Commentary: Some reason for hope amid this COVID-19 hysteria

MUMBAI: We know from history the devastation caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and most of us know from experience the Great Recession following the 2008 global financial crisis.

But we have never seen anything like the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic will leave deep psychological scars, but its most striking feature is the speed and ferocity with which containment efforts have hit the global economy.

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Call it the Great Whiplash.

THE ECONOMIC PANDEMIC

In the United States, more than 17 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the last month. The week of Mar 28, a record 6.9 million people filed – a figure that would have seemed unbelievable just a few weeks prior, when the weekly norm was about a half-million.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimates that by the middle of this year, the US unemployment rate could hit 32.1 per cent, surpassing the previous high of 24.9 per cent, reached in 1933.

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From the piecemeal statistics coming out of the developing world, it is clear that the situation there is dire.

In its recent Africas Pulse report, the World Bank estimates that Sub-Saharan Africas economy could contract by 5.1 per cent in 2020 – compared to 2.4 per cent growth last year – with South Africa, Nigeria, and Angola taking particularly big hits.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 and Africa: The dog that hasnt barked

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 will deepen global inequality

South Africa – which has rightly been praised for its strong early containment measures – has also suffered from the outflow of US$1.75 billion in portfolio capital in March, which caused a sharp depreciation of the rand.

Africas most urgent concern, however, is shortages in essentials, especially food. The World Bank expects agricultural production to decline by at least 2.6 per cent and as much as 7 per cent, with food imports dropping by 13 to 25 per cent.

SOME HOPE LEFT

Despite these grim projections, there are grounds for hope. Thanks to a global marshaling of scientific resources, reflecting a unity of purpose rarely witnessed in human history, our initial confusion is gradually giving way to some understanding of how COVID-19 spreads – and how we can contain it without causing widespread hunger and poverty.

Already, governments have shifted considerable resources to combating the pandemic. In the US, a Navy hospital ship was brought to New York Harbor to relieve the pressure on the citys hospitals.

The US navy hospital ship Comfort arrived in New York to boost overwhelmed medical facilities. (Photo: AFP/Bryan R. Smith)

In China, dedicated COVID-19 hospitals were built in record time.

India is converting 5,000 railway coaches into isolation wards, and its celebrated Taj Hotels in Mumbai are being used to house frontline medical workers who need to remain in quarantine between shifts.

RAMPING UP TESTING

Meanwhile, government-funded drive-through COVID-19 testing has enabled South Korea to achieve the worlds highest testing rate.

Applying those lessons, South Africa has become a leader in rapid testing, deploying mobile testing units in densely populated areas. The government plans to increase its capacity to 30,000 tests per day by the end of April.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 vaccine – why is it taking so long to develop one?

READ: Commentary: What a global COVID-19 exit strategy looks like

Large-scale testing is crucial, as governments attempt to design policies that limit the costs of the crisis, while protecting public health. Here, special attention must be paid to what epidemiologists refer to as the “basic reproduction number,” or R0.

An infectious diseases R0 is the average number of people to which one infected person is likely to transmit the disease. COVID-19s R0 is currently estimated at around 2.5. If infections are to taper off over time, that figure must be less than one.

While we cannot make COVID-19 less contagious, we can reduce its R0 through social norms and behavior, such as physical distancing.

Given the pitfalls of blanket lockdowns and quarantines, we should ring-fence areas where infections are concentrated – identified through expanded testing – while allowing the economy to continue functioning elsewhere (with appropriate distancing rules in place).

A nearly deserted wholesale market is seen during lockdown to limit the spread of the new coronavirus in the old quarters of Delhi, India on Mar 24, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/File Photo)

Food and health services could then be delivered to the doorsteps of those under lockdown.

The Indian state of Kerala, which early evidence suggests is managing to hold down its R0, has distributed cooked meals to those in need, while implementing aggressive testing, contact tracing, and quarantine protocols.

Other countries are finding innovative ways to protect citizens without shutting down the economy.

READ: Commentary: Obviously, we want ASEAN to collaborate better on COVID-19

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