COVID: Guesstimates and Advices

In a recent column in the Pakistani newspaper ‘Dawn’, the eminent physicist, Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy while pleading for using ‘science and reason’ to respond to COVID-19 conceded “Epidemiology and virology lack the exactness of physics so even our best experts can provide only guesstimates and advise on setting strategies”. The ‘guesstimates’ largely relate to various scenarios of the spread of infections and mortality rates resulting therefrom. They are based on historical precedents of pandemics and the characteristics of a virus. The ‘advice’ relates to how to contain the spread of specific pandemics and till the development of preventives and therapeutics on the nature of non-pharmaceutical interventions.

It is fascinating to study how the leaders of important powers have refracted the epidemiologists and virologists ‘guesstimates’ and ‘advice’ through the prism of their personal inclinations and attitudes towards science and expert advice as well as their political and economic agendas and ambitions. In view of the inexactitude of epidemiology and virology these leaders also had the difficult task of choosing between conflicting advice especially regarding the development of herd immunity.

This was witnessed in March when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to base his country’s anti-COVID-19 policy on what some epidemiologists have been advocating: the need to develop herd immunities in the younger populations while advising the old and the vulnerable to stay at home. Consequently, he tried to avoid a lockdown. He had to abandon this approach when confronted with estimates of the dramatic rise of British fatalities. Ironically, he himself became a victim of the virus and had to be hospitalised. Fortunately, he recovered and is now back at work. But Britain has been hard hit. It has, as I write these lines, 248818 cases which have resulted in the highest number of deaths in Europe—35341.

The overwhelming medical view laid stress on social distancing and to enforce this on lockdowns to break the chain of transmission. Clearly, Chinese President Xi Jinping went with this view when he ordered the lockdown of the Hubei province. A lockdown on this scale was historically unprecedented. It was also ruthlessly implemented. What Xi Jinping did not do—and should have– was to contact his peers and share the scientific reasons which had led him to take such an extreme step. This may have led to a timely collective political push at the level of the top global leadership. Instead matters were left only in the hands of the World Health Organisation (WHO) whose actions will now be scrutinised.

US President Donald Trump is particularly upset with China’s initial reticence in sharing full information and is accusing the WHO of complicity with it. The US is suffering the world’s highest number of cases – more than 1.5 million. Of these more than 93000 have died. Many Americans are blaming President Donald Trump and his erratic ways for this state of affairs. He does not give importance to scientific and expert advice but goes by his own instincts. This has been demonstrated in his handling of the COVID-19 crisis too. Initially he simply ignored the early warnings and all through this period he has sometimes advocated measures which have been plainly irrational. The fact that this is an election year for him has no doubt been responsible for many positions he has taken.

If some of Trump’s suggestions and conduct are baffling the stand of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been bizarre. He has simply not taken the pandemic seriously for he continues to consider it nothing more than the common flu. This, when Brazil is currently recording the third highest number of cases in the world. While the majority of the country’s governors are imposing social distancing measures Bolsonaro has personally, deliberately and publically broken all its norms. Since a few days now he has taken to wearing masks but is still appearing in large public gatherings. He has fired two health ministers who advocated social distancing and expert advice. Obviously for him rising infections and deaths are more acceptable than the economic consequences of lockdowns.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded swiftly to reports of the breakout of the virus in China by closing down borders with it and later ordering a lock down. He was therefore ahead of Western European leaders who did not take the initial threats seriously and allowed flights from China which led to upsurges of infections which overwhelmed health systems as in Italy and Spain. However, Russia has the world’s second largest number of infections with the worst still to come as the lockdown is beginning to be eased before the infection curve is flattening.

The acid test of leadership is always in crisis situations when there are no easy choices, information is incomplete and expert assessments contradictory. There has been no greater crisis for the world than COVID-19 since World War 2. At this time steady and enlightened, even inspiring global leadership demonstrating cooperation was required especially in the world’s advanced countries which would have relied, as Professor Hoodbhoy argues, on science to make rational and balanced choices despite the inexactitude of epidemiology and virology.

That has not been seen in especially in the case of Trump. Thus, the world’s pre-eminent power is currently saddled with a leader whose ways have not only harmed it but also the world at large. This is because such power as that of the US necessarily imposes global responsibility.