Home / Opinion / Columns /  India should use COVID-19 to prepare for the next viral outbreak

When the history of the world under siege from the SARS-CoV-2 virus is written, the Diamond Princess will be a useful starting point. In epidemiological terms the unfortunate journey of the cruise ship provides the perfect laboratory to study the effects of a new variable being introduced in a controlled environment. With 3700 people of various ages from over a dozen nationalities, some with pre-existing medical conditions, confined to small space for around two weeks, it was a perfect microcosm of how a global disease like COVID-19 might play out in densely populated cities and towns.

What we know so far is only the numbers. Seven hundred people were infected and eight ultimately died, an infection rate of 18% and a fatality rate of 0.22%. While it would be hazardous to extrapolate those numbers on a global scale, it does give an idea of why we have a situation of near panic with the World Health Organization finally declaring it a global pandemic.

On board the cruise ship, the spread was because of the one 80-year old who had no symptoms when he was on board and who had already disembarked a week before he tested positive for the virus. What followed was sheer folly as there were long delays in getting passengers tested as well as in getting the results of the tests. The mass quarantining of the passengers has also been criticized, since, as one doctor put it, it turned the ship into a veritable incubator for the virus. By the time the passengers were finally allowed to disembark on February 19, the toll on even those who had not been infected was enormous.

Mercifully, by then many countries had got their screening, testing and quarantining processes in place and the trajectory of infections to deaths as witnessed on board the Diamond Princess will hopefully not be replicated. Of course, if this ends up being a multi-year epidemic, there will be a few more caveats since then several unknown factors will come into play. For instance, we don’t know if over time the virus will mutate.

Just over 100 days since SARS-CoV-2 was first revealed, there are other patterns that have emerged. Clearly so far it is the colder countries which have borne the brunt of the virus. In the tropical countries that have been affected and these include Singapore, Vietnam, India, Malaysia and Thailand, the recovery rate has been much higher and the spread of the virus appears to have been contained fairly early. A briefing paper by McKinsey & Co titled COVID-19: Implications for business confirms this: “In the current outbreak, regions with higher temperatures (such as Singapore, India, and Africa) have not yet seen a broad, rapid propagation of the disease."

There were also some clues to show that the economic stasis that gripped China over the last few months could be drawing to a close. The Baltic Dry Index which measures the cost of shipping goods around the world, is one such. The only way forward for China will be to trade its way out of its self-created mess. Through January the movement of ships to and from China was very low. The Baltic Index dropped from a level of 2500 in September 2019 to 412 by February 12, lower than what it was even during the height of the financial crisis. But just recently it has started moving up as shipping demand from China gains some momentum following a resumption of operations at many factories in the country. Traders are already anticipating a surge in freight now that Xi Jinping with his visit to Wuhan has signalled that China believes the worst may be over.

According to McKinsey(https://mck.co/2TInfBD)

“We believe that the prevalent pessimistic narrative (which both markets and policy makers seem to favor as they respond to the virus) underweighs the possibility of a more optimistic outcome to COVID-19 evolution."

At the moment though, there are very few positive signs. With both demand and supply hit badly, global growth will definitely be down for the year with estimates ranging from a percentage point off to an actual decline which will send the world into recession.

To compound the woes, the world’s most pivotal commodity is going through something of a meltdown. With the breakdown of the cartel comprising Russia and Saudi Arabia, oil prices have gone into a violent free fall. The concatenation of these two events has driven markets and currencies across the world to multi-year lows.

For India, which has so far escaped the worst of the virus, there are major lessons to be learnt from the crisis. Given the viral load that Indians are subjected to, there’s no telling when the next India-specific virus will strike. Are we even prepared to handle that?

The current outbreak is an opportunity to institutionalise some basic behaviors. Increased hygiene standards at personal, corporate and community levels is one of the few positives to come out of the last two months of anxiety. It is heartening to see trains and buses being sanitised more often and more thoroughly. Public transport carries the maximum number of commuters and can be the deadliest carrier for other viruses as well.

Unnecessary mass meetings should be another casualty particularly since technology now encourages remote interactions. So next time a politician wants the ego massage of addressing 65000 people massed together in a small stadium, how about just giving them a smartphone each so that they can display their enthusiasm from the safe confines of their homes!

(Sundeep Khanna is former executive editor of Mint)

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