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Why Covid-19 may be winning the war

  • Published at 10:00 pm May 19th, 2020
covid  testing
Photo: Bigstock

The human species is still lacking in unity, steeped in immorality and selfishness

The deadly Covid-19 virus -- the new kid on the block -- seems to have hit the global popularity charts with stealth, vigour, and incredible destructive potential, hidden in the mathematics of exponentials.

It has seemingly brought some powerful nations known for their knowledge, innovation, wealth, and might -- laced generously with greed, treachery, and plunder -- to their knees in awe and consternation.

As we speak, purportedly the “most powerful nation on Earth” is confused, divided, and flailing in purpose. Behaving irascibly, its leaders have lost their bearings and seem to be working at cross purposes.

On the one hand, the Covid menace requires stringent behaviour patterns requiring determined and unfailing isolation, coupled with testing, tracing, medical attention, and search for a cure. As recent events in many parts of the world would suggest, such behaviour cannot be obtained voluntarily; it needs to be enforced with draconian measures.

On the other hand, basic survival for many has shamefully become a stark reality in a world that prides itself on economic growth, well-being of nations, glittering cities and megaprojects, while the majority lives in abject poverty or from one paycheck to another.

Where are all the resources behind the wealth of nations that ought to feed the front line workers, the builders, and the craftsmen who are suddenly faced with an unreal choice: Get back to work or die?

A sane segment (there is always one but lacking in voice and authority) understands the need to maintain isolation and prevent the virus from leapfrogging its way to decimating populations. The less sane segment is on a warpath to gain control over their lives and resume their “normal” way of life. They cannot see the emerging new normal. For that, they will likely pay a price -- a big one.

In the daily diatribe, an important missing link is the inability of the cognoscenti to understand the mathematics of exponential growth. Here is the point: In January, there were about 15 cases of Covid-19 infection in the US. Even with alarm bells ringing, the response was cavalier: Apparently everything was in control.

In a matter of weeks, there were about 1,370,000 infected and over 82,000 deaths. Projections are that if the economy is opened up, the death toll is likely to be devastating by autumn. Where it will go from there is anybody’s guess.

How did 15 infected people cause 1.37 million (and growing) to be infected in such short order?

The answer lies in the proverbial king who asked a serf what he wanted as a reward. The serf responded by asking the king to fill a mere chessboard by placing a grain on the first square and doubling the number of grains for the successive 63 squares. The number of grains needed as each square was filled emptied the kingdom’s granary. The virus spreads in similar fashion and its awesome growth rate demands respect.

What are the options?

The way things have evolved, the three best defences against the virus are the following 

• allow the virus to hunt happily until no one is left to be infected (like the Swedish model encouraging herd immunity);

• work at “warp-speed” for a vaccine with an uncertain delivery date, many details of which are still unclear such as patents (who controls the knowledge), quality of production (will it actually work, given the inadequate number of trials and false positive results), quantity of production (how many will be able to get the vaccine in time), distribution (in the global order of valuation of lives, who is in the priority recipient list), pricing (who pays and how much), and capacity to deliver (are there enough trained personnel to vaccinate the global population); or

• embark on a globally coordinated effort to solve the problem for the human race.

The first option will leave a trail of death and destruction, not easy to imagine or anticipate, and may even change demographic patterns that will require many readjustments in human terms.'

The second option provides no guarantees -- despite the exhortations, the history of lifesaving vaccines is one of science (randomized trials), patience (interpreting the results), and implementation (final delivery) that spans many years. What happens in the meanwhile?

The third option, requiring coordination at its best, offers the most plausible answer with potentially high costs but in exchange for new knowledge of coordinating global resources and innumerable saved lives. Let me elaborate.

Stopping this virus REQUIRES isolation. Time is of essence and already precious time has been lost. Piecemeal, uncoordinated, and senseless decisions will certainly be ruinous. We cannot vacillate between partial lift of isolation, rise in infections, and hasty lockdowns in a continuing series.

Instead, a coordinated lockdown must be imposed across each nation until the virus’ spread is halted. China seems to have been successful at this game. If the model can be scaled up, orchestrated, and replicated, with all nations working in unison, there is hope. That is the ultimate reality.

Minus a globally coordinated effort, as some nations manage to beat back the virus and are able to contain or eradicate it, the problem is it can come back from a neighbouring country or a visitor at a delicate moment (eg visiting dignitaries) to reestablish itself and exact its toll.

To be noted, the afflicted population will also be on the move in fear and for self-preservation. Thus, even if borders are locked down, a few will get through: Trust human ingenuity and survival instincts. And that will be the single grain on the chessboard to allow the virus to restart its grisly march -- in waves and phases.

This is a global challenge requiring a global taskforce to take control. This taskforce must coordinate five essential elements with national taskforces -- harmonize healthcare, manage food supply, ensure security/ discipline, enable the supply chain, and empower the media.

A global health care system must be enabled to the highest degree, transporting health professionals, supplies and services by a superior logistics system to any part of the world where the virus is detected. To sustain human populations for the duration of six-eight weeks, enough food supplies need to be moved to critical hubs for quick distribution so that the global population can be induced, in unison, to stay at home. Security forces must be in place to ensure discipline, complete lockdown, and zero mobility.

Finally, the media will need to play a powerful role of information provision and motivating various populations while monitoring taskforce operations.

This is the general framework which will need to be unpacked, crafted to precision, and operationalized. Resources will need to come from all nations, each according to its ability, to each according to its needs, in the realization that a global crisis requires a global response with global resources.

Sounds like a movie theme? Indeed, but this movie must be made; otherwise the existential threat is an overwhelming one that can potentially diminish and disable the human race. This is one of the greatest opportunities for nations, races, communities, scientists, volunteers, and people from all walks of life to come together.

What stands in its way is the abominable side of the human species: Lacking in unity, steeped in immorality and selfishness, overflowing with egotism, displaying a discernible tribal spirit, contesting every good idea, and infecting each other with mean-spiritedness, abrasiveness, a brutish need to dominate, and plain bad judgment.

It is for these qualities in the human species that we see the world for what it really is. All the while, the virus marches on unhindered, infecting people and inflicting serious loss of life. 

Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Visiting Professor, IBA, University of Dhaka; former vice chancellor, Brac University; and Founder and Chair of Research A2Z, Bangladesh. 

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