It is all about what individuals do – it is they, people singly or collectively, adopting what is recommended to first protect themselves and then others too
Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
Like other pandemics that came before it, the current Covid-19 episode will also come to pass. When, not even the best experts can say at the moment, but based on the past experience of the evolution of disease patterns over time, the most reasonable estimate is that it will be a few months at least. In course of time, viruses circulate among the population as a normal phenomenon, and produce diseases when the conditions are conducive – like the influenza virus which attacks during the cold weather, and then we talk about the ‘flu season’. Because the influenza viruses are of different types as new ones emerge periodically, they are monitored by the WHO which advises what are the circulating types in the northern and southern hemispheres respectively, and vaccines are manufactured accordingly.
This may happen with Covid-9 too, and by then a majority of people would have developed a degree of immunity to it. If a large enough segment of the population, about 75-80%, acquires such immunity, then the rest of the population is also protected, a phenomenon known as herd immunity. This is what the British authorities had hoped to achieve by allowing people to carry on practically as normal, with the objective of delaying the onset of actual and severe disease that would then be in smaller numbers that would not burden the health system. However, this approach was criticized, and the government had to roll back.
Applying the basics
The point is that the responses of the authorities have been asymmetric when Covid-19 had just started to spill beyond China because of the uncertainties about the behaviour of the virus. Based on the limited knowledge that was then available, the measures that were announced by WHO which were sound in principle have now become the mainstay recommendations in practically all countries. However, how the situation is evolving in individual countries is conditioned by their own social, political and economic contexts and circumstances, as well as the health and medical facilities that they dispose of.
There are going to be serious and severe economic consequences, of that there is no doubt. But in a post-corona scenario we may well see in retrospect un mal pour un bien, as some of the measures that are being applied now could likely continue and change our ways of living and interacting in the public and social spaces. Some of these habits will be of the ‘back to basics’ type.
While I was preparing for my final surgical examinations, I remember one of the profs saying that if you are stuck in answering a question — whether in the written paper or during orals – the best thing is to go ‘back to the basics’. He meant by that starting with first principles and proceeding from there.
Applying this to Covid-19, it is an infectious and contagious disease, and so we adopt the same approach to controlling it as we do for other infectious diseases, although the details vary. But when we think of the package of measures that have been recommended and are being emphasised repeatedly (Wash hands frequently, Do not shake hands, Cover your mouth/nose when coughing or sneezing, Avoid touching your face, Avoid close contact with those who are already infected and stay at least one metre away from someone who is coughing or sneezing, Stay at home or ‘self-quarantine’, and use masks if you are affected) – one can see that they are not rocket science.
In the olden days there was a subject known as ‘hygiene’ which was offered in secondary schools, and my own sister took it for SC. The book used was ‘Textbook of hygiene’, and contained in simple language practical advice about how to maintain cleanliness, look after one’s body, etc. Many of us will recall the days of our primary schooling, when we were made to line up in the morning before classes started. Our teachers would go round inspecting out finger nails, whether our hair was combed properly, and we had to show our – clean! – handkerchief: in the days of no tissue paper, they came in handy after we’d washed our hands or had to blow our nose.
I was talking to a retired school teacher who had also been through this as a pupil, and as a teacher he did that for the classes that he took. The lesson is that habits learnt in childhood stay on – and if only we can go back to some at least of these basics, we would be better prepared and not panic when a new bug comes along.
The single most effective measure to stop virus spread is deemed to be avoiding social contact or social distancing, which is the subject of an article by a professor from Boston University, Thomas Perls, writing in The Conversation. Some extracts from his articles are as follows: Social distancing means – that people stay far enough away from each other so that the coronavirus cannot spread from one person to another; not touching other people, and that includes handshakes; by following these simple rules, individuals can play a critical role in slowing the spread of the coronavirus; quarantine yourself (N.B. if there has been exposure); everyone must practice social distancing; much of how the coronavirus pandemic unfolds in the U.S. will come down to individuals’ choices.
Have you noticed the underlying thread in these observations and the WHO package of measures?
It is all about what individuals do – it is they, people singly or collectively, adopting what is recommended to first protect themselves and then others too. Medical and health authorities can issue any amount of advice, but taking up from there is the responsibility of individuals. In other words, if we do not comply and play the game we are putting ourselves and others at risk when it comes to any infectious disease, but especially when it is a new one. That is why I say that not only must we all cooperate and comply for the protection of self and others, but once the epidemic is over, it is also our duty to sustain these basic hygienic habits and inculcate them in our children too – because with globalization unstoppable, new emerging infectious diseases, as Covid-19 is, can surface anytime, anywhere. If simple hygiene practices on a daily basis – to be reinforced during an onslaught – can protect us, shouldn’t we all implement them for both short term and long term universal benefit? I think the answer is pretty obvious.
Post the pandemic
So that’s one respect in which the post epidemic scenario can, and to my mind should, unfold. The other trade-off that I can see could have a multiplier effect in several spheres. We have been talking about flexitime for long years now, but it has never really taken off. On the other hand, given the technological facilities, working online has been happening, but on a limited scale. The pandemic has forced employers to make people work at home – so why should this trend not become more entrenched once the pandemic is over? One can imagine millions of hours spared in commutes to and from work with the consequential environmental and economic impacts as fuel is saved, traffic congestion is reduced, and the probable better output as employees will be functioning in a more relaxed atmosphere. And besides, both for working mothers and fathers with small children to care for, this will certainly be good for the family, a much required social goal in these times.
Obviously such working from home is not applicable to all sectors, but I am sure that it could be extended to many more people than is presently the case. Videoconferencing is already current, but again limited, and this too could lend itself to greater application and save both costs and time.
The point is to think seriously about turning the current adversity into innovative opportunities for our common future. Perhaps economists and entrepreneurs could start to bounce ideas that could eventually become actionable schemes for employment generation and business activity.
A last note about un mal pour un bien: unwittingly and fortuitously, nature stepped in to give us a good reason for social distancing, even though we have not registered any case of Covid-19 locally. I refer to the heavy rainfall warnings of last week and cyclone Herold which have kept our educational institutions closed, and therefore our children protected, for almost a week. It may still be that we may have to adopt the stricter social distancing measures in future depending on how long the epidemic lasts, but we can say with a glimmer of optimism that so far so good – and let us sincerely hope it stays that way! And as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi advised in the SAARC videoconference that he convened a few days ago: Do not panic, but prepare. Shouldn’t we do that too?
* Published in print edition on 20 March 2020