The Financial Express

COVID-19: Trends in global responses and practices

Mohammad Zaman from Vancouver, Canada | Published: March 18, 2020 20:43:38

-Reuters file photo -Reuters file photo

We are living in a world of uncertainties dictated by the "elusive" Covid-19 pandemic.  Since the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan in December 2019, the Covid-19 continues to spread around the world. The number of those infected and fatalities are increasing by the hours. At this time of writing, 181,000 persons are infected globally in 155 countries and close to 7,000 died from Covid-19. While nearly half of the cases of infections and deaths are from Wuhan, the virus is now having its toll in Italy, the new epi centre, and in Spain, U.K., Germany, and North America. Both Canada and the US have declared several measures to deal with the rapidly evolving public health crisis.

In China, new cases now appear to be slowing down since the past several weeks, indicating control and effective prevention measures. Indeed, China's draconian responses early on - what one observer calls "China's coronavirus gamble" appear to have paid off. A top-down centralised system dealing decisively with one of the largest public health emergencies ever undertaken anywhere - including closing borders and locking downs of millions of people, and forcible quarantine of infected people - suggests that the measures helped fight the virus, now in decline in China.

The pandemic revealed the strength of the Chinese system in mobilising all necessary resources, technical and human, needed to rein in the virus fast. The World Health Organisation (WHO) praised the Chinese President Xi Jinping and lauded the achievements of the Chinese government, declaring it a "model." While Italy largely followed the Chinese approach, South Korea conducted massive free testing and treatment in mitigating and containing the progression of this contagious disease. Apart from WHO, many experts around the world find wisdom in the Chinese approach - more for its public health preventive measures and the rapid response on a gigantic scale to contain the disease from further spreading.

There are lessons to learn from the Chinese responses to the Covid-19 outbreak. First, a critical tool in controlling such an epidemic is having proper, reliable and fast detection method - i.e., test kits - available for screening. During early days, there were no test kits available; however, working with biotech companies, the first tool kit was introduced on January 13, with sufficient supplies available two weeks later. Second, the Chinese experience reinforces the need for "science-based" approach and the benefit of collaboration between government officials and public health experts. Third, establishing electronic recording and tracking systems with local response teams to handle and monitor cases 24/7. Fourth, evaluating medical resources and response systems. Fifth, establishing preventive measures in communities, schools, offices, businesses and homes that can minimise contacts and reduce impacts. Finally, keeping the public well informed and providing guidelines concerning health, hygiene and individual lifestyles and related procedures to follow.

Countries fighting the Covid-19 can learn from China's a good deal. The transmission continues at a lower level and a rebound is unlikely. As a result, China is slowly re-starting its economy, gradually re-opening schools, and has taken a phased approach to lift the containment strategy with a new set of preparedness to control and prevent any future infectious disease outbreak. However, according to experts and analysts, the Chinese approach was not designed as a coherent strategy or response, but more of a "learning by doing" approach as a desperate reaction to the overwhelming threat by the elusive but lethal disease that had shaken the country.

In the US, denials by President Donald Trump - including calling it a "hoax" - was the initial response, followed by a political response to the crisis without any specific plans or strategies. By the time a Federal Taskforce was established with medical and public health experts headed by Vice-President Mike Pence, Washington State already had declared its first fatality. The delay in identification and lack of test kits already proved dangerous all over the country. As of 16 March, the virus had expanded its presence from several isolated clusters in Washington, New York and California to all 50 states, with 5,000 infected cases and over 80 deaths. The numbers are alarmingly rising in the US.

In Canada, there are close to 600 infected cases (confined largely to Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary) with 8 deaths. Canada has an edge over the US in dealing with the crisis due to strong public health infrastructure and free medical care and support. The governments both in Canada and the US have begun closing schools, discretionary travels or travel bans, banning large gatherings, and urging people to stay and work from home to reduce contacts. New guidelines have been issued requiring basic precautions such as hand-washing and cleaning frequently touched surfaces every day.

Globally, the respiratory disease has spread in Africa and many Asian countries. Kenya banned from entering the country all non-resident foreigners. For months, many Southeast Asian countries played down the threat posed by coronavirus. Some officials said that prayer would keep the disease away. The Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, admitted that he misled the public about the dangers of the disease caused by the Covid-19, to prevent people from panicking. Others expressed optimism that the tropical heat would slow spread of the virus.

The SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries have together 150 coronavirus cases and have agreed to a joint programme to deal with the rapidly evolving health crisis. WHO called on countries of South and South East Asian region for "aggressive measures and scale-up all efforts to prevent the virus from infecting more people." Any delay may prove dangerous, as some countries face a drastic rise in cases without a health care system that can handle a major outbreak.

Mohammad Zaman, PhD is an international development specialist and advisory professor, National Research Centre for Resettlement, Hohai University, Nanjing, China.


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