No country can afford to relax measures too early and risk a resurgence of the virus
“After some 55 days of rigid lockdown, China registered no new cases of Covid-19 for the first time on 18 March and few new cases since then. These new cases however show that Covid-19 has not totally disappeared in the country. In fact, statistics also show that China has registered more than 500 cases of Covid-19 among incoming passengers since 18 March. China has therefore banned all foreigners from entering the country as from 27 March and decreed that all returning citizens will be quarantined for two weeks…”
By Mrinal Roy
The world is facing its biggest challenge since World War II, some 80 years ago. Mankind is fighting a global battle to protect the health of people, save human lives and prevent a heavy death toll, against an insidious, very contagious and deadly virus, Covid-19. In the space of three months, the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic has moved from China to Europe and now to the United States. It has infected the whole world. The lead coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force estimated that the US could have 100,000 to 200,000 American deaths in a best case scenario even ‘if we do things almost perfectly’.
This battle must necessarily involve all countries of the world. The indications are that it will be a long drawn battle. It can only be won if governments across the whole world enforce a total lockdown on their countries and a strict confinement of people in their homes as well as social distancing to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic through person to person contact and to contain the rising toll of deaths. The lockdown also means a rigid control over the movement of people and rigorous hygiene precautions such as requiring people to regularly wash their hands with soap. In order to break the chain of contamination of Covid-19 from an infected person to others, every country must strictly abide by this rigid confinement protocol until no new cases of Covid-19 are detected in their country during a certain period to eliminate the risk of unknown carriers of the virus infecting people.
Unfortunately, not all countries are showing the determination and resolve to enforce the rigid confinement protocol and total lockdown required to eliminate Covid-19 from their countries.
Countries which are not implementing this protocol as strictly as required are witnessing a sharp rise in the number of infected cases and the death toll. Their health services are under heavy stress. They have as a consequence had to impose a stricter lockdown. Is it not therefore time to set up a more structured UN driven international forum of coordination among countries to exchange information on Covid-19 and agree on a robust common battle plan to eliminate the virus which takes on board the ground experience and findings of epidemiologists and health professionals treating infected patients and battling against Covid-19 in hospitals across the world? This forum should also help disseminate information on the results of various approved treatments being administered to infected patients pending the discovery of a potent vaccine against Covid-19.
Return to normality
It must however be highlighted that when a country does not register any new cases of Covid-19 it does not necessarily mean a return to normality. Being an island, Covid-19 was imported in Mauritius through carriers of the virus who were either visitors or Mauritians working on cruise vessels. In a scenario where Covid-19 is stemmed in the country, it would still be risky and foolhardy to, for example, open our frontiers to tourists until the countries they originate from are also Covid-19 free. No country can afford to relax measures too early and risk a resurgence of the virus or the dire throes of confinement.
In this context, the world can draw potent lessons from the cautious and methodical manner China is relaxing the restrictions imposed during the strict lockdown enforced to stem Covid-19 in the country. The total lockdown and strict confinement measures imposed as from 23 January on more than 58 million people living in Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, as well as the clampdown imposed on travel in and out of Hubei and within China halted the spread of the virus through person to person contact, mass gatherings of people and crowds.
After some 55 days of rigid lockdown, China registered no new cases of Covid-19 for the first time on 18 March and fewer new cases since then. These new cases however show that Covid-19 has not totally disappeared in the country.
In fact, statistics also show that China has registered more than 500 cases of Covid-19 among incoming passengers since 18 March. China has therefore banned all foreigners from entering the country as from 27 March and decreed that all returning citizens will be quarantined for two weeks. The government’s intent is to prevent the danger of a reintroduction of the virus from the rest of the world. Fresh outbreaks however remain a real risk. Easing coronavirus restrictions too quickly is therefore fraught with serious risks.
This situation begs the following key question: Can China risk returning to normality when the whole world is still so extensively afflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic? According to reports, three quarters of China’s workforce was back to work as from 24 March and highways of major cities once again witnessed traffic jams. Offices, shops, restaurants and bars have also been allowed to re-open. The lockdown on Hubei and Wuhan is due to be lifted on 8 April.
