War on Covid-19

More than ever before, the country needs to be together as a nation and harness all our resources and men and women of goodwill to define the most apt crisis management strategies

By Mrinal Roy

The Covid-19 pandemic has put in focus and exposed the crisis management acumen of the Prime Ministers, Presidents and governments of affected countries across the world. Updated statistics show that there were more than 219,000 cases of Covid-19 in the world spread over 176 countries to date. The death toll has already crossed 8,900 persons. As Covid-19 is uncharted territory, governments, health authorities and epidemiologists are drawing lessons from the experience of and potent actions taken by China (which was the first country to be infected) to contain the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite initial shortcomings in the management of the coronavirus epidemic, China took robust steps to contain Covid-19 within the Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic. A total lockdown was imposed on the province as from 23 January 2020 in order to prevent the spread of the disease. There was also mass testing of people and a rigorous tracing of people in contact with infected persons. Temporary hospitals and quarantine centres were set up to deal with the scale of the epidemic. A clampdown was imposed on travel within China. Tens of millions of people living in the Hubei province and in Wuhan were basically confined to their homes for almost 50 days to prevent any contact among people, mass gatherings and crowds.

The human costs of the strict restrictions imposed by the authorities were enormous. However, the priority of the government was to contain the spread of the epidemic at all costs even at the expense of a massive reduction of industrial output, a disruption of supply chains, a significant slowdown of the economy and a drastic cut in export flows. The upshot of these measures was a sharp decline in the number of new cases detected. The small number of cases that were seen outside Hubei attests to the success of the strict confinement measures imposed by the authorities. Are there risks that an easing of containment measures would lead to a surge in new cases of infection?

Flatten the curve

Thus, in the space of two weeks, the epicenter of Covid-19 has shifted from China to Europe. According to the WHO, China’s experience in containing the spread of the new coronavirus could serve as a model for other countries facing the Covid-19 pandemic. The key focus and priority of government actions to contain the spread of Covid-19 should be to save lives especially the elderly who, statistics reveal, are particularly vulnerable to the disease. At this critical juncture in the battle against Covid-19, the economy must be subordinated to the more important objective of saving thousands of human lives. Cogent steps must therefore be taken to limit person to person contact, implement ‘social distancing’ guidelines and ban mass gatherings and movement of people so as to slow the spread of the virus. This would flatten the curve of infected persons seeking treatment at any given time.

The key objective of flattening the curve of infected persons is to ensure that the existing healthcare services are not overwhelmed by the level of infected cases and unable to properly treat the more vulnerable elderly patients. In countries where there is universal healthcare such as the United Kingdom, the National Health Service can adequately cope with a higher peak of infected cases. This is far from being the case in the United States where the private healthcare system is accessible only to those who can pay for the treatment or are covered by a medical insurance.

28 million Americans without medical insurance cover and 11 million illegal immigrants together with those without paid sick leave will most probably avoid being screened, tested and quarantined, thus heightening the risks of the spread of Covid-19. The virus has already infected all the 50 US states. Will the US government adopt an Executive order to underwrite the costs of testing and treatment of the millions who do not have medical cover and access to medical care?

Nous sommes en guerre

The measures announced this week by various governments to contain the spread of Covid-19 range from the draconian to the sensible. French President Emmanuel Macron announced with dramatic intent that ‘nous sommes en guerre’ and ordered people to stay at home unless they need to buy groceries, travel to work, exercise or seek medical care. The object of these unprecedented measures is to severely restrict movements of people for the next 15 days at least and limit social contacts as much as possible.

Indications are that this curfew on the movement of people could last for at least a month. The police have been deployed to enforce the lockdown and anyone found outside without a valid reason will be sanctioned. He also announced the suspension of the contested government proposed reforms to the pension system in France. The EU’s external borders will be shut for 30 days, but French nationals will be allowed home whereas travel across the Schengen internal space and within its borders will be severely restricted. The EU has also imposed a 30-day ban on travellers from outside the EU

The British government also announced a series of measures this week to prevent contact among people and mass gatherings of people. People were thus asked to avoid gatherings and crowded places, such as pubs, bars, clubs and theatres as well as shopping trips and social visits. They should, if possible, work from home. In order to avoid the risk of infection of the vulnerable, people should cease all ‘unnecessary’ visits to friends and relatives in care homes. Those with the most serious health conditions must be shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks. People over the age of 70 and other vulnerable groups of persons should minimize their social contact. If one person in any household has a persistent cough or fever, everyone living there must stay in home quarantine for 14 days. Schools will be closed as from Friday 20 March until further notice.

