US and Europe, where lockdown and other public health measures have been strictly adhered to, imposed, and implemented strenuously by the government machinery with favourable outcomes.

Dr Raqibul Mohammad Anwar is Specialist Surgeon, Global Health Policy and Planning Expert, and Retired Colonel, Royal Army Medical Corps, UK Armed Forces.

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