25 September, 2022


Some Thoughts On Covid-19

By Upatissa  Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

So much has been written on this subject that it is near impossible to add anything that has not already been said. But just to relieve boredom of compulsory confinement by curfew, face masks and guys looking like visitors from other planets, the severity of the prospects are no joke and genuinely forbidding. The health, economic chaos and suspension of freedoms are inconvenient. The “new Norm”? A little introspection is permissible. 

There is immense improvement in public understanding of viruses, zoonoses, social distancing and the ponderous reference to PCR tests (which are as clearly understood as GNP, GSP etc. by those who often use them) but have no clue as to what they mean. Jargon is fashionable. 

The limits and consequences of globalization, neglect and denigration of “food self-sufficiency” in favour of commercial Barter of agricultural products (gherkins before grain), recourse to profligate use of fossil fuels and neglect of alternative prospects for energy (hard to get kick-backs from trees, even solar cells and windmills), easier travel and reliance on tourism – the “dollars” approach to “development” (Development of what, one may well ask?), wealth before value, quantity before quality, and much more jargon, smacking of “Economic Sophistry”.

As students of about 60 years ago, we learnt about viruses as being at the borderline between the biological and mineral, submicroscopic and unfilterable, and unable to survive outside of an organism. All in all, an inconsequential blip on a mighty human presence. This implied arrogance is now seriously challenged. Electron Microscopy and better filters have probably made a revision of two of our earlier criteria. But why this scourge just now?

Some view it as nature’s reaction to gross abuse of the environment, of which prior warnings have gone ignored or unheeded by a pompous mankind. Over the last few years there have been a great increase of “natural disasters” – hurricanes and typhoons, forest fires and floods, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, and a host of other indications of environmental abuse. Huge growth of population, well beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, accompanied by unbridled demand for the trappings of “development”. Is the increase of “Natural Disasters”- a gentle nudge to remind us that formidable reactions await those who persist in unsustainable and reckless extravage

nce. It seems as though Nature inflicts catastrophic events like the ongoing Corona pandemic as a way of restoring some balance, tragic and painful though it be. Historically, is it akin to the disappearance of the Dinosaurs?

It is immensely satisfying that Sri Lanka’s actions in containing this epidemic, places our country near the head of the league. It is evident that timely action and enforcement of discipline has paid off. Some have questioned the role of the armed forces and the police, and the wisdom of placing the Army Commander to head the team in combatting the outbreak, and that it should have been a representative from the medical field. I disagree. The necessity of using the military resources, (Physical and personnel) was correct and wise. The campaign was successful because the need was for intelligence, rapid action and experience in handling such crises, where logistic provisions were paramount. Medical matters were adequately covered by the presence of the head of medical services as an important member of the team. All in all, it makes our actions highly commendable, so far. The task is by no means over and the continued efficiency and cooperation of all involved forces must be sustained. As a side benefit, the image of the Armed Forces as not a mere collection of brutes, stands vindicated. This may convince even the most ardent promoters of Human Rights and countenance the adverse propaganda of the so called Diaspora active in Geneva, or will we await “an appropriate time” for impotent jokers to act? Our congratulation to all concerned.

A possibility of a lunatic leader using the demonstrated potency of “Biological weaponry”, (a poor man’s H-bomb) is a chilling reality. Even a few years ago, most would have dismissed such a warning as cranky pessimism. But, is this the flip side of the currently fashionable Globalization? What will this imply for the urge to usher in a “paperless society”? A virus of a different type could well buckle the system. Imagine the unbelievable chaos.       

There are some unasked questions. For example, what are the chemicals used in spraying persons, buses, markets, and other places which draw large crowds? Have they been tested for effectiveness and safety? Has due notice been given to assure us that the necessary controls are in place?

 To me, the more crucial component is to make certain that the incubation period is consistently fourteen days (or less) when all infected persons will present symptoms? Say, the ones who are infected on day zero will be effectively quarantined, what of those who caught the bug on day 13 and therefore still infective during a further fourteen days? This has evidently been considered, as after release from the quarantine centres, a further self-quarantine for 14 days following return home is mandatory.

On the matter of symptomless carriers (estimated at some 60 percent of the total detections), the situation is bad. They are the most difficult to cope with. Do the swab tests, reveal this category as well? If not, will they be Time Bombs which will continue the pandemic? I understand that the PCR test is very reliable provided that all of the protocols are rigorously observed, in spite of the urgency of Testing.

The fact is that a single virus particle, will proliferate and multiply rapidly, into astronomical numbers. 