US President Trump unveiled a 15-day plan similar to the British measures to try to slow the spread of Covid-19 and flatten the curve of new infections to prevent the risk of a surge of sick patients that could overwhelm the health system. Colleges and universities from California to New York have closed campus classrooms due to Covid-19. The US and Canada have also temporarily closed their border to non-essential travel between the two countries. Gatherings of more than 10 persons have been banned in the US. In Ireland gatherings of more than 100 persons were banned.

Most major sporting events such football league matches, tennis, cricket, golf, the Euro 2020, etc., as well as racing events and musical festivals have been suspended, cancelled or postponed to contain the spread of Covid-19. All these cogent measures not only aim at limiting the spread of the disease but also buy time to enable researchers to find a potent vaccine against Covid-19.

The hunt for a vaccine

Researchers across the world are on a hunt and a race against time to find an efficient vaccine against Covid-19. Early this week, US researchers tested an experimental coronavirus vaccine. Dozens of research groups around the world are racing to find a vaccine against Covid-19.

The world hopes for the swift discovery of an effective vaccine. However, this could take as long as a year or more. This means that the world would be under a prolonged siege until an efficient vaccine is discovered. Such a situation will exacerbate the dire economic fallouts of Covid-19.

We must remember that unlike 2008, the world is not facing a financial crisis. Once an effective vaccine against Covid-19 is found, market sentiment and stock markets will bounce back and economic activity and flows will normalize.

The support measures must therefore target the difficulties faced by economic actors during the lockdown aimed at containing the spread of Covid-19. Firms and economic actors forced into inactivity during the lockdown will want the support measures to inter alia alleviate their recurrent costs, provide a waiver of their rates and interests on loans and where necessary a cash support, etc., to enable them to tide over the lockdown.

In a bid to support jobs, incomes and businesses, the UK Chancellor announced a £350 billion lifeline this week to shore up the economy against the adverse fallouts of Covid-19. The package of measures includes soft loans, various aids, waivers of rates, cash grants to retailers, pubs and support to the hospitality sector and airline industry. The businesses and sectors which contribute to the economy must be kept afloat and rendered more competitive and efficient to be up and running once the situation is normalized.

New opportunities

The coronavirus crisis has exposed the world to the threat of major disruptions to its supply chains in the wake of the steps taken by China to significantly reduce manufacturing output and shut down or slow down factories supplying 90% of Chinese exports as from the end of January to help contain the spread of Covid-19. Too many manufactures and companies in countries dependent on supplies and components manufactured in China were forced into inactivity. This unsatisfactory situation provides opportunities to countries to gear themselves to become efficient and reliable alternative suppliers to such manufactures and companies. This situation therefore carries interesting opportunities for Mauritius.

Together as a nation

Covid-19 represents a major challenge, the more so as three infected cases have just been detected in the country. Tourism which is a major sector of the economy, Air Mauritius and the hospitality business will be seriously affected by the ban on travel in the context of potent measures taken across the world to contain the spread of Covid-19. Beyond the quarantine facilities which already have a rising occupancy rate, we need to above all make sure that the quality and capacity of the healthcare services and equipment available such as ventilators are well tuned and geared to treat and save the lives of all cases of Covid-19 in the country. The private clinics and accredited private medical laboratories should also be co-opted to contribute to the national effort to combat Covid-19.

More than ever before, the country needs to be together as a nation and harness all our resources and men and women of goodwill to define the most apt crisis management strategies required to above all safeguard the health and lives of people and in particular the more vulnerable in the face of the potent Covid-19 threat.

* Published in print edition on 20 March 2020

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