The Coronavirus Damocles Sword

We are in this boat together. This is not the time to panic or scramble helter-skelter for masks and food supplies. This is also not the time for conspiracy theories

By Mrinal Roy

Despite major technological advances, state of the art innovations and cutting edge scientific breakthroughs in diverse fields, the world remains unprepared and still vulnerable to numerous threats. Climate change threatens doomsday on our homeland, planet Earth, if urgent steps are not taken forthwith to reverse its adverse fallouts. The outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus named Covid-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province in China on 31 December 2019 has once again exposed the fragility of the world and mankind when threatened by the unforeseen.

In spite of containment efforts by China to limit travel of Chinese citizens within China especially during the week of holiday after the Spring festival held on 25 January 2020 and cogent actions to circumscribe the Covid-19 outbreak within the Hubei province, the virus has, in the space of a bit of more than two months, already wreaked mayhem. It has spread to more than 83 countries infecting more than 95,000 persons and caused more than 3200 deaths.

However, 90% of the Covid-19 deaths have been registered in China with the highest number located in the Hubei province, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. Apart from China, 15 other countries have reported Covid-19 related deaths. The WHO warned that the world is in unchartered territory as they noted recently that there were nine times more new infections outside China than inside. The Covid-19 death rate is globally 3.4% which is higher than previous estimates.

Covid-19 mayhem

The Covid-19 epidemic is also having dire consequences on the world economy. Manufacturing output in China which is the world’s major outsourcing hub supplying a wide range of goods and components to diverse industries across the world fell by record levels in February. This has adversely affected global supply chains and taken a heavy toll on trade flows with China. It has slowed down production across the world as supplies of important components of the electronics, pharmaceutical, car and smart phone industries, etc., manufactured in China have been drastically cut down. According to press reports, ‘provinces accounting for more than 90% of Chinese exports have kept factories either shut or on low capacity since end January’.

Last week, stock markets tumbled and registered their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis, with over $5 trillion wiped from global stock market value, amidst fears of a coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus has also caused a quantum fall in air travel booking for the first time in 11 years. In a preliminary assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on air travel, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that the total global loss of airline revenue could be as high as some $30 billion. The scale of the dire impact of Covid-19 on tourism following China’s ban on all group tours is best epitomized by Thailand which received 11 million Chinese tourists last year.

The rapid spread of Covid-19 to countries across the five continents has caused UN health officials to upgrade the level of threat of Covid-19 to very high. It has also enhanced travel restrictions to the more severely affected countries such as China, South Korea, Iran and Italy. This will further dampen the prospects of the airline industry.

For the first time since World War II, there is the real risk that in a bid to prevent the spread of Covid-19 through mass gatherings of people from across the world, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics could be cancelled.

World growth prospects in 2020 and 2021 which were shaved downwards by the IMF in January 2020 will thus be further dented by the dire economic consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Covid-19 is therefore a Damocles sword hanging over the world. Although new cases reported in China continued to drop, the virus’s spread to an increasing number of countries has braced the world for a protracted battle to prevent it from spreading until an effective vaccine is found. The whole world is therefore on high alert and in battle stations to fight this potent threat.

A constant threat

It should be flagged that coronaviruses and diverse mutations of the coronavirus have posed a constant threat to humans. They cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to deadlier diseases such as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) which caused a death toll of some 774 persons in 2002-03. Over the last 70 years, scientists have found that coronaviruses can infect various animals and are transmitted between animals and onto humans. Thus investigations have revealed that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans. It is thought that the current outbreak originated at a market in Wuhan selling wild animals.

According to the WHO, the common signs of coronavirus infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death. The WHO protocol to prevent the spread of infection includes regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, avoiding crowded places and ensuring that meat and eggs are thoroughly cooked. People should also avoid handshakes and close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.

Strict preventive protocol

Covid-19 is more infectious than SARS and is carried by infected persons. It is spread mainly from person to person when they are in close contact with one another within 6 feet. It is mainly transmitted through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The golden rule to prevent the spread of the infection is to avoid person to person contact and crowds as the risks of contamination are heightened. If rigorous measures are not adopted to contain the spread of Covid-19, it could spread exponentially.

In order to contain the spread of Covid-19, China has opted to severely limit people’s movement and large scale people contact at the expense of the economy. The world cannot take any risk as despite the isolation of those infected, strict border control and the screening of people entering the country or living in infected areas as well as rigorous quarantine procedures, the number of Covid-19 cases and countries affected continues to increase. France has, for example, registered 212 cases spread over 13 different regions.

Is the pathology of Covid-19 fully understood? At a time when patients who have recovered from Covid-19 are donating plasma to advance research on the disease, there are disquieting reports that a growing number of discharged Covid-19 patients in China and elsewhere are testing positive after recovering, sometimes weeks after being ‘cured’. This could make the epidemic harder to eradicate.

State of emergency

If the spread of Covid-19 is not urgently reversed and the disease eliminated, the world economy would be severely undermined. The world is therefore facing a state of emergency. We are in this boat together. This is not the time to panic or scramble helter-skelter for masks and food supplies. This is also not the time for conspiracy theories of biological warfare aimed at undermining the geopolitical, commercial or economic interests of rivals from the usual suspects. This is again not the time for scare-mongering or daft fake news aired on social media or esoteric remedies and mojos from the nondescript cohort of self proclaimed medicine men who normally come out of the woodwork in such circumstances.

This is above all time for solidarity and for concerted world action to fathom the pathology of Covid-19 and find the potent therapy to snuff the disease.

In Mauritius, we need to allay the fears of the people living in areas where the quarantine centres are located through a proactive information campaign. People should understand the need for quarantine and recognize that these are perfectly safe isolation areas. They should all be aware of the precautions and protocol they need to diligently follow to protect them as they go about their daily business.

It is also obvious that the dire economic fallouts of Covid-19 on the world economy will seriously undermine the country’s pathway to economic recovery. Tourism, Air Mauritius, the financial services sector and the other major pillars of the economy are facing tremendous challenges which will be heightened by the economic downturn caused by Covid-19. Economic fundamentals are deteriorating and will face additional stress owing to the adverse fallouts of Covid-19.

Patent shortcomings

This is therefore not the time for futile politicking or for politicians and the authorities to hide behind semantics to mask their patent shortcomings. The reality is that Mauritius is on the grey list of FATF (Financial Action Task Force) which is an intergovernmental organization having the mandate to set standards and promote the effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, act as a watchdog against terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system.

Foreign Portfolio Investments from Mauritius will therefore be subject to increased monitoring as per the FATF norms. This could cause investors to opt instead for top rated and reputable jurisdictions to channel their investments which would be highly detrimental to the prospects of our financial services sector.  Mauritius therefore needs to urgently resolve the identified strategic deficiencies within agreed timeframes. Despite past adverse notations, we still have not been able to do what it takes to make our financial services become fully compliant and a model and trusted jurisdiction. Mauritius cannot afford such abject sloppiness.

Mauritius must also realize that Covid-19 has exacerbated the many daunting challenges and threats faced by the country. These cannot be resolved by the dilettante or the musical chair of political appointees heading the key institutions and companies of the State. Covid-19 should be a jolting wake up call for the country. It is a do or die situation. More than ever before, we need as a nation to instead harness the sum of talent and expertise in the country to chart the innovative pathway necessary to urgently set things right in the country for the common good and the inclusive benefit of all. The future prospects of the country as well as the hopes and aspirations of the people and the young depend on such an urgent change of tack.

* Published in print edition on 6 March 2020

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