Increasingly we appear to be witnessing the spread of complacence on Covid-19 both in the realm of public behaviour and public policy. The new normal is fading into the old normal as if we have conquered the virus and the livelihood systems are getting resuscitated as quickly as it got decimated. A sense of victory among some and resignation among others is gaining ground.
The victory school of thought asks: Why should we be afraid of the virus when seven out of 10 are recovering and less than three out of 200 are dying? Why should we not assume that the virus spread curve has flattened when the positivity rate is sharply down from 20 to 12%?
Unlike them, the resignation school recognises the continued presence of community transmission. They assert we are doing the best we can, given our resources and institutions to deal with a virus that is not as deadly as initially perceived.
The virus has not disappeared
Both schools of thought converge on the policy stance of reopening all activities sooner and together than later and in stages. Let go of all restrictions on mobility and assembly while prescribing adherence to hygiene rules. Mobility and assembly must be allowed to return to wherever it may under the circumstances. The consequent increase in infection is a risk worth taking, counting on the high recovery rate.
This has in fact become public policy by design or default. The perception of victory has led to an increasing tendency to let the guards against the virus down. Exhortations to mask and physical distance are now routinely ignored.
These views are at odds with the reality on the ground on both the health and economic fronts. Death of over 4,700 people in six months due to one disease is not negligible by any public health criteria. With one in three infected cases under treatment, there is a serious public health problem that deserves to be recognised as such. This is particularly so given that there is no proven vaccine and therapeutic yet. The waiting time is still no less than a year under somewhat optimistic assumptions.
The virus is alive and kicking in Bangladesh.
Statistical and testing issues aside, a 12% positivity rate does not signal sufficient flattening of the curve currently, nor does it provide any reason to believe it will fall below 5% any time soon. The observed statistical decline in the positivity rate cannot be explained by the public health response individually and collectively. Masking and physical distancing are diminishing. The health system is not testing, tracing, and treating cases any better than it used to. The public remain reluctant to seek inpatient or outpatient care from public and private hospitals because of the fear of contracting the virus.
Cannot let the guards down
The science determining the spread of the virus does not vary by countries sufficiently to justify an entirely different public health response. The most optimistic assessment on how the virus is different in Bangladesh we hear from virologists is that the virus has mutated with greater frequency into a "less virulent" one. By less virulent they mean it does not kill as many, not its spread efficiency and legacy effects. It is still highly contagious. Many of those unfortunate enough to be infected and fortunate enough to have recovered say that they are far from being physically and mentally as fit as they used to be.
Science tells us that until a safe and effective vaccine is administrated on a proportion of the population large enough to get herd immunity, the public health mitigation measures are the only ways of flattening the curve and keeping our elderlies safe.
There is hardly any reasonable argument for harsh measures such as nationwide lockdowns, now that confidence on less harsh mitigation measures such as masking, physical distancing, outdooring, avoiding crowding and hand-washing has increased because of growing evidence from countries all over the world. The political opposition to masks and social distancing in western democracies is based on "freedom" or "inconvenience", not the mitigation efficacy of the virus. Such opposition is not ubiquitous in Bangladesh where harsh weather, congested living conditions and awareness deficit militate against masking and social distancing.
On the virus battlefront the winner so far is the virus. This is evident from the fact that the entire world is still playing defence, some more resolutely than others. The weapons of offence are all work in progress, looking for evidence that the ones under trial will do no harm and help make us all beyond the reach of the virus for a sufficiently long period of time.
We may know what exactly these weapons can do by November or December this year. However, we are unlikely to have the population ready to let the defensive guards down before the end of next year, realistically speaking. Anything sooner sounds like a godsend given the current state of knowledge.
The economy not out of the woods yet
The virus had devastating effects on the economy. Part of the gains in poverty and inequality reduction achieved in recent decades have disappeared. The extent of the loss can be debated, but that it is significant, ranging between 10% and 20% of the population, is probably beyond dispute.
Human development has paused if not setback. The formal and informal sectors lost millions of jobs. Jobs that were not lost are yielding much lower incomes. The economic distress has been unequally distributed because the exposure to the virus risk – both health and income – is unequally distributed.
The economy is recovering relative to the bottom reached during March-May. But the recovery is uneven and uncertain.
Exports re-entered the above zero growth territory in July-August. Remittances have spiked. Consumer spending is stronger but cautious on discretionary purchases. Private credit flow is stumbling despite stimulus packages. Imports and revenue collection are struggling to crawl out of the negative territory. Public investments are poised to regain their usual pace without shedding implementation tardiness. Private investments are challenged by uncertainties in profit and risk calculations in addition to the usual structural constraints such as high cost of doing business, poor infrastructure, and limited skills availability.
Agriculture has suffered above normal floods for longer than usual duration. However, the farmers have once again risen to the occasion as they always do. Capacity utilisation in manufacturing is on the rise, although still well below pre-pandemic normal. The service economy is back on the drive mode with the speedometer still 30-40% behind the pre-Covid-19 reading. Mobile financial services and e-commerce are flourishing with linkage effects on production and employment. They still have a long way to go.
The non-vulnerable middle class and the rich appear to be benefiting most from the recovery, implying further increases in inequalities. The technological adaptations required to protect incomes from the onslaught of the virus is more easily available to the rich and the powerful. At lower levels, work has recovered, but incomes are far behind levels prevailing before March and the deprivation pains remain deep as well as pervasive.
Globally, the initial phase of economic recovery from coronavirus-related lockdowns has been faster than expected, particularly in China and the US. But this is partly offset by deeper than expected declines in the eurozone, the UK and India. With the coronavirus not yet gone, the pace of the global recovery will falter. Major advanced economies will avoid renewed nationwide lockdowns for sure unless a second wave leaves no other option. It will nevertheless take a long time before economic activity fully returns to pre-virus levels in the US and the eurozone.
We will probably soon have a line of sight on the limits of economic revival in the presence of community transmission of the virus in Bangladesh. The recovery is more likely to be a marathon than a sprint.