Half a year of Pandemic

This week marks six-months of the beginning of the first COVID-19 India-wide lockdown while this month marks the completion of six months of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaration of the disease to be a pandemic. The virus has spread to all parts of the world extracting an uneven toll on lives in different countries. The number of people infected worldwide is over 32 million. Of these 1 million have lost their lives. The number of current active cases stands at 7.5 million; globally, the number of infected persons is rising even though some countries have done relatively well to restrict COVID-19 infections.

The United States continues to be, by far, the most affected country. It has had over 7 million cases which have resulted in over 2 hundred thousand deaths. India is the next most impacted country with over 5 million cases and around 90 thousand lives lost. It is noteworthy that the testing rate for the infection is far lower in India than in many other countries. It may therefore have relatively more infections than official statistics show. With infections rising many experts apprehend a tougher situation for India on the pandemic front at least for some time.

A look at how the different continents are faring shows the greatest number of infections and mortalities in the Americas—North and South taken together—at 15.8 million followed by Asia at 9.5 million, Europe at 4.6 million and Africa at 1.4 million. Again, the caveat has to be added that as testing rates differ widely in different continents the number of actual infections may be at variance from the official figures. What cannot be disputed though is that in all countries the focus while not entirely shifting from the pandemic is now more on its effects on the economy and the restoration on attempts to go back, at least partially, to normal modes of living.

As many countries began to impose lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus the global economy began to contract with different sectors being impacted differently. Manufacturing and the services sectors where social distancing was difficult to maintain initially almost stopped. Agriculture and the food industry, necessary for human life, escaped the full rigours of the lock down. Around three months after the WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic most governments decided to begin to open up their economies even with infections rising. This was obviously because they simply did not have the resources to keep the lock down going on indefinitely. Besides, all peoples, except the elderly and most vulnerable, chafed at lock down restrictions because isolation goes against the grain of human nature.

Now, the strategy being followed by many countries is to impose periodic and targeted lock downs and set up containment zones only if infection rates begin to show sudden growths. Otherwise government are letting life begin to go back to its usual ways though with precautions being observed. These intermittent lockdowns and the observance of precautions are certainly containing the quick spread of the disease and controlling the death rate.

Restricting the death rate is of paramount importance for as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in one of his speeches in which he stressed the importance of mandated precautions to control COVID-19 “Jaan Hai to Jahan Hai”. However, Modi said later “Jaan bhi, Jahan bhi”. It is not easy to arrive at a balance between “Jaan” and “Jahan”. While governments are doing their best to protect lives the “jahan” aspect seems to be gaining the upper hand everywhere, even in the most afflicted country, the United States. Its Presidential election is less than six weeks away. Popular focus is now completely on it. In that context the political classes attention has shifted from what should be done to contain COVID-19 to how President Trump handled it initially. An interesting aspect has emerged in this context. Evidence has surfaced showinng that Trump knew about the dangers of the virus even while he went about publicly downplaying them. He has asserted that he did so to prevent panic.

The question is: in a matter of public health, should not a country’s leader warn the public of the dangers as soon as these are known to him and at the same time assure them that his government will take all measures to handle the medical situation as best as can be done? The answer seems obvious but US voters are unlikely seek an honest response to such a sensitive and important question; their ideological predilections will govern their thinking on this question too. Despite this and the public’s pre-occupation with economic recovery Trump wants to make sure that the people’s attention shifts entirely from his handling of the pandemic. For this purpose, he is using the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to divert attention to filling her vacancy in the US Supreme Court.

In India too public attention is now focused to a large extent away from the pandemic and on other issues. This can be seen in the media and was witnessed in discussions in Parliament. The electronic media especially is hardly paying any attention to COVID-19. Its main attention is now on other domestic issues and threats on the foreign affairs and security fronts. Does this indicate the public’s yearnings for the restoration of the natural rhythms of human life even while combatting the pandemic? It certainly appears so.