By Usman T. Malik / Dawn / ANN
As Covid-19 spreads exponentially across the globe, so has panic and misinformation about the virus. But the worst is yet to come. By June this year, more than 20 million could be impacted by the virus in Pakistan alone. Pakistan is about to get overwhelmed, unless the federal government takes swift action and average citizens start playing their part.
On Friday, March 6, 2020, a family of four — parents and two teenage girls — walked into the clinic area of a large hospital in Lahore. The mother and daughter both had high fever, nausea and dry cough. The medical doctor on call slipped on a mask and, telling them to stay put, walked out of the room to ask the administrative staff about the hospital’s protocol regarding triaging of suspected Covid-19 patients.
The doctor was told there was none.
The doctor was also told there were no testing kits available even if there had been a protocol.
The family’s only option was to go to Services Hospital to get tested for Covid-19. The mother refused to do so because she was exhausted with fever and dehydration.
The medical doctor ended up handing the family facemasks and, except for the mother, sent them home with symptomatic treatment and instructions to rush to the emergency room if they got short of breath. The mother was admitted for observation and rehydration. No testing for Covid-19 would be done on this family.
The same week, eminent lawyer and writer Osama Siddique reported on social media that, upon his return from the Maldives, he found utter chaos at the Lahore airport. The ‘screening team’ consisted of two masked ladies and a guard yelling around, asking people if anyone had returned from Iran or China. In his own words: “I did not see anyone being pulled aside, as no one volunteered this information in my presence. And, if this info was being sought out, it was purely based on the honour code. The masked guy yelled. The two masked ladies simply collected the filled health forms — three at a time — and put them away without glancing at them. The next step was the immigration desks, and I didn’t see anyone pulled away for screening. I also didn’t see anyone with any screening or testing equipment.” Basically, there was no screening protocol in place, no trained triage team or personal protective equipment.
The above, in short, is emblematic of the preparedness of Punjab before March 10 in the face of the swiftest and deadliest pandemic to have emerged on the planet in the last 100 years.
According to some reports, Punjab started testing individuals returning from Iran only in mid-March. And even as the number of detected cases spiked to over 180 in Sindh, the number of confirmed cases in Punjab remained suspiciously low.
While the Sindh government more swiftly sprang into action, response at the federal level has continuously appeared to underplay the situation’s gravity. Addressing the nation on March 18, Prime Minister Imran Khan gave his signature advice to Pakistanis. “Ghabrana nahin hai [You do not have to fear],” he told his countrymen.
But the whole world is fearing the worst — and with good reason.
Since December 2019 the global health community has been watching the Covid-19 outbreak unfold with disbelief. In January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus as a global public health emergency. On March 11, WHO did something it has not done in more than a decade: it declared Covid-19 a global pandemic.
Around the world, the medical community remains filled with uncertainty and quite a bit of dread.
Some of the dread is because there is no vaccine yet, and a lack of information, coupled with an abundance of fast spreading misinformation, has contributed to this feeling of panic. As scientists around the globe work towards a solution, they are urging people to practice social distancing in an effort to contain the virus.
You might have heard the term “flattening the curve” online or in media discussions. What that means is that pandemics are often difficult to contain and may end up infecting huge chunks of a country’s total population. So while the AUC (Area Under the Curve) of the graph above might stay the same — the total number of infections might remain constant — measures like social distancing and aggressive testing could potentially ‘flatten the curve’, preventing the local healthcare system from getting overwhelmed by, say, thousand of cases in one week.
The issues with that nightmare scenario are two-fold:
Because of the limited number of beds, healthcare professionals and ventilators, hospitals cannot handle too many sick Covid-19 cases at once. This leads to an increased number of deaths of both Covid-19 patients and other patients who seek care because of trauma or other problems.
Because the system gets overwhelmed and breaks down, the risk of infections spreading in healthcare workers and other patients goes up as well, creating a vicious cycle.
R0, CASE DOUBLING, AND THE ANATOMY OF AN EPIDEMIC
R0 (pronounced R-naught) is an epidemiologic term that refers to the average number of people that one sick person goes on to infect. It is used to predict how far an epidemic might spread in a population with no natural immunity to the virus.
The currently believed R0 for the SAR-CoV-2 virus is about three.
At the time of this writing (March 21, afternoon), the total number of official Covid-19 cases in Pakistan is 510. Which means people who will be or might already have been infected by these cases is around 1,530.
Every single person of these 1,530 could be a disease cluster.
Keep in mind that this is likely a vastly under-diagnosed number because of very limited testing capability.
Now, as Dr Liz Specht, an engineer and Director of Science & Technology at The Good Food Institute recently observed, cases usually double “every 6 days (… a typical doubling time across several epidemiological studies).”
This means that without aggressive containment measures, even these original 510 cases will lead to:
March 27 — 1,020 cases
April 2 — 2,040 cases
April 8 — 4,080 cases
and so on.
