Coronavirus: A wildly exaggerated threat

The Pandemic Panic  
Last Updated 16 April 2020, 17:54 IST

India has adopted one of the world's most draconian responses to fight the spread of COVID-19. The University of Oxford’s ‘Coronavirus Government Response Tracker’ gave India the worst possible ‘Stringency Index’ of 100.

The lockdown in India is having far reaching consequences, particularly bringing economic ruin to the poor and the downtrodden. Acuite Ratings estimated that the 21-day lockdown uptil April 14 would cost the Indian economy $4.64 billion per day, in other words, a loss of over Rs 35,000 crore every day, or $98 billion in three weeks. The recent extension of the lockdown to May 3 will only make these numbers worse. The weekly unemployment rate reported by CMIE was 6.74% on March 15, and it dramatically spiked to 24% on April 12.

So, is the coronavirus pandemic as deadly as we were all led to believe? Is the harsh clampdown imposed by the government justified?

A good case study to gauge the severity of this pandemic is the Diamond Princess cruise ship. On January 20, an 80-year-old passenger embarked this cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan. He later tested positive for COVID-19. The ship was quarantined by Japan on Feb 4 in the port of Yokohama.

The ship had 3,711 people on board -- 1,045 crew and 2,666 passengers. While the average age of the crew was 36, the average age of the passengers was 69. The ship was like a mini-city whose borders were sealed. Everyone on the ship were living in close quarters. A vast majority of passengers on the ship were elderly. Also, the contagion on the ship was totally mismanaged.

So, what was the final outcome of this nightmare scenario? Out of the 3,711 souls on board, a total of 696 were infected. Of those infected, 12 passengers died. There was not a single fatality among the 1,045 crew. Why has the entire crew survived? They were all young, with an average age of 36. The epic failure called Diamond Princess, with practically all elderly passengers, resulted in a mere 0.3% deaths.

COVID-19, no doubt, is highly contagious, but it is not as deadly as people were originally led to believe.

The total number of COVID-19 deaths in India as of April 16 were about 414. As per the WHO Global Tuberculosis Report 2019, TB alone takes the lives of 440,000 Indians annually. TB, like COVID-19, spreads when people who are sick with it expel bacteria into the air. Has India ever locked the country down to stop the spread of TB?

The New York Times on March 16, 2020, citing a British scientific report, wrote: "Without action by the government and individuals to slow the spread of coronavirus and suppress new cases, 2.2 million people in the United States could die." This kind of media sensationalism generated unprecedented panic among people and the politicians.

Now, let us take a look at COVID-19 fatalities across the globe.

Since China's COVID-19 data is not deemed trustworthy, let us look at Italy. Italy has reported 21,645 COVID-19 deaths so far. In a comprehensive study done by Italy's national health authority, it was found that 99% of the coronavirus patients who died had pre-existing medical conditions. Has anybody noticed that 24,981 people died of flu in Italy during the 2016-17 season as per the International Journal of Infectious Diseases? Given these numbers, was Italy's stringent response to the pandemic justified?

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported 24,582 COVID-19 deaths as of April 14. Out of the 6,589 who lost their lives to coronavirus in New York City as of April 14, only 133 were identified as having no pre-existing conditions. This, in a city of over eight million people. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an organisation on which the White House relies for projections, is estimating 68,841 COVID-19 deaths in the US by August 4, 2020. Now, compare that with a total of 2.8 million deaths in the US in 2017 reported by the CDC; especially relevant is the Influenza virus, which killed 55,672. Now, given these numbers, is the US government's response to COVID-19 justified?

The UK is another country that is hit hard by coronavirus, taking the lives of 12,868 so far. Despite all the hue and cry about coronavirus, the UK government, while quietly downgrading the pandemic status of COVID-19, wrote: “As of 19th March 2020, COVID-19 is no longer considered to be a high consequence infectious disease (HCID)...public health bodies…have determined that…more information is available about mortality rates (low overall)”. Looks like even the UK Prime Minister is going to make a full recovery.

As per worldometers.info, which is compiling comprehensive coronavirus data, 99.8% of the infected people under 40 years of age will recover fully. Similarly, 99.6% under 50 will recover fully. Even among those over 80 years old, 85% are recovering from the infection. These numbers will be much lower once the pace of testing picks up.

A total economic lockdown, like the one the Modi government has imposed, will destroy the livelihoods of millions of poor and under-privileged. It will cripple the economy. Instead, there is a more prudent approach to tackle this pandemic.

All those who are over 70 must quarantine themselves. Similarly, those with pre-existing conditions should also quarantine themselves. Certainly, all infected by COVID-19 should be quarantined. Then, to the best abilities of the state governments, those who came in close contact with a known COVID-19 patient must be identified and asked to quarantine.

Once this is done, the rest of the population may resume their normal daily activities. The general population should be educated to take precautions like wearing masks and gloves, regular handwashing and practicing social distancing to the extent practical.

Sweden, Belarus, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong are able to tackle COVID-19 without destroying their economies. India must end this economic self-destruction and learn from these countries.

(The writer is Founder-Director, Centre for Individual Liberty, Hyderabad)

(Published 16 April 2020, 15:29 IST)

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