Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. The closest I have been is covering health sector for BBS TV as a producer-journalist in my previous reincarnation – many moons ago. As a health journo one learns to speak complex medical concepts in more human language – and synthesize medical reports and studies
Now, here are the latest on COVID-19
What is known about the novel coronavirus?
- COVID-19 has no vaccine still, which is the only long-term answer to the coronavirus crisis. At the time of this writing, around 30 companies and universities are racing to bring out something in the market – and this could take anywhere between 1 to 2 years. So at best, nothing will be available before the end of the year – that is December 2020. At the lead of the race is a Oxford University team and a company called Gilead Science that are expected to bring out only the trial results by May 2020. Certification and mass production are far away.
- As for the cure or recovery of those who catch the virus, it all depends on one’s immunity and medical history. Interestingly, the recovery rate is high and so getting it does not mean a ïdeath sentence.
- The most terrifying aspect of this coronavirus is its asymptomatic nature. In simple words, people who have the virus and do not show any symptoms are called asymptomatic cases. So one could be having the virus, but shows no sign and could pass on the virus to others. Hence, testing is the key.
What is the unknown?
There are many unanswered questions: Why is it spreading faster in some countries and slower in others? Then there are cases of people testing positive again after they have been declared as ‘recovered’. Is this a relapse or was the virus dormant? Are they capable of infecting others? Only time and more research will be able to answer these questions.
Why should we feel reassured and safe?
In any epidemic, one key factor is the government response. And in our case, besides the preparedness and a solid action-plan by our Health Ministry, our Prime Minister is a dedicated medical doctor and above all, we have our King who is overseeing every minute detail of the preparedness and response. Countries that have responded in a similar manner – such as Singapore and New Zealand have done very well in controlling the outbreak and keeping their citizens safe. Testing is another key aspect and Bhutan has, today, one of the highest rates of testing in the world taken in ratio to the population.
There are also some interesting findings of countries that have mandatory BCG vaccination reporting lower Covid-19 mortality. BCG is administered in Bhutan as a part of immunization programme and this vaccine seems to produce, what they call, “off-target effects” that increases the ability of the immune system to fight off certain viruses besides its main purpose of preventing tubercolosis. This finding is yet to be vetted but some explain, for example, the low Covid mortality in countries like Portugal. If it is minimally confirmed, we are in good position to fight off the virus.
Why should we worry?
Bhutan is a small country. We all know each other. And so, even one positive case is one too many. And even a single death is just too plenty. And complicate the matter, we are complacent and relaxed by nature. We say everything is ready when it is not. And we also have too many people with underlying medical conditions such as tuberculosis, hypertension, diabetes, ALD etc.
What is, and why, physical distancing?
According to WHO, the virus can be transferred from one person to another through droplets when one coughs or sneezes. WHO recommends 1 meter while the US-based CDC says 2 meters. Latest study from the same CDC now even claims that the virus travels as far as 4 meters and can be carried around under the soles of the shoes. Hence physical and social distancing have to be practiced. And furthermore, there might be the need for more rigorous hygienic practices like leaving your shoes at the door.
Physical distancing means deliberately maintaining a minimum distance between you and the other person/s so that if a person sneezes or coughs, you are not infected.
On the other hand, avoid going into crowded areas, gatherings, parties, meetings, conferences, markets, malls and large religious events where there are greater chances of getting infected because of more number of people. Furthermore, stay away from going over to meet friends or family members unless it is absolutely necessary. Staying and/or working from home, as far as possible, is the best.
Physical distancing even without local transmission/infection?
Yes, because of the asymptomatic nature of the virus, there could be, or you could be, a false negative wandering around. The government has indicated that a lockdown will be necessary only if there is community transmission. However, we could also be proactive and practice social distancing and prevent the community transmission and a potential lockdown from happening.
Mind you, a lockdown would be bring untold sufferings to many. Already the virus has taken a heavy economic toll with loss of livelihood for many in the service sector such as tourism and hospitality.
Can the young, or the poor, care less?
From the emerging patterns of this epidemic, young people are less vulnerable to COVID-19. However, this does not mean that they can care less and go partying because they could carry the virus and pass it on to a vulnerable person in the family or in the community – such as elderly persons or someone with poor health. Young people should, therefore, be as responsible as anyone. He or she could be the silent killer.
And in no way this is a rich man’s disease. Everyone is vulnerable. Everyone is susceptible and everyone should be careful. In fact, as in every crisis, the poorer section of the society will suffer the most if the situation escalates.