We live in a time when increasingly too many people treat foolishness as fact and fact as foolishness. There are times when this might be tolerable and times when it is not; in a public health situation, the latter is true. Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a public health dilemma and we cannot tolerate any trade-off between foolishness and facts.
To suggest that COVID-19 is simply a kind of flu is absolute nonsense. Countries do not cordon off one-third of their population to reduce the spread of the flu. Countries, especially supposedly sophisticated developed countries like the United States, don’t keep cruise ships with thousands of passengers aboard at bay because of a fear of spreading the flu. The stock market does not crash or oil prices tank because of the flu. We know the seasonal nature of the flu and how it behaves in almost every circumstance. There is a lot we don’t know about COVID-19. What we do know is that its spread rate exceeds the flu and that its mortality rate might also do so.
Consider this, according to the Washington Post, 100,000 people worldwide have been infected with the coronavirus while more than 3,000 people have died from the same. Let’s suppose that five times as many people worldwide were infected but not detected, while 3,000 died. That would mean that the mortality rate would be 0.6 percent. If there were less people infected then the mortality rate is even higher than 0.6 percent. With such a mortality rate, if 45,000,000 people were infected, then some 270,000 people could die.
What is the mortality rate for influenza? In 2017, the CDC, estimated that “Between 291,000 and 646,000 people worldwide die from seasonal influenza-related respiratory illnesses each year, higher than a previous estimate of 250,000 to 500,000 and based on a robust, multinational survey.” What number of people get infected worldwide? It’s difficult to say, since many countries do not have the means to keep and report accurate statistics. However, let’s take the United States. According to the CDC, between October 1, 2019 and February 29, 2020, it was estimated that between 39 million to 49 million persons in the U.S. had the flu. Of this number, between 20,000 to 50,000 people died. That would be a mortality rate of as much as 0.1 percent, which is some six times less than Covid-19. Fact is, this new iteration of the coronavirus seems to have a greater spread and a higher mortality rate than influenza and that is why the world is treating it with the seriousness it deserves. No spin will be able to change this fact.
The Washington Post article notes, “Both the coronavirus and influenza are respiratory illnesses. Both have similar symptoms. Both are contagious. Both can be deadly.
So why the nationwide coronavirus frenzy? The key difference between the novel coronavirus and influenza, said Melissa Nolan, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina, is this: “We know what to expect from the flu.”
The biggest fact is that “we don’t know” this COVID-19 virus and when you don’t know, you prepare for the worse and hope for the best. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the strategic action needed to prevent a pandemic of influenza or any other disease includes the following: “Reduce human exposure to the virus by reducing opportunities for human infection, and in so doing, reduce opportunities for a pandemic virus to emerge; strengthen early warning systems by ensuring that affected countries, WHO and the international community have all data and clinical specimens needed for an accurate risk assessment; intensify rapid containment operations by preventing the virus from further increasing its transmissibility among humans or delay its international spread; build capacity to cope with pandemics by ensuring that all countries have formulated and tested pandemic response plans and that the WHO is fully able to perform its leadership role during the pandemic; [and] coordinate global scientific research and development by ensuring that pandemic vaccines and antiviral drugs are rapidly and widely available shortly after the start of a pandemic and that scientific understanding of the virus evolves quickly.”
Borrowing from this action statement, it would seem that nations like our own, seeking to put themselves in the best position to prevent an epidemic at home and a pandemic abroad, would cooperate with the WHO to strengthen their systems to reduce virus spread, strengthen early warning systems, intensify rapid containment operations, build local capacity to cope with epidemics and work with global entities to mitigate pandemics.
The stakes are high for The Bahamas in regards to COVID-19. Whether or not the threat turns out to be more perceived than real, the negative impact of the virus on the global economy means that The Bahamas will be greatly affected. We are a nation heavily tied into the global economy, with some 80 percent of trade done internationally. Panic within the international community that affects travel by air or sea in any significant way could heavily wound both our tourism and offshore financial services sectors. If our two most significant sectors are greatly impacted, almost all others will take a deep dive and with that, the fortunes of the people of this country.
What is more, because so little is known about COVID-19 at this point, we do not know how long its impact will be. What is worse is that the situation, as bad as it is now, is still waiting on a vaccine to be developed in order to prevent the disease in humans. The problem with this is, however, that any vaccine is between twelve and eighteen months out, by most forecasts. The vaccine, however, will not address the current infections people are experiencing as they wait on it. How much damage will be done by that time is yet to be estimated, but it is safe to say that depending on the spread and mortality, it could be unthinkable.
Our economy is already fragile, wounded as it was by the passage of Hurricane Dorian and by a number of measures before that weighed it down. Neither the economy nor the government’s fiscal resources can much withstand additional shocks; that burden might prove too severe not to result in serious adjustments on the part of the government. The Great Recession caused thousands of jobs, hundreds of business closures and slow down and great social hardship. COVID-19 has the potential to be much worse.
We are in the hands of our government during this coronavirus dilemma. Really, we are in the hands of the Ministry of Health. It may well be in our favor that we have as the prime minister and minister of health, two doctors. This need not be true, but perhaps it is. Working with their partners in the global community and experts at home, let us hope that they can help us minimize the impact of COVID-19. The fact is that the stakes are too high for anything else to be the case. In the meantime, we as individuals must not be foolish with the facts or fact-less like fools. We must follow the advice of the experts and wash our hands thoroughly, desist from touching our faces, avoid close contact with ill persons and keep a safe distance as we interact and avoid clustered areas. You can only do what you can do to be safe. The rest we must leave to the state.
• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.