World under lockdown: Did Covid-19 need such an aggressive response?

Ujjwal K Chowdhury
Ujjwal K ChowdhuryApr 01, 2020 | 16:45

World under lockdown: Did Covid-19 need such an aggressive response?

Is the virus so virulent and dangerous that it called for such an aggressive all-encompassing response?

The entire world is virtually taken by the horns by an invisible virus from the SARS family, named Covid-19 or the novel coronavirus, and some 4.5 billion people around the world are under lockdown now. The fear of the virus and the fear of the economic recession setting in throwing millions of people out of job have virtually gripped the world.


The purpose here is not at all to downplay the pandemic. It has to be combated, and the key ways are well-known by now — social distancing, regular hand-washing, quarantines, and closing down travel, to name a few. A lockdown in places where there are signs of community spreading is definitely desirable.

But there is a contrarian view as well. Is the virus so virulent and dangerous that it called for such an aggressive all-encompassing response?

Statistics of the first eight lakh patients so far shows that even an infected person of over 80 years has an 85 per cent chance of survival. It is observed that coronavirus affects mostly people with pre-existing conditions, which is why the fatality rate starts increasing notably in the age-group of 50-59 years old. So many elderly who died across the world — Italy and Spain in particular — have died not just due to coronavirus necessarily, but due to many other ailments which aggravated the Covid-19 affliction.

Statistics of the first eight lakh patients so far shows that even an infected person of over 80 years has an 85 per cent chance of survival. (Representational photo: Reuters)


Since this is a respiratory ailment that leads to huge thick mucus around the trachea and the lungs, regular smokers are more susceptible to the disease, and hence out of every three patients, at least two or more are men. All SARS family viruses cannot thrive in hot climates, and hence, it seems that in warmer countries the fatality rate is considerably lower than other places so far, and the overall fatality rate of about 4.5 per cent, the highest (over 10 per cent) being in Italy — it being a cold country and with a large population of the elderly.

Undoubtedly, in developing nations including India, the low rate of testing is a big problem. However, there are no reports of people with symptoms crowding hospitals as there are in many other countries. And it is important to understand that if there are indeed many latent cases as is feared, that would actually bring down the fatality rate, if not the infection rate. It is also to be noted that by quick testing, identifying and quarantining the affected people, the disease can be arrested and it has been done so in Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Hence, the focus has to be testing and treating, more than panicking and merely closing down businesses.


The virus once again underlines the fact that minimum human dignity in living conditions, housing, public health and sanitation are needed to ensure a controlled or disease-free world. More than the ferocity of the virus, it is the ferocity of the unequal society that we must be worried about. It has also been observed nine of 10 infected people need two weeks to recover with no medicine, isolated at home, as they are in minor ailment situation.

Those who are seriously ill, needing hospitalisation, ICU or ventilator, are below six per cent at the moment out of the 8.5 lakh affected people.  So, the vast majority of infected people can just recover by staying at home, with no medicine, but in isolation. Even seemingly well-educated people don't seem to grasp this properly.

But, this is the first virus to travel so far across the world, some 180 countries. And it has been made a larger demon than it is in this world polarised more than ever before in human history by social media and mobile technology. There have been many pandemics in human history, many of them far, far worse than this one (in terms of fatalities). But the reaction worldwide has been fraught with anxiety and panic in the face of the uncertainty of having no cure yet. Incidentally, uncertainty is a condition that people in this new world (with mobile social media) deal with far worse than any previous generation in history. The spread of panic, false content, abuse of faith-based narratives (gomutra cure being one), and many more, have had a multiplier effect on heightening the fear factor this time.

The virus is actually making the world realise the difference between a strategic anti-disease battle and a nonchalant lackadaisical approach. China, with its brute force, closed down Wuhan city and Hubei province, created a Covid hospital with 1,000 beds in 10 days, isolated Wuhan and Hubei from rest of China, brought in thousands of trained doctors and nurses from the rest of the country to treat the patients in Wuhan under heavy protection and contained the damages. Today, Wuhan is safer than New York.

A similar approach was adopted by Japan and South Korea in identifying the source and first community-affected, isolating them, conducting intense mass-testing, quarantining and treating those identified as afflicted. But, in contrast, western democracies like Italy, USA, Spain, France, etc did not have any plan in place in the first three to five weeks when the disease appeared, thereby allowing them to get into mass societal transmission phase. It is the right strategy, and not a fear psychosis when late, that helps.

The coronavirus has killed the first 40,000 in four months, while an average of the WHO's tally of common flu deaths every year is about 39,000 deaths per month and critically, within exactly the same patient base. What would happen if there was intense 24-hour media scrutiny worldwide on the common flu? What would it do to our minds?

For two out of three Indians, social and physical distancing is a misnomer even under lockdown. (Representational photo: Reuters)

The pain of the lockdowns could have been reduced by calling for short lockdowns at an early stage of the spread so that it was nipped in the bud, which at least in India's case was not done. If the lockdown had been advanced by two weeks, and a preparatory time of two days was given for it (as in the case of Australia and New Zealand), we could have done much better. The lockdown also could have been focused on certain areas of initial spread as in China, Japan and South Korea, rather than a national complete lockdown crippling the economy.

In the USA, lockdown does not mean curfew. People can still move, at a much lesser quantum, only for essential work and purchases, offices still run on skeletal staff, but social distancing (or rather physical distancing) is being practised regularly, along with gloves, masks, washing hands, and drinking warm water etc. For two out of three Indians, social and physical distancing is a misnomer even under lockdown, with overcrowded homes, unhygienic sharing habitats of many. The real concerns lie there.

Moreover, WHO has recently said that lockdowns don't reduce cases by a great deal, but delay the spread for a while, which can calibrate the rush at hospitals. In that light, in the complete absence of evidence of community spreading, decision-makers who are willing to pay the price by offering the lives of socially and economically disadvantaged people on this scale, shows the insensitivity of the rulers. Accounts of extreme distress are already emerging — multiple stories of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres in the hot sun just to go back home (with starvation as their other perceived option). Unfortunately, at the end of three weeks, lockdown deaths may compete favourably with Covid-19 deaths.

Last updated: April 01, 2020 | 16:45
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