‘Stay positive, Test negative!’

At the end of the day, we have to maintain optimism and keep up hope, persevere with what has to be done to not only survive but live as well as we can under the circumstances

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Besides boosters against Covid-19, the whole world needs a mega boost as we enter the third year of the pandemic if we are to successfully fight it out. The SARS-COV-2 virus is like a slippery chameleon, frequently changing its (sur)face so as to escape detection and attack by the body’s immune system. Before the year 2021 was out, the new mask it wore earned it the name Omicron, conferred after weighty considerations so as to avoid offending national sensibilities. Omicron continues to give us a good run for our money and looks set to continue this game, despite attempts by smaller fries – Flurona (flu + coronavirus), Deltacron (Delta + Omicron identified in Cyprus a few days ago) to unseat it. This fact notwithstanding, this is not to say that Omicron will not be superseded at some stage by a successor, and equally successful, variant – as has happened to all the previous ones.

So much of information for popular consumption is available live and on a 24/7 basis that it has spawned an overload of populist coronexperts. It is therefore futile to add more to the topic save to say that serious analyses of the data being collected daily, covering the disease profile and metrics such as the number of infected cases, hospitalizations, death rates, etc., show a pattern of milder and mainly upper respiratory (nose and throat) symptoms, lesser ICU admissions, and a slowing incidence of deaths associated with the Omicron variant. This is although there is an overall higher number of cases being recorded, made up of both Delta and Omicron. While it is also noteworthy that these metrics are significantly lower in the vaccinated as compared to the unvaccinated, still these numbers are being described as skyrocketing because they are overwhelming the hospital and health systems as had been feared and compounded by health staff needing self-isolation or falling ill – as many as 20% in the UK last week, the army having to be called in to help in London.

Thus, as the WHO has cautioned, there is as yet no case for lowering our vigilance despite the hopeful trends that are showing up in the ongoing analyses. We must constantly keep in mind that it is only a combination of measures – sanitary precautions, medical therapies, and vaccinations – that will help us in combating the pandemic, not just one of them.

In the very nature of scientific and medical advances, which are attended by much discussion and debate about findings that are continually being updated and added, it was to be expected that there would be uncertainties and controversies about medical treatments and vaccination with its several options – a reality which has dogged the management of Covid-19 from the very beginning. Despite that, though, collective medical experience made it possible to proceed along fairly definitive guidelines in managing the cases and the overall health situation.

In this regard, it is worth recalling the sound advice given by Dr Saumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist WHO, in an interview a few days ago, to wit that the simplest and most effective way of not getting infected (possibly the cheapest too) is by using a mask. This has no doubt become a tedium – unfortunately, it is a measure that is here to stay for a long time to come. Along with social distancing, hand sanitization and avoiding crowds as far as possible, this is the safest way for us to ‘test negative’ that is entirely within our individual control, every other strategy being outside our direct ambit.

In fact, this could be said to be the easier part of the post ‘Stay positive, Test negative’ forwarded to me by a colleague and friend in Melbourne, Australia, who himself received it from a contact in Israel, which has now begun to administer a fourth vaccination as it has been facing an unprecedented surge despite having among the highest vaccination levels in the world.

But ‘staying positive’? This is now a real challenge in a world where there are so many negativities that add up to give a sense of doom and gloom. Writing in ‘Project Syndicate’ on Jan 6, 2022, under the title ‘A World of Mounting Disarray,’ veteran American diplomat and foreign policy expert Richard Haass begins on a pessimistic note in his opening lines: ‘My book, A World in Disarray, was published five years ago this month. The book’s thesis was that the Cold War’s end did not usher in an era of greater stability, security, and peace, as many expected. Instead, what emerged was a world in which conflict was much more prevalent than cooperation.

Some criticized the book at the time as being unduly negative and pessimistic. In retrospect, the book could have been criticized for its relative optimism. ‘The world is a messier place than it was five years ago – and most trends are heading in the wrong direction.’ (Bold added)

Without any stretch of the imagination one can perhaps hear many making a similar diagnosis about our own country. Richard Haass goes on to illustrate his thesis by pointing to a number of dysfunctions: the pandemic has exposed the inadequacies of the international health machinery; vaccine inequity – some three billion people (many in Africa) have yet to receive a single dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. This was also highlighted by Dr Swaminathan in the same interview, when she was explaining what is being referred to as the WHO paradox about booster doses – which is in effect no paradox because a different logic applies for the two actions that WHO recommends.

Vaccination is required to prevent people being infected by Covid-19, as well as to reduce the severity of the disease and the risk of complications (also the need for ICU care) and death, all of which should reduce the pressure on the hospital system at least.

On the other hand, as a matter of public policy, administering booster doses in countries that can afford to do so deprives the poorer ones of receiving even a single dose, as pointed out by Richard Haass. In a globally connected world, where travel is inevitable though currently at an ebb, this policy diminishes further the prospect of bringing the pandemic under control any time soon.

Further negativities advanced by Richard Haass can add to our pessimism: the ongoing pandemic has reduced global economic output by trillions of dollars; climate change: the world is on course to get warmer, extreme weather events are more frequent, fossil fuel use is up; governments have pledged to do better but their performance remains to be seen; cyberspace remains akin to the Wild West, with no sheriff willing or able to set boundaries on acceptable behaviour with violations of the cyberspace of others to sow political discord or steal technology; nuclear proliferation continues; great power rivalry is more pronounced; a humanitarian crisis with more than 80 million displaced; the Middle East is home to several ongoing wars; democracy is in crisis even in its modern birthplace, the US, where there is greater disarray internally, with political polarization and political violence emerging as serious threats.

Anything positive? Yes: the rapid creation of vaccines that dramatically reduce vulnerability to Covid-19; new green technologies that reduce reliance on fossil fuel. More importantly: so far, great power rivalry has not descended into war.

At individual level and on a day-to-day basis, though, ‘Stay positive’ is a tougher call, especially for those who have suffered from Covid, have lost loved ones, become unemployed. We can add to that the difficulties being faced to cope with children’s schooling at home, work-at-home schedules which haven’t turned out to be as rosy as was thought initially, the restrictions on socializing which are translating into mental problems or violence. These are down-to-earth hardships which are hitting communities across the world.

But, at the end of the day, we have to maintain optimism and keep up hope, persevere with what has to be done to not only survive but live as well as we can under the circumstances, and ‘count our blessings’ however few they may be… To daunt the beast, no option but to ‘Stay positive, Test negative.’

* Published in print edition on 14 January 2022

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