By Rajan Philips –
Four weeks ago, on February 28, Donald Trump called the coronavirus “their (Democrats) new hoax”, at a rally of his faithful followers in South Carolina. There were 64 Covid-19 cases in the US then and no deaths. The next day, he assured the Conservative Political Action Conference that he had everything under control. On March 9, Trump downplayed the virus threat as a matter of 546 cases and 22 deaths and comparing them to the 37,000 US deaths in 2019 due to the common flu. Two days later, on March 11, after the WHO declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, Trump addressed the nation for the first time, acknowledging the seriousness of the crisis. Two more days later he declared national emergency. Now, 28 days after Trump called it a hoax, the US leads the world with over 100,000 cases and 1500 deaths. And the curve is still climbing
No other national leader in modern history has been so belligerently negligent as the current American president. But Trump’s hoax claim has found a feeble echo in South Asia, where some politically naïve pseudo-progressive critics are calling governmental responses to Covid-19 as unwarranted overkill because the coronavirus will not survive in the tropical temperatures of South Asian countries. Fortunately, no one is seriously buying this nonsense, but the still relatively low numbers of cases in Sri Lanka and India may give credence to this mistaken view and induce cynicism and complacency among the people. Neither is welcome, and as The Island in Colombo said in its editorial on Saturday, “complacency can kill.”
There is ongoing discussion in the emerging scientific literature about the seasonal traits of the novel coronavirus. But it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that there is even a debate among scientists about the survivability of the virus in cooler and warmer temperatures. The consensus is that it is too early to draw any firm conclusion after a mere six-month experience with a new virus. From early on in the virus outbreak, its global trajectory has been noted to be in an east-west path between the 30th and 50th parallels in the northern hemisphere known for its moderate temperatures and low humidity, and known as well – as the wine region in Western Europe. A similar pathway is now being observed to a lesser extent the 30th and 50th parallels in the southern hemisphere, which too is a wine region from Chile in South America to South Australia down under. The restricted-latitudinal path excludes cooler temperature regions to the north (Russia, Mongolia) and warmer temperatures to the south (South Asia, Africa).
“Temperature, Humidity and Latitude Analysis to Predict Potential Spread and Seasonality for COVID-19” is the title of a March 9/March 26 research paper (accessible online) by a team of medical scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. They studied cities in all regions of the world with and without Covid-19 cases, and found the current coronavirus outbreak to be having a strong correlation with (restricted) latitude, temperature and humidity. However, the research authors advise extreme caution against assuming a direct causal relationship between them or making near term predictions, without considering all other relevant explanatory variables such as climate (cloud cover, maximum temperature, etc.), human factors (impact of public health interventions, concentrated outbreaks like cruise ships, travel, etc.), and viral factors (mutation rate, pathogenesis, etc.), none of which were considered or analysed in their study.
With coronavirus being a recently introduced virus without pre-existing immunity, its seasonal variations and off-seasonal peaks are expected to be unpredictable. However, the Maryland scientist proffer potential scenarios for the immediate future of the coronavirus: “It could perhaps prevail at low levels or cause several seasonal peaks in tropical regions similar to influenza, cause outbreaks in the Southern Hemisphere at the same time, and begin to rise again in late fall and winter in temperate regions in the upcoming year. One other possibility is that, combined with intensive public health efforts, it will not be able to sustain itself in the summer in the tropics and Southern Hemisphere and disappear, just as SARS-CoV did so in 2003; however, the ever-increasing number of cases worldwide make this increasingly less likely.”
The Spanish flu
Where does all of this leave the governments of South Asian countries in the fight against Covid-19? Is it a tropical hoax? Or, have the governments of Sri Lanka and India overreacted? The Sri Lankan President and his now permanently caretaker government were initially reluctant to undertake the aggressively preventive measures that they are now creditably undertaking. And they might justifiably feel vindicated by the three-week “Janata curfew” that the Modi government has imposed in India.
I have not come across any criticism of the Indian government’s curfew decision by healthcare professionals or medical scientists. The main criticism is a political one, and it is about the government’s preparedness and capacity to help the vast mass of the Indian people with slender resources to feed themselves during this long and unprecedented shutdown. The same logistical problem is a concern in Sri Lanka. And more politically in the case of Sri Lanka, a legitimate criticism of the government could be that it is using the emergency Covid-19 situation to conduct unsupervised cleanups of the old Rajapaksa cupboards and stables. But first things first.
The concept of ‘precautionary principle’ is commonly applied in furthering environmental conservation and the protection of endangered species. The principle is used to implement precautionary measures against human encroachment into nature even when scientific evidence of the impacts of such encroachment is not comprehensively established. The people of South Asia deserve no less when confronted by a deadly pandemic regardless of doubts about the survivability and severity of the coronavirus in tropical climate.
India had no choice and imposing a three-week curfew was the most cost-effective and medically sensible way that was open to the Modi government to prevent a monumental calamity. Modeling projections were showing that as much as 55% of the people could get infected, and deaths of one to two million. Understandably so in a densely populated country with about 100 million people more than 60 years old, and paltry health resources except for the very rich. India is too big and does not have South Korea’s per capita resources to undertake a satisfactorily extensive testing program. And giving publicity to testing and opening it to the public would have led to a national stampede and even riots.
Shutting the country for three weeks, on the other hand, would see off the incubation period of the virus and its transmission threshold, and will curb the spread of infection. Hopefully, the three-week shutdown will leave behind a manageable residual level of infection. And if the worst fears are not materialized, tropical coronaviral deniers would be welcome to celebrate their perverse politics.
Historical memories of India’s experience of the 1918 Spanish flu would have weighed more heavily on Indian policy minds than fanciful speculations of a tropical pass from the coronavirus. A pandemic of the H1N1 influenza virus, the Spanish flu sailed into Bombay (now Mumbai) aboard a British naval ship and mercilessly ravaged the country taking out 17 to 18 million Indians, a whole 6% of the Indian population that then included both West Punjab (now Pakistan) and East Bengal (now Bangladesh).
Worldwide, the Spanish flu is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million people. The flu spread was not latitudinally restricted and the name Spanish flu came about because news about the flu was suppressed by the governments and the media in the countries fighting Europe’s World War One. The (western) media freely reported on the flu in Spain that was a neutral country in the war. Only covidiots can bet on the tropical weakness of the novel coronavirus and take the risk of letting the people of South Asia suffer again as they did when ravaged by the Spanish flu a century ago. Policy and decision makers have no such luxury.