The World Health Organisation (WHO) has finally dropped a powerful yet the least-expected bomb at a time when countries around the world are trying their level best to fight the novel coronavirus. During a recent media briefing, it said the virus could have a permanent presence across the globe, dashing the hope for any silver lining in the face of the profound ongoing crisis.
Referring to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's health emergencies programme, said coronavirus could be just like that and might never go away. He said he was not comparing the two diseases, but warned that coronavirus might join the mix of viruses that kill people globally every year.
This disease, Mike said, may settle into a long-term problem or it may not. Such a statement further intensified the prolonged uncertainty about the pandemic that has wreaked havoc globally, claiming a huge number of lives and upending economies even of the developed nations.
Millions of people have lost jobs while stock markets have faced major upheavals. There have been large-scale disruptions in global supply chains. The Economist Intelligence Unit said last month the world economy might face a "double recession" even though trillions of dollars had been announced in bailout packages to revive economies.
A second wave looming?
Dr Mike's comments came in the wake of new infections recently detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan. As a result, the city residents have queued at makeshift testing sites to be tested again for the virus.
The city was on a tight lockdown for around two months. Life was slowly returning to normal when restrictions were lifted and no new infections emerged for more than a month until recently, prompting the fresh round of mass testing.
In its vigorous fight against the pandemic, China largely succeeded in bringing the situation under control, but withdrawal of restrictions put the country at risk of a potential second wave of infections. Apart from Wuhan, virus clusters were detected in the provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang, which borders Russia.
In fact, concern over a second wave is growing fast as many countries have lately opted for lifting varying degrees of restrictions and lockdowns. South Korea, which has widely been lauded for its virus control measures, has also seen new cases.
Last month, a study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet predicted that we might see a second wave sooner than later. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US, said in late April he was convinced that the virus would be around in fall season too.
Defining a second wave
There is no agreed global benchmark for the scope of a second wave yet. Will it require 100, 500 or 1,000 cases for a second wave to set in? The Chinese authorities embarked on the mammoth task of testing the entire 11 million population of Wuhan after the emergence of a mere six cases.
WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said the second wave was not a fixed technical term. He said the term only referred to renewed outbreaks following an initial reduction in cases.
Regardless of the number of cases that will constitute a second wave, what we may see is a re-imposition of restrictive measures if coronavirus re-emerges. Lockdowns that have been withdrawn partially or fully may come back. If that happens, people will again be cooped up at home, and no doubt, their panic level will be much higher as they will be thinking they have to live in a continuous cycle of potential infections.
There is no way to deny that even the prospect of living in such a cycle is extremely scary. No matter how we want to define this, but life can never fully return to normal if people constantly have this thought on their mind that they are never far away from catching a submicroscopic infection agent as deadly as the novel coronavirus. Moreover, how successful we will be to adjust to the new normal – characterised by constant adherence to measures such as frequently washing hands, maintaining physical distancing and not touching the face – remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, it seems we may have to learn how to live with the virus, even if we do not want to. WHO's Mike Ryan said there was always the risk that Covid-19 would take off again if the disease persisted in countries at a low level without the capacity to investigate and identify clusters. He also said the chance that the disease would re-emerge was higher in countries where large groups of people live together in major cities.
Bangladesh situation already dire
In light of Mike's statement, Bangladesh, evidently, is a densely-populated nation where the virus is highly likely to re-emerge. Russia, the world's largest country by surface area, is almost 115 times bigger than Bangladesh. Yet, we have more people than Russia. In fact, Bangladesh has the eighth highest population in the world according to 2020 figures.
For us, what is concerning is that we have not even reached the peak of the first wave yet. After reaching that, if a second wave lurks around the corner and eventually hits, the extent of devastations in terms of human health and economy will certainly be of unprecedented proportions. With the handling of the pre-peak situation of the first wave already proving too arduous for us, we will possibly be hobbled for a long term, or worse, permanently.
There are two main reasons why large-scale social distancing is not possible in Bangladesh. One, we are a very collectivist society where togetherness is the social norm, as opposed to the highly individualistic Nordic countries where physical distancing is a given. Two, population density is so high compared to the area that it is next to impossible to maintain social distancing in public places to the extent required to keep citizens safe from getting infected.
We also have other reasons to be worried. Our shutdown – extended several times since it began on March 26 – has largely been a fiasco. It was not officially a lockdown, and was announced as general holidays, which caused people to take it very lightly. They thought the shutdown was almost synonymous with holidaymaking, and even acted accordingly.
Testing – the only way to determine the gravity of the situation in a country – remains limited in our country while cases continue to rise dramatically. We are hitting new highs day after day. Although the official death toll appears low compared to the confirmed cases, the Centre for Genocide Studies at the University of Dhaka has recently revealed that as many as 929 people with Covid-19-like symptoms have died in the last two months.
This means the virus is perhaps claiming more lives than we think it is because we are not testing enough people. In terms of tests per million people, we are only ahead of Afghanistan in South Asia.
Moreover, our economy is bleeding profusely. People who work in the informal sector, such as day labourers and housemaids, are bearing the brunt of the shutdown while private sector employees are also at risk of facing retrenchment. The poor and the impoverished are suffering beyond imagination while misappropriation of relief by civil servants has aggravated the situation.
The last hope
If a second wave of coronavirus strikes, it can be more lethal, as was the case with the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The fall of 1918 marked the second wave and it took majority of the lives in the US. The virus actually mutated into a stronger version when the second wave hit. A third wave struck in early 1919 and lasted until mid-year.
After infecting people throughout the world and resulting in high mortality rates, the Spanish flu gradually became less intense on its own. In neighbouring India, the pandemic claimed some 18 million lives, which accounted for six percent of the country's population at the time. An estimated 500 million people in the world were infected with the virus, and the death toll was estimated to be at least 50 million.
It was not until 1930s when researchers began working to develop a vaccine for Spanish flu. In 1944, vaccine was used on a mass scale for the first time among US soldiers. The following year, it was used among commoners.
Back then, the world was less globalised, less populated and less technologically advanced. We are in a markedly better position now as far as development in the field of medical science is concerned. Many scientists around the world are now trying to develop a coronavirus vaccine, but there is no concrete hope of a viable one yet. Anthony Fauci said a vaccine would be an ultimate game-changer but WHO's Mike Ryan mentioned the potential obstacles, pointing out that the vaccine would have to be highly effective and it would have to be made available to everyone.
So, here we are. Lockdowns have left economies in tatters while people are clamouring for resuming normal lives. The prospect of a second wave of infections, like the Spanish flu, looms large. There is no prospect of getting a 100% effective vaccine at least in the near future. In light of all these, we are well beyond the point of hopelessness and the virus is way ahead of us.
WHO's Mike further said no one could predict when or if the virus would disappear. If that becomes the ultimate reality, the pandemic retreating on its own after rampaging throughout the globe – in the same way the Spanish flu did – seems to be the only beacon of hope.
At least for now unless a panacea is discovered.