However, universities where students coming from all over the country mix remain closed. They provide online courses. Millions of people therefore continue to work from home. The Chinese strategy is to buy time until a vaccine is found.
In a world still battling against the coronavirus pandemic, the key question facing countries who manage to stem the virus is how to restore normality and restart the economic activities whilst ensuring that the country remains protected from new outbreaks of infection of Covid-19.
Globalization and the outsourcing of production to obtain a competitive edge in the market place have established a new trading order, recast trade flows and heightened the interdependence of countries and trading partners across the world. The lockdown to fight coronavirus has therefore adversely affected both supply and demand. The lockdowns in Europe and the US as they continue to battle against Covid-19 has caused demand for Chinese products to collapse.
The international situation will therefore not return to complete normality until Covid-19 is eliminated across the world. This is not likely to happen any time soon, the more so as many populous countries in the world are not enforcing the rigid lockdown required to stem Covid-19. Brazil’s President Bolsonaro’s call this week to relax quarantine measures and get back to work has appalled the country and triggered pot-banging protests in major cities. Recent modelling by researchers from Imperial College, London, estimated that Brazil could have more than 1.1 million Covid-19 deaths if no potent actions were taken to control the pandemic. It is therefore not surprising that the British government warned this week that ‘normal life may not return to the UK for up to six months’.
In such a grim context, it is of paramount importance that apart from enforcing a rigid confinement protocol and a total lockdown in the country to stem Covid-19, government must also ensure that the households of the country have adequate and safe access to food supplies during the lockdown. The elaborate plan proposed by government this week to assure food supplies to households must remain a work in progress and must be improved upon. The modalities of sourcing the necessary food supplies during the lockdown must in priority minimize the number of trips of consumers to supermarkets so as to minimize the risk of infection during trips to the supermarket.
The safest way to prevent the risk of infection is for the supermarkets to significantly improve the system of online shopping of food supplies along the norms it is implemented abroad where the staff of the supermarket does your supermarket shopping for you as per the baskets of products chosen by you online. At this critical juncture, is it not time for supermarkets that have a responsibility towards the safety of their customers to beef up their act and adopt a modern system in lieu of an outdated system of online shopping and offer the catalogue of their products to online shoppers to enable them to exercise their individual choices? The large number of consumers thronging in defiance of basic safety norms in front of supermarkets on the first day of operation of the system of shopping for food supplies in place this week highlights the urgency of implementing such a game changing and significantly safer online shopping system bearing in mind the serious risks to human life associated with Covid-19.
As is the case for an order of books and a whole range of other items on Amazon or other online platforms, the chosen products are automatically added to the basket of food products chosen by each consumer. Such a system will enable the consumer to purchase products of his choice in accordance with his preferences and budget. This will also help in a context when Covid-19 cases and the death toll in the country are rising to minimize the number of consumers going to the supermarkets and the risk of infection through crowding at supermarkets. It will also help safeguard some 225,000 senior citizens and up to some 400,000 citizens if we include persons suffering from diverse serious ailments like diabetes or cardiovascular diseases who are all particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, from the risk of infection by the virus. Such a system is a must if the country wants to stem Covid-19 in the country, the more so as the battle against the virus could be longer than envisaged. It also provides opportunities for temporary employment to people forced into unemployment by the lockdown. The current offer of a basket of products chosen by the supermarket which does not match the choices and product preferences of consumers is unacceptable to the multitude. The price proposed is also a galling issue.
Urgent action is therefore required to promptly correct these glaring shortcomings to avoid the potential risk of a popular outcry.
Our finest hour
Covid-19 has breached the castle gates. It continues to gain ground. Too many world leaders are ambivalent in their stance as they still want to protect the economy and corporate business when the overriding priority of the battle against Covid-19 is to save human lives. Half-hearted actions will therefore not carry the day. This is a global battle and all troops must be in battle stations. The world must therefore unite with a common determination and a well-honed battle plan to stem the virus. We are fighting together to safeguard our future. This is a war mankind must win to save lives and the world. It is an epic battle which will mark and determine the course of history. If we stand together as one, this is a victory which will be heralded as one of humanity’s finest hour.