The Covid-19 pandemic is now widely considered more threatening than other recent viral epidemics. Since its first detection in late December 2019, the number of infections has rapidly risen and exceeded 2.4 million – with more than 160 thousand deaths as of 19 April.
One must remain mindful of the fact that these figures could change. They depend on a range of factors, such as individual countries' healthcare systems, their ability to test and report accurately, as well as the health status of infected persons. The surge in infections and deaths are also attributable to the initial neglect and inaction in developed countries, mistakenly believing that viruses would affect only poor countries in the Global South and ignoring decades of them having undermined their own health systems through funding cuts and privatisation.
Nevertheless, Covid-19's mortality rate may be lower than for the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS1). SARS1 was more deadly, going deeper into the lungs, but was deemed less infectious. Covid-19 may not be more infectious than H1N1, but its particular combination of transmissibility and mortality risks has generated unprecedented fear and apprehension.
Coronaviruses were first identified in the 1950s, and have been referred to since then in different contexts. There are many biological warfare conspiracy theories going around that Covid-19 was manufactured by some government, although the scientific evidence so far suggests that it naturally occurred, mutated, albeit in particular environmental circumstances.
Covid-19 is considered especially dangerous. The infection – via mucous in the mouth, nose and eyes – starts in the upper respiratory tract, or throat and upper airways. Those who contract the virus are, in turn, infectious from the very early stages of the virus, when they may still be without symptoms or have mild symptoms. Therefore, physical distancing is considered the first line of defence to halt the virus' spread.
With the aim of flattening the curve, many countries have introduced nation-wide lockdowns. Considered the best way to achieve physical distancing, some governments have resorted to draconian measures, without taking into account individual countries' specific socio-economic and demographic conditions.
Failing to act urgently, some governments have invoked battle-cries, terming the crisis a war. Some have appealed to history, reminding the people, "we have survived worse before" or "we defeated our enemy in the past," to justify strict measures.
Such approaches are causing enormous hardships for millions of people, especially those engaged in the informal economy, living in poverty or near poverty in urban slums – those whose livelihoods depend on the availability of daily work. The consequences on income or livelihood collapse caused by shutting away much of the population, is almost as dire as the consequences of contracting the virus itself.
In most cases, government relief measures are seriously inadequate to meet daily needs, including medical attention for common ailments. Developing countries lack the economic wherewithal and medical capacity to meaningfully offer their citizens anything but a choice between disease and starvation.
In slums and villages, typically, three to five people share a room, with one toilet, common utensils and towels. Physical isolation is almost impossible in such circumstances. Even basic hygiene, like washing hands, is not easy when clean running water is a rarity.
Strict lockdowns and physical distancing are particularly difficult in societies used to long-established practices of social or religious gatherings. It causes enormous distress and mental health problems, especially when a proper funeral cannot be organised for one's nearest and dearest.
Tending towards authoritarianism and threatening democratic accountability, draconian lockdown measures lack wider social acceptability. Hence, they create a vicious circle of lockdown-breaking and enforcement brutality. They also create opportunities for corruption among enforcement and relief operation authorities.
Alternative measures can improve physical distancing and other precautionary measures, at work, at home and in the community. People need to be prepared to live like this for a long time to come as this will be the "new normal," at least until we can afford to vaccinate everyone.
All-of-government approaches are urgently needed to provide meaningful and effective leadership to whole-of-society efforts to contain the spread of the virus. While there is no conventional war, only a whole-of-society mobilisation effort will be able to minimise the disruption and damage.
This should not only involve public health and police authorities who are typically the main parties engaged in lockdown efforts. The public health authorities must provide better popular understanding of the threat and why particular policy responses are needed. Public appreciation and understanding of the challenges involved are crucial for acceptance and implementation of policy.
Human resources, transport, education, media and other leaders need to urgently come together to minimise the adverse effects of disruption due to lockdowns, where needed or imposed, but more urgently, to prepare populations for the needed changes in our lives when these lockdowns end.
Clear exit strategy
There has to be a well-thought-out exit strategy, a clear path out of the current misery of physical distance and lockdowns. In implementing urgent measures to contain the spread of the virus, governments need to be forward-looking.
This should include not only measures to restart and recover the economy, but also programmes of long-term support – for those who are going to be permanently impaired due to serious health impacts, or in the case of many families, the death of the sole earning member. There has to be a plan for those who cannot find a job while the economy slowly recovers, and for those who have lost their valuable learning time at schools and universities.
This time is really different
This crisis is unlike any previous crises. We cannot expect to return to the status quo ante soon, certainly not until a vaccine is developed and affordably available, which may take quite some time.
Under these circumstances, nobody seriously believes that a V-shaped recovery is likely, not only because of the origins and nature of this crisis, but also because of its deep and extensive disruptive effects on all of society, e.g., including on international, national, regional and even local supply chains.
There need to be significant fiscal and monetary interventions by governments to keep businesses and industries going, retain employees and sustain consumer spending. Hence, this is certainly not the time for a government to be fiscally conservative, to balance budgets and so on, in order to please credit rating companies and anonymous, faceless financial markets.
The 'new normal' cannot be 'business as usual'
Governments and civil society leaders must help prepare the population for the "new normal" after the lockdown period because "business as usual" is no longer an option.
We need to think of new ways to reorganise life, economy and society to ensure that people can live full lives with their wellbeing assured. Physical distancing and other precautions, including sanitary measures, will be critically necessary until a vaccine is developed and available to all.
Wearing masks must be encouraged as national policy. Even homemade face coverings provide some protection – especially when many people who have the coronavirus show no symptoms, and infectious aerosol droplets are commonly emitted by the infected during normal social interactions.
There is a great deal of attention to digitisation and digital transformations of certain industries and services, which may well accelerate investments to enable employees to work remotely. People will also have to change their social lives to reduce physical contact, even proximity, and mass gatherings.
Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and the University of New South Wales (Australia) and founder co-editor of Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy; he held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok during 2008-2016.