Researchers and economists across the globe are publicizing the lessons the world has learnt from the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 to fight the current one caused by the coronavirus, and to help the economic recovery from its fallout.
The lessons are simple and clear. Enforcement of proper social distancing rule among people for the required period benefits the economy in recover from the pandemic shock. The main aim of the social distancing is to contain the spread of coronavirus and to keep people safe and heathy during the health crisis.
Healthy manpower will be required during the economic recovery period as it is people, and not machines, who are the main driving force of the economy.
It was noticed after the Spanish flu that a worst affected country that failed to keep its people safe and healthy was slow in recovering from the economic shock. That country lacked healthy workers and had to bear the burden of having jobless people and providing medical assistance to those who were in bad health after the pandemic.
Learning from the Spanish flu many advanced countries have shut downed their economies to fight coronavirus and aggressively allocated trillions of dollars to help the economies recover from the unprecedented shock caused by coronavirus.
Yet, economists have urged countries to bring out 'big artillery' to fight the economic fallout of the pandemic that has sparked an unprecedented global economic recession.
Unlike them, our government has yet to come up with any radical policy measure. It may take some extraordinary measures later. However, are we the people on the right track to fight the pandemic and help the economy recover from pandemic fallout?
Let's have a quick look at some incidents.
As a physician started asking some questions to assess his health condition, a patient hurriedly left his chamber, leaving him baffled. The patient got scared of facing the questions as they were linked to symptom of coronavirus. This incident took place in Kishorganj last week as reported by Prothom Alo.
We reported last week the other side too. A medical doctor was asked to leave her flat or her job. Flat owners of a building at Bakshibazar in old Dhaka knocked on the doctor's door to tell her about their worries as the doctor may carry coronavirus from the hospital she works in.
Take one more case. Soon after the decision was made by the government that bodies of the patients who died from coronavirus will be buried at Khilgaon-Taltola graveyard, the locals protested and put up a notice at the entrance gate asking the government to not bury the bodies there and to instead find some 'safer' place outside of Dhaka.
Thanks to media we have noticed many incidents how physicians, nurses and the masses are scared. Physicians have rejected medical care-seekers in the hospitals. People started avoiding hospital visits too, mainly fearing being diagnosed with the virus.
It is as if our healthcare system itself is ailing. In some areas, locals are socially boycotting families who have suspected coronavirus patients among them. This may lead to a social chaos if more people test positive for coronavirus. We need unity to fight back and help our economy return to normalcy.
The effective way to stop the spread of coronavirus pandemic is social [physical] distancing. The WHO has repeatedly advised us to maintain physical distance from one another. But we are still doing opposite. The media keeps reporting on crowds in many places, forcing the law enforcers to get tough on social distancing rules violators.
The other thing we are doing is also dangerous. We are creating mental distancing among ourselves by denouncing coronavirus positives or suspects. They are not criminals. Being infected with the virus is not a crime. They are ill. They need medical care and mental support to recover from the illness. Being boycotted socially, they may lose the courage to fight back the disease. This trend, if it continues, may disturb our social life and family life as well, leaving a long lasting scar on our relationship with others. This may weaken our efforts to recover from the shock of the pandemic that forced us to shut down our economic activity.
The prevailing situation is disheartening for economists who are advocating aggressive policy intervention to help the economy rebound from the shock of the pandemic. History indicates that recovery from such pandemics may take years. Healthy people may help expedite the recovery process as a latest study on economic impact of Spanish flu shows. Taking care of public health first is precisely what generates a stronger economic rebound later.
"The coronavirus outbreak that pushed the life and economy into a complete standstill also exposed the fragile state of the country's health system, which needs to be fixed to restore people's confidence in it," says economist Dr Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of Policy Research Institute.
"Doctors seem to be running away from patients in this critical time when their services are needed the most," he rues.
But keeping our people healthy is crucial to win the battle and also to recover from the economic shock. Those who will fall sick from the virus cannot join the recovery fight. They may lose jobs. Their purchasing power will fall. They may not even be able to avail necessary medical assistance. With its limited resources, the government may face additional pressure to fight the consequences of the pandemic.
In the study on Spanish flu that killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people, US economists note that the economic struggles that followed the pandemic reduced the ability of firms to manufacture goods, but the reduction in employment meant that people had less purchasing power as well.
But our present behaviour in the name of social [physical] distancing says we are not ready to learn the Spanish flu lessons.
Let's not forget that economic recovery from the pandemic shock will be a tougher fight. No one will remain unscathed.
Shakhawat Liton is Deputy Executive Editor of The Business Standard