For example, we learnt that a single bacterial cell, under ideal conditions will double every 20 seconds. Then, in 24 hours it will in theory, grow (now hold your breath) in numbers to some 20,000 times the number of seconds since the birth of Christ! (Mathematically inclined readers may wish to check the numbers). If the behavior of Coronovirus is anything like this, the situation is frightening, and may explain how and why the Virus spread so rapidly and widely. 

The implications for our Tourism sector are very bleak. Retrenchment of workers in Airlines and Hotels, some of which even face closures, have dire consequences for very large numbers.  Proponents of the virtues of Globalization may need to rethink. Several nations that trade with us (in both directions – in and out) are also in high panic. Apart from the huge impact on employment all around, shortages of commodities both for consumption and as raw materials, merit close attention. Along with goods, we will virtually be the victims of having to absorb some of the inflation of others. 

It is mind boggling to think of how much living styles will get distorted and implications of an inevitable “Domino Effect”. Who would have thought a few years ago that a mere lowly virus, would be able to cause so much chaos to “Mighty Man”? Humility may be one lesson, and punishment for profligacy may be another. Self- reliance and self- sufficiency are no longer primitive. Those relying on “Digitalization” should think the unthinkable. A paperless, digitized society, with maximum automation, may smack of a stylish, most comfortable and “sophisticated” goal. Along with that goal, will come instability and vulnerability. The Corona virus, for the first time was not localized, but manifested widely and rapidly. This should urge us to be as self- sufficient to the extent possible, at least in food and medical needs. It is not merely availability but also logistics that will affect importation of necessities. We, like virtually all countries, are in for hard times ahead. We need to seek models, not from the West but countries like Bhutan who have lived within their means, preserved their forest cover and water sources, and made a virtue of simplicity in life styles.

Perhaps our own D.S. Senanayake was, without doubt right, in urging “Hemin Hemin” as a recipe for sober statecraft.  

Since nearly all countries have been compelled to shut down or lockdown for very long periods, scarcities will manifest everywhere, and the previous strategy of importing to cover localized shortages, may no longer be possible, as the source countries themselves will have less to spare. The most seriously affected will be food and medical supplies. The consequences are not difficult to see.  

The long periods during which all industrial production ceased too will have dire consequences, and slow down efforts to modernize our own industrial outputs. If yarn for our textile mills become unavailable, how will the industry continue? What of the thousands of workers who will find themselves suddenly unemployed? Will not crimes escalate? Hunger can transform even the most docile (e.g. rabbits) into cannibals.

Our dreams of a paperless, computerized, electronic and sophisticated society my well collapse through a different kind of virus? What, may we ask, will knock some good sense into highly sophisticated us?

Anything is possible.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    A good article on the Covid19. But why are these viruses originating from China?
    The World should condemn the wet markets in China and the surrounding countries. Rare and variety of animals are caged and treated cruelly. Zoonoses occurs mostly in China. Human need not consume meat to live. We need to discourage animal farming to save the earth.

    • 1

      Dr.P seems unduly pessimistic. This virus may have brought the economy to a halt, but so far it has killed far fewer people than the 1917 virus, which killed 17 million or so. We can put that down to improved prevention. Nor , in Sri Lanka, has it killed as many people as the malaria epidemic of 1936 ( 35000). It hasn’t caused as much havoc as smallpox or bubonic plague.
      In fact, it may not kill as many people here as bus drivers do every year.
      Perhaps it would be wise to read up on history before spreading gloom and doom?

  • 2

    Upatissa Pethiyagoda has avoided the anecdotes for the sake of those who are allergic to yarns!

  • 4

    Upatissa, Though I do not agree I will not comment on whether globalization/modernization has anything to do with this pandemic. A person who makes such statement should also consider how Ebola, Nipah and others, which are much more virulent breakouts were brought under control by Global efforts. The exception here is this originated in China (though the PRC members in Lanka may disagree) and WHO played a big role in spreading by misinformation. You claiming Lankan efforts as success is as good as Lanka claiming eradication in UN on the day of breakout. The spread is now from South to North and West to East with no district sparred. A country which officially claimed infected in two digits for almost 8 to 9 months and conducted a election , now suddenly seems to have hundreds daily. If one garment worker caused this as claimed by govt (which is a lie) how come not a single case was reported after Thondas procession where thousands participated ???? It is a shame to have a govt which intentionally misinforms its citizens. You need to be more concerned about your own govt than globalization/modernization.

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