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A virus that’s proving hard to tame

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on April 28, 2021

With fresh Covid cases surfacing, most countries are not letting their guard down. India, for one, has a long battle ahead

It seems impossible to imagine now, but there will come a time when we will emerge from this Covid-19 hell. But the visible future will still have Covid-19 stamped all over it. The coronavirus is fiendishly difficult to eradicate and we are going to have to learn to live with it responsibly. That won’t be easy.

Look at Thailand which has a superb medical infrastructure, built when the country was fighting the HIV scourge. Thailand was one of the first countries outside China that had to tackle Covid and it did an excellent job. In the last year, they’ve kept fatalities down to 140.

But now, the Thais are discovering Covid won’t roll over and go away so easily. And, like India, it’s also realising the Covid graph can spiral out of control in a dizzyingly short space of time. On April 1, Thailand had 26 cases. By April 25, that figure was 2,438. Bangkok is now under semi-lockdown till May 9. Plans for a test-run opening of tourist hot-spot Phuket will almost certainly be shelved.

Then there’s Vietnam, which has a splendid record in fighting Covid. Vietnam has a land border with China, the country where it all began. The Vietnamese got a headstart as they’ve always distrusted the Chinese. They began preparing for a virus onslaught as soon as they heard unusual reports from Wuhan. Border controls began in early January when the world was still blissfully unaware of the scourge about to be visited upon it.

But the giant artillery weapon in Vietnam’s Covid armoury has been its low-tech F1-to-F5 contact-tracing system. To explain it simply, the Vietnamese track down every contact of an infected person and trace the contacts of the contacts too. Direct contacts of the affected person, or F1s, are all tested regardless of whether they display symptoms. Is this a privacy invasion, the mark of an authoritarian state? Almost certainly yes. But Vietnam’s Covid numbers are enviable. The country of 97 million people has only recorded 35 Covid deaths.

Vietnam’s ruthlessly efficient contact-tracing was backed by tight travel restrictions which effectively turned the country into an island. The curbs are still largely in force and only business travellers from less-affected countries can enter. Travel restrictions are also in force even between cities and authorities aren’t lowering their guard despite the fact cases have been low for many months. Even with these curbs, the Vietnamese have managed to keep GDP growth at 2 per cent.

The first and most obvious lesson from all this is no country has been able to sit back and declare it’s tamed the virus to a point where it won’t return. Of course, it’s easier to be an island nation like Taiwan with a population of 23 million which has had all of 1,104 cases and 12 deaths. (It helped that Taiwan’s Vice-President Chen Chien-Jen is an epidemiologist and is leading the anti-Covid fight).

New Zealand, nicknamed “the lifeboat at the end of the world,” has also been favoured by its geography. Its cases peaked at 89 in April 2020 and it has recorded only 26 deaths. But new infections haven’t vanished and this month it has had some 50 cases. New Zealand had several passengers flying in from India who tested positive on arrival.

The harsh fact is it looks like it will be necessary to erect travel barriers until the world is vaccinated. Could India have enforced internal travel restrictions the way the Vietnamese did? It seems unlikely. We couldn’t have stopped the flocks of migrant workers returning home to their villages, even though we did make half-hearted efforts at many state borders.

Enforecement issues

The Indian state, quite simply, doesn’t have the ability to enforce its writ against its own citizens on such a scale. In Vietnam, even today, travellers from one city to another have to produce paperwork and show vaccination certificates.

At a different level, Kerala had controlled the pandemic till travel restrictions were lifted last year. Almost immediately, travellers began pouring in from the Gulf and from other parts of India. It’s estimated a million people travelled to Kerala in the months after travel restrictions were lifted. It would have been an impossible exercise to try to test them all and from last May onwards, infections began climbing inexorably and never stopped. They’ve now been hitting new peaks of over 20,000 for several days.

Even the Japanese who’ve insisted on keeping life normal as much as possible are discovering cases can zoom if given a chance. On March 27, cases rose to 2,080 and reached 4,623 by April 25. A state-of-emergency has just been declared in four major cities including Tokyo (that covers 25 per cent of Japan’s population). The Tokyo Olympics are slated to kick off in July and the Japanese are loathe to postpone them after cancelling them last year.

What about the Chinese? On April 24, they reported 13 new cases, up from nine the previous day and insisted that all the fresh infections came from abroad. It’s clear the Chinese have successfully tackled Covid through swift lockdowns and other control measures. (As a measure of its success, it reported 18.3 per cent quarterly growth). Still, everyone takes China’s figures with a pinch of salt. The Chinese are vaccinating about four million daily, still not enough to safeguard its huge population.

In the long run, as we’ve said, vaccination is the way forward. Israel lately has been a huge Covid-control success story and that’s because of its immunisation programme, the world’s fastest. Over half the population has been fully immunised and since February the government has allowed those vaccinated to go to gyms, concerts and other indoor venues and so far, so good. But a number of restrictions remain as Israel’s had three disastrous premature lockdown exits.

South Korea, meanwhile, has been able to procure enough vaccine for its 52-million population. It’s stepping up the vaccination drive and hopes to have enough people vaccinated by November to attain herd immunity. The UK, too, has vaccinated over 50 per cent of its population and has now opened up in a big way with open-air pubs and restaurants allowed with limited seating.

India, which now has over one-third of the world’s Covid cases, is coping with a problem of an entirely different, catastrophic dimension. But it’s important to remember even now that we’re not training for the 100 meters dash but for a marathon. The experience of countries that have kept down Covid-19 numbers shows it will be a long time before we’re free of this scourge.

Published on April 27, 2021

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