Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - October 8, 2020 - 12:00am

A few weeks ago, Western Europe looked like it had successfully solved the COVID-19 epidemic or at least was on its way to flattening the curve. Many observers were breathing a sigh of relief because winter is just around the corner and the conclusion was that the winter cold would bring about a surge in the coronavirus epidemic. Cold weather is supposedly very susceptible to the spread and growth of the virus.

It is still only autumn; but European governments have now been confronted with the start of a second surge of the pandemic. In major cities in Europe, places which thought they had more or less eliminated COVID-19 discovered that the number of cases was again increasing. The talk of a second  wave has caused governments to implement selective restrictions like the closing of bars and limiting restaurant capacity. So far, no government has talked about a second series of lockdowns. In fact, the public consensus is that a lockdown would be disastrous for the economy. In New York City, for example, the proposed lockdowns are limited to specific neighborhoods; but even this proposal was opposed by New York Governor Cuomo.

In the United States, COVID-19 deaths have increased to more than 200,000, which is twice the number of American casualties in the Vietnam War. The world has now officially recorded more than one million deaths from COVID-19 before the beginning of October. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) this is already more than the number who have died from malaria (620,000); suicide ( 794,000) or HIV/AIDS ( 954,000) for the whole year of 2017.

The most tragic situation is the United States whose President Trump, for political reasons, refuses to accept the gravity of the pandemic. Even after being confined in the hospital for testing positive, he made a dramatic show of taking off his mask while standing in the balcony of the White House.

Here in Asia there does not seem to be any major panic except for India, Indonesia and the Philippines. India has seen more than half a million new cases in the past several weeks. It will soon overtake America as the country with the largest number of COVID-19 cases. China is a different case. It has refused to open its pandemic experiences to the outside world. The only sources of information are government figures and statistics that are published by Chinese media which is either government owned or government controlled.

The new area of knowledge called data science has recently arrived at a more scientific method for computing global infection rate. The only problem is that it is not possible to have accurate data because there is very little available data from China. The methodology is called serosurvey.

According to the Economist: “...by constructing an empirical relationship between death rates, case rates, average income – a reasonable proxy for intensity of testing – and seropositivity, it is possible to impute rates for countries where data is not available and thus estimate a global total.”

Based on 279 serosurveys in 19 countries, the conclusion is that there were already infections running at one million a day in January; five million a day in May and somewhere between 500 million and 730 million have been infected. There is a pending WHO report based on serosurveys and the upper limits of the global infection rate is estimated at 10 percent of the global population. Based on this methodology, the suggestion is that the number of deaths worldwide is much higher than reported. In fact, the US death toll could be closer to 300,000, which is higher than the reported 200,000.

Different countries have tried different ways to control the spread of COVID-19. The first method was through lockdowns which stopped people from physically interacting with each other. While this was effective, it could not last long because of its devastating effect on the economy. People also had to go back to work to earn for their families.

The second method is to reduce the likelihood that interactions will lead to infections. This requires mandated levels of social distancing; hygiene measures such as frequent washing of hands and wearing face masks. The third method is by reducing the time it takes an infected person to interact with the public. This means finding the people who have been infected and getting them to isolate themselves. This test-and-trace system is actually the most effective. Some countries like Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan have successfully implemented this program, which is the reason why they are doing better than most countries in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in their countries.

This method requires a lot of contact tracing. Taiwan systems log 15 to 20 persons for each person with a positive test. One problem that has to be addressed is the “superspreader.” These are close gatherings in confined spaces  where people are infected dozens at a time. Even the outdoors is not safe. The event where Trump and several of his associates and aides were infected was an outdoor event.

We cannot wait for the vaccination to become a reality as our only solution. We need to learn the lessons from countries that have successfully tackled this problem, especially Asian countries like Taiwan.

*      *      *

An invitation for online classes for writers of all ages: Adult series on writing family histories, Oct. 17, 2-3:30 p.m.

Young Writers’ Hangout, Oct. 10 & 24, 2-3 p.m. Contact writethingsph@gmail.com.  0945.2273216

Email:  elfrencruz@gmail.com

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