Ashwini Kumar Rath

Coronavirus - Panic in Thin Air

Mar 15, 2020

As the Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19 or nCoV is in the process of spreading its wings across continents, there seems a significant gap between information received and the reality. While a panic atmosphere has set in already, it is pertinent to understand the impact of the disease, the efforts regarding the control and our approach as the public.

As believed, COVID-19 turned into a pandemic starting as an outbreak in the Wuhan province of China. This is in spite of some arguing and trying to verify if the virus sample collected from the infected patient from Bavaria in Germany has a common ancestor in China. While identifying the origin can be very helpful in phylogenetic studies, the debates using ultranationalism may not help.

If you travel these days, you will encounter thermal scanners or handheld thermometers at airports that will decide whether you will head home or to an isolation ward for two weeks. But then you can give a miss to the screening if you take fever-suppressing drugs. Basically, the current tests for COVID-19 are limited to checking fever and normal influenza symptoms. This is no way sufficient to determine the infection; moreover, there are little or no clinical procedures available to tackle this virus objectively. We are yet to determine the incubation phase - the period between the exposure to an infected patient and the sign of clinical symptoms. We are yet to identify the Basic Reproductive Number (R0), the average number of cases generated from one infection, accurately though tentatively we are guessing up to 3 with the help of limited computational models - almost half of what Polio has and almost double of what H1N1 has.

There has been news that the economy in China has taken a big hit. How? As we know, China is the leader in manufacturing, and the process involves running plants that contribute to the emission into the air. European Space Agency (ESA) used daily stellite data of emissions in the atmosphere over China to understand the impact of the disease - the emission level fell by almost 38% during the peak period of infection in China and by simple calculation of China's economic activities, an estimated loss of more than 200 billion USD in a matter of a month was inferred. So, the emission level is being considered as an indicator of economic activities - broadly it is correct.

It is interesting to see how scientists are airing their findings on Twitter with a few studies of genome sequences and computational modelling; the data size is not worth believing; yet, the conclusions are made - both the common population and the government are made to infer many things which do not have a link to the realities. Government has to do something spectacular; else, it will be perceived to be indifferent and not caring enough! If you ask me, I would perhaps advise the public institutions to refrain from making the events spectacular and instead drive efforts towards keeping economic activities live and funding labs to expedite scientific enquiries about the virus impact and mitigation.

The global business ecosystem has made the propagation of the virus across multiple countries easy. World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the epidemic as a public health emergency of international concern on January 30. We should keep clear of the rumours and false information going round on websites, social media and messaging platforms like WhatsApp. Rather it is imperative for all of us to rely on the information from WHO and respective government websites.

While we are struggling to cope with the virus, there is a slow change to the economy and our life. The economy is facing a major crisis globally due to widespread shutdowns. Companies are encouraging remote work wherever possible. The large scale advertisements and campaigns at different levels for lesser personal contacts in society may give rise to a culture of 'keeping a distance' and relying heavily on digital communications which are already an established norm. People will use Netflix more than going to cinema halls. Professionals will prefer gig-way rather than office work wherever possible. The list can go on. And we may see a changed world after getting accustomed to COVID-19.

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