Wakashio and Covid-19: More questions than answers

The sequelae of Wakashio and Covid-19 are likely to bedevil us for a long time to come, unfortunately, and much of it possibly of our own making

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

As I have been hearing from friends and acquaintances, this is really a soy (unlucky) year for our country so far, with the Covid-19 pandemic and the downgrade by the European Union, then the problem with the African Development Bank in connection with the bribery case related to the Danish industrial group Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor and the series of scandals associated with the procurement of turbines for our power supply that has come to be known as the St Louis gate affair, and now the latest catastrophe which is the shipwreck of the Japanese vessel MV Wakashio and the oil spill that has resulted.

This latest incident has brought international notoriety to the island for the wrong reason, and we find that there are some parallels and commonalities between the Covid-19 pandemic and the Wakashio incident. Thus, Covid-19 is a global phenomenon which spread to our shores, and this was practically inevitable. By comparison, the Wakashio shipwreck is a local incident which has attracted global attention because of its seriousness and especially the international concern about the consequences of the oil spill, on the marine environment in particular. And in both phenomena there is an overload of information which is apt more to confuse rather than to enlighten the layman, in fact to even frighten at times. However, only a rational approach based on the best evidence available will be able to solve the problems that we are facing as a consequence of these two major occurrences.

Moreover, both the Covid-19 pandemic and the Wakashio shipwreck have resulted in health, economic, social and environmental impacts, some immediate and others foreseeable in the long term, and in both cases there is an element of irreparable damage: the death of people in the one and of marine life in the other. Obviously in the case of Covid-19 the health impact is greater, more so as it is immediate. To repeat a cliché that has done the rounds, both events are impacting lives and livelihoods.

And regarding both, there seem to be more questions than answers – although in the case of Covid-19 medical scientists and doctors are hard at work trying to find them, whereas in the other case demagogy is erecting walls of opaqueness. This may well prevent the proper facts from being eventually uncovered, since there is less of science involved and more of the subjective human element which is compounded by the politicking that has surrounded the whole issue so far.

So many troubling questions and worries have surfaced in the public domain, raised by direct witnesses of the event, local fishermen and inhabitants, NGOs and other concerned citizens/parties especially about the potential environmental damage, and from politicians of various hues. All of them have been expressing disquiet about the authorities being less forthcoming with information than they ought to have been, about initial silences that are deemed to be unwarranted in the face of a clear disaster in the making as the ship ran aground. Or possibly was made to do so! — according to a latest post in the media seen some days ago.

Whatever little plus was gained from the relatively successful management of the Covid-19 pandemic – despite some evident lacunae such as the conditions in quarantine centres, the tackling of the hardships faced by citizens stranded abroad, etc., – has been completely neutralized by what is perceived as being an inept handling of the Wakashio shipwreck which, done properly from the onset, could have significantly prevented the damage that has been done and is continuing, for the long term consequences are likely to be substantial.

On the Covid-19 front, what has become patently clear is that this is not something that is going to go away so soon, as we would have wished it to be. The disease is continuing to spread, and as at yesterday the total number of new cases registered worldwide was a staggering 294,000.

A number of treatments are being used, others are being trialled and it is a long road towards a specific drug, that is, one that effectively attacks and kills the virus. Given the large numbers of patients the cost factor becomes an important consideration especially in less developed countries, and that is why the cheaper alternatives such as Hydroxychloroquine are still being researched through properly conducted clinical trials in some centres such as in South Africa and in Seattle, Washington, USA. If proved to be effective at one or other stage of the disease, they will definitely reduce the anxiety about the cost of treatment and help to save lives in settings that are less resourced.

From the vaccine point of view, there are uncertainties about the Russian vaccine that has been announced. Scientists are not satisfied that adequate Phase 3 trial has been carried out, and unless there is more information coming from the authorities there, it is unlikely that there will be a global rollout. In India and the UK, the Phase 1 and 2 trials have shown promising results, and Phase 3 trials are under way. As the vaccine experts have pointed out a number of times, the issue here is not about who is first in developing a vaccine. Rather, it is about how safe and effective a vaccine is, and establishing that can only be through rigorously conducted Phase 3 trials.

However, the biggest question of all that is giving sleepless nights to national authorities everywhere is: to open up borders and economies or not to open? It is a thorny one, but there is no gainsaying that opening up has systematically resulted in a surge of cases, and that too even in countries which had been held up as models of successful control of disease transmission initially. Australia, New Zealand (where 58 new cases registered in one week has led government to postpone general elections due), Singapore, Vietnam, for example. But this has happened in the UK, France and parts of the US as well.

So as we contemplate to reopen up here, taking a decision is going to be a tough call. Experience from around the world will have to guide us, despite the understandable and increasing pressure to expedite the process. Government will perforce have to ensure that all the measures are in place – such as for testing – and will be applied indiscriminately to all, citizens and eventually visitors alike. This has been stressed over and over again, and cannot be overemphasized given the real risks associated with reopening. And of course, this also means assuming the responsibility for finding and working out alternative opportunities and possibilities for citizens adversely affected by the pandemic.

The sequelae of Wakashio and Covid-19 are likely to bedevil us for a long time to come, unfortunately, and much of it possibly of our own making.

* Published in print edition on 18 August  2020

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