In early January or February, when the deadly novel coronavirus was making its way from China to Europe and the US and was at its initial stage of turning into a pandemic, three South Asian countries – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – rather naively flirted with the hypothesis that it cannot spread in hot and humid weather.
There were reasons for believing the myth. An MIT research speculated the summer might impede the spread of coronavirus.
This misconception, tied with other urban myths such as some sort magical immunity of the South Asian people, led policymakers in countries like Bangladesh to make outrageous statements like "coronavirus cannot defeat us". South Asian countries were also banking on the relative youth of their population.
Allowing people to continue travelling, failing to detect the virus carriers at airports and showing reluctance in sending people to institutional quarantine — all these resulted in slower response in the early stages and rapid spread of Covid-19.
Three months later, MIT Sloan School in another research paradoxically suggested that summer might help impede the virus transmission, but it was not enough to curtail the pandemic.
Weather can have modest impact if there are medium levels of ultraviolet rays. Only the presence of UV rays can dampen transmission rates by 30 to 40 percent. The correlation associates with UV ray, not weather or temperature.
A potential reason why previous research has produced somewhat inconsistent results is detection delay, the MIT team concluded in their later findings.
In comparison to the way China, Singapore and Vietnam ramped up testing and isolation, the South Asian countries, especially India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, were slow movers.
Another factor driving the 'summer theory' was that the novel coronavirus is a cousin of the original SERS virus. Many researchers and academics believed that like SERS, this virus would also be completely gone by June or summer. And it will protect the South Asian countries like in SERS time, reported the Wired.
June is almost over, we are in the middle of summer and there is no sign of weakening or decaying of the virus. As India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are lifting restrictions, the infection rates are jumping. So, is the summer hypothesis another myth that these countries believed at their own peril?
The Wired report went on to say SERS was aggressively controlled through quarantine and social distancing. And, to be more specific, novel coronavirus is not like its cousin. It is more aggressive. Hence, there is no way other than enforcing stern social actions to halt the spread.
These countries had imposed lockdown in early stages but failed to maintain it effectively. Younger population flouted social distancing and restrictions under the other big misconception – the young people are less susceptible to the novel coronavirus.
As these countries are enjoying a demographic dividend – meaning the working group is large and the number of younger population is high – the young generation flouted quarantine and spread the virus further.
The World Health Organisation announced in March that the young generation is not immune to Covid-19. Anyone from any age group might be affected. Even though the fatality rate is higher among the older generation, many youths have also died. And there is a high chance that they transmit the virus to the more vulnerable ones that results in a surge of fatality rate.
According the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), among the infected population in Bangladesh, more than 50 percent are aged between 21-40. However, the death rate is 12.10 percent among the people aged between 21-40.
Another myth is that South Asian people have natural immunity to combat Covid-19. Since the beginning when Covid-19 hit the South Asian countries, it has been floating around that people of this region have been exposed to various viruses and hazards for quite a long time and therefore are less susceptible to viruses like Covid-19.
Indian parliamentarian Subramanian Swamy took it to his Twitter account to state that the Covid-19 strain in India was weak because the people of this region have natural defensive mechanism in their bodies.
A Bangladeshi Scientist, Dr Bijon, in a recent interview with a national daily, also said Bangladeshi people have grown natural immunity against Covid-19 and he thinks the virus has become weaker in Bangladesh than in the US and Europe.
Nevertheless, many scientists and researchers have cautioned against this hypothesis.
Caroline Genco, a professor of immunology and vice provost for research at Tufts University School of Medicine, told the Quanta Magazine, "We must avoid a false sense of security and keep in mind that while existing data on this and other coronaviruses provide valid bases for theories that ought to be tested, they should not be acted upon until further research is performed, if doing so would increase population and individual risks."
Acting on incomplete or misleading data could turn out to be fatal for South Asia, the scientist warned.
"Until definitive studies have been performed, the governments should not assume such factors provide any protection. It would be irresponsible to act on such theories without proper support because the consequences could be a potentially catastrophic loss of life," Genco added.
Another floating hypothesis was that BCG and malaria vaccines are "game-changers" against Covid-19 in this region. However, the WHO examined the correlation between these vaccines with novel coronavirus, and concluded that "such ecological studies are prone to significant bias from many confounders." Currently, in absence of any solid evidence, the WHO does not recommend BCG vaccination in prevention of Covid-19, reported the Quanta Magazine.
Yet ynother misconception these South Asian countries flirted with for a while was herd immunity. Instead of trying to contain it, they talked about allowing the infection to infect a significant portion of the population so that a natural resistance to virus develops. Unfortunately, this also came from a poor understanding of how herd immunity works.
To reach herd immunity, at least 60 percent of the total population need to develop antibodies in their bodies, according to a report published in The New York Times.
Considering 163 million people live in Bangladesh (World Population Review - 2019), going by the official infection record of the Directorate General of Health Services, only 0.07 percent people have been infected so far.
As the pandemic rolls into July, these myths, misconceptions and assumptions based on incomplete data patterns, have left Bangladesh and its major South Asian neighbours in a state of disarray. As of June 29, India saw 549,197 infections and 16,487 deaths, Pakistan saw 206,512 cases and 4,167 deaths while as of June 28, 137,787 people have been affected and 1,738 died in Bangladesh.
In reality, the comparatively low number of cases in South Asia in the early stages was probably due to the low number of tests. As of June 21, India performed 4.9 tests per 1,000 people, as opposed to 75.7 tests per 1,000 in the US, 70.4 in Spain, 62.5 in the UK and 116.5 in Russia. The numbers are also bleak for other major countries in the Indian subcontinent: 4.9 tests per 1,000 in Pakistan, 4.6 in Nepal and 3.4 in Bangladesh, as per reports.
In all likelihood, the number of deaths from Covid-19 are also being underreported.
India's officially recorded deaths have always been problematic. Even before the pandemic, just 70 percent of deaths were registered in India. Only a fifth of these were medically certified. More often, the underlying causes of deaths are recorded incorrectly, as reported by Bloomberg.
In Bangladesh, a total of 1,271 people died with Covid-19 symptoms till June 25, according to a report by the Bangladesh Peace Observatory (BPO) under the Centre for Genocide Studies (CGS) at the University of Dhaka, outside of the people who officially died from Covid-19.
Mursalin Hossain also contributed to the article