Sunday, 9 August, 2020

Prioritise Life Over Livelihoods

Hira Bahadur Thapa


It is beyond any doubt that the post-pandemic world will have changed a lot in view of its repercussions on our lifestyles and the world economy. Not necessarily all will undergo changes which will be negative from human perspectives. There would be profound transformation in ways we perform our activities and deal with nature, the scarce resources from which we have been excessively exploiting with no regard for future generations.
Some commentators aren’t wary of blaming our consumption pattern for the emergence and reemergence of pathogens, which have assumed different forms and originated from different regions of the world. More woefully, we have also failed to learn useful lessons from each of the epidemics some of which have in course of time turned into pandemic like the current SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). Its name itself signals that this coronavirus is novel and hence has been called CoV-2 as such virus had affected human societies decades earlier though the impact of which had been less severe than the present one.
Unpredictability of vaccines
The scientific community becomes active in undertaking research to develop vaccines for the diseases caused by viruses after the emergence of new pathogens. Since last January, the scientists have understandably been endeavouring to develop vaccines quickly though chances of success seem remote. But in case of 2009 pandemic of the influenza A virus Flu H1N1, also known as Swine Flu, the vaccine was developed in just seven months. With regard to COVID-19, scientists’ best hope is to develop vaccine by early 2021. But, it will be no less challenging for the government like ours to provide vaccines for the whole population timely to save lives and livelihoods.
Historians compare the 1918 pandemic (Spanish Flu) with novel coronavirus. This exhibits how our advances in globalisation and interconnectivity have transformed lifestyle that has precipitated the evil consequences of invisible microbial enemy. About 100 million lives were lost. The number was more than those killed in the disastrous and brutal World War I. Viewed against today’s world populace, which is four times higher now, then four million people should have been killed. The daily spikes in the toll due to COVID-19 in the US, Brazil, and India, among others, and also reemergence of confirmed cases in places like Hong Kong and Melbourne in the recent days signal to the possibility of alarming rates of human losses in the near future. The uncertainty of availability of effective vaccines further worsens the catastrophe.
Surprisingly, the technologically and scientifically advanced countries in the West, particularly the US, France, Italy, and Spain have failed miserably in containing COVID-19 infections. Some blame their leadership role and others attribute the failure to demographics of the societies.
Given the potential of vaccines to end or contain the most deadly pandemic in a century, world leaders as varied as French president Emmanuel Macron, Chinese president Xi Jinping, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have referred to vaccines as global public resource to be made available to all, with the use of a vaccine in country not interfering with its use in another.
Whether the world leaders would agree to an enforceable international commitment to distributing vaccines globally in an equitable and rational way remains uncertain till today. The observation in this regard by Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of Seram Institute of India that the world’s largest producer of vaccines that “at least initially” any vaccine the company produces will go to India’s 1.3 billion people, underscores the thorny issue of vaccine nationalism.
Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and noted strategic thinker, writes in his essay “East Asia’s New Edge”, published in Project Syndicate, death tolls don’t lie. He adds that the most striking disparity in COVID-19 fatalities to date is between East Asian countries, where the total number of deaths per million inhabitants is consistently below 10, much of the West, where the numbers are in hundreds.
In Nepal, the figures quoted by the Ministry of Health and Population regarding the confirmed cases and accompanying deaths are seemingly not horrifying and the percentage of deaths per million inhabitants is believed to be lower than many of her SAARC counterparts. But this scenario should not make us complacent as cases are slowly rising in densely populated cities like Kathmandu. The latest news that more confirmed cases are detected among the members of the security forces (Nepal Police, Armed Police Force and Nepali Army) reveals that many more would have been infected though it has not come to our notice because of lack of necessary PCR tests and pending contact tracing. The government of late is expanding the range of such tests including the samples of swab taken at three different entry points to the Kathmandu Valley. It should enhance the testing capabilities before the pandemic goes out of our control.

Flawed notion
The novel coronavirus has spread widely around the world, overwhelming health-care systems and killing hundreds of thousands of people. But the people have got fed up with stay-at-home orders and the consequences of a sudden freeze in economic activity have brought diminished focus on the human cost of the disease. Unfortunately, a misconception is widespread among some political leaders that saving fewer lives will be worth if economy gets revived quickly. We earnestly hope that Nepal government is not swayed by this flawed notion. Pandemic economics doesn’t work that way and neither can pandemic response. Only action that places people’s health at its centre will enable an economic recovery. Thus, the government needs to give serious consideration to this viewpoint.

(Thapa is a former foreign relations advisor to the Prime Minister) 

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