By April 14th, Pakistan may have 8,160 confirmed cases
By May 2nd, 65,280 cases
By June 1st, more than two million confirmed cases of Covid-19
This is the most conservative, best-case scenario because we haven’t factored in the fact that at any given time, the actual cases in a population are around 8-10 times more than the lab-confirmed cases.
Which could mean up to 81,160 actual infected cases by mid-April and over 20 million (2 crore) by June.
Do we honestly believe we have enough hospital beds, facemasks, mechanical ventilators, and healthcare workers prepared for such a massive healthcare burden?
Similar actual case numbers (80,000 infected) for mid-April were calculated by analysts Osama Rizvi and Ahsan Zahid who used a mathematical model proposed by engineer and data analyst Tomas Pueyo.
Rizvi and Zahid also predicted a massive shortage of beds in all the provinces of Pakistan as the number of infected patients rises, which can be seen in the graph above: As number of days pass, the red curve (number of true cases) hits 80,000 by mid-April, juxtaposed to the total number (132,227) of available hospital beds in Pakistan, (many of which, independent of Covid-19 cases, are already in use at any given time).
And as we all know, by May/June, dengue will be back in Pakistan with a vengeance.
Dr Specht has predicted that, by July 2020, between two to six billion people around the world will be afflicted with Covid-19. We are looking at massive healthcare failures all around the world and especially in Pakistan before the end of summer, if mass testing and severe containment measures, including social distancing, are not undertaken now.
Some of the dread is because we do not understand the enemy.
How did the likely zoonotic virus cross over from animal to human?
On December 30, 2019, three lung washing samples were collected from a patient in Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital who had pneumonia of unknown cause. The samples tested positive for a new Coronavirus strain, whose genetic analysis was most closely related to the bat SARS-like Coronavirus strain. The virus was named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the illness it causes was named Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19).
How is it transmitted?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America believes respiratory droplets are the likeliest mode of transmission. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets splatter on surfaces or another person’s body. This means you would need to be in close contact (within six feet) of a person or touch those droplets to get infected. However, a recent study reports small droplets could remain airborne and infective for up to three hours. That means the droplets could be inhaled in; which means the virus can be transmitted as an airborne infection.
Why is the incubation period a problem?
Unlike SARS or H1N1 Influenza (common flu), with Covid-19 you could have zero symptoms for up to five days and still be shedding the virus and infecting others. This means you might believe you’re healthy since you have no fever, dry cough or shortness of breath. In the absence of aggressive social distancing you might decide to visit the gym or your local mall and scatter a hundred thousand viral particles or droplets in the area, never knowing you were the vector of disease.
Why does Pakistan have such a low number of cases?
One finds this curious. We’re right next to China and Iran, after all, two of the most heavily infected countries on the planet. But it is important to remember that it is the number of detected cases that is comparatively low (and now quickly rising). From experience, this writer knows that very few places in Lahore, for example, are currently testing for the virus — which suggests the reported official numbers may be lower than actual cases of Covid-19, an ominous conclusion.
One might argue that India and most of Africa have relatively few cases, too. Could this suggest there is something to the ‘latitude theory’, after all? That hot climate discourages viral spread? We do not know yet, especially when we take into account the significant number of cases reported in Australia, Singapore and Brazil — all currently warm weather areas.
At the time of this writing, it has been confirmed that the virus has spread to 26 African countries. Many of those countries’ totals are still in single figures.
What, if anything, could prevent the progression of a mild case (sniffles, cough, muscle aches, a low-grade fever or walking pneumonia) to a severe case (life-threatening illness with difficulty breathing and need for oxygen or mechanical respiratory support with a ventilator)?
While there are risk factors (underlying pre-existent medical conditions, age and certain biochemical markers in the body) the fact remains that we do not know which patients will develop the worst disease. At the moment, the only known is that Covid-19 Case Fatality Rate is at least five times worse than regular flu at any age group, except children, who seem to get mild symptoms mostly. Even in that age group (between 10-19 years of age), some data from China suggests increased risk of morbidity and mortality compared to the flu.
Some of the fear is because we have a collective memory as well as written chronicles of a similar enemy.
The so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918 was a devastating pandemic, which spread like wildfire around the world infecting around 500 million people (27 percent of the world’s population at the time) and killing about 17 million (as estimated in a study in 2018) — a mortality rate of around three percent.
At the time of this writing, the current mortality of Covid-19 according to Worldometers is around 4 percent with the total number of infected cases having exceeded 200,000. This is comparable to the 3.8 percent Crude Fatality Rate (CFR) in infected patients in China, as reported by the WHO.
The similarity of numbers between the plagues of 1918 and 2020 is chilling. By the time the Covid-19 pandemic peters out, should we expect comparable totals this time around too? This writer fears that would be optimistic. The world’s population has more than quadrupled since 1918 and, as a species, we are much better connected now than we were back then — which means easier transmission with higher numbers.
At the time of this writing, the total number of cases in Italy reported by Worldometer are 31,506 with 2,503 deaths, the mortality rate is around 7.9 percent — the worst in the world at the moment (Iran’s current reported mortality is around 6.1 percent). Washington State, the area worst-hit in the United States till last week, has reported a total of 1014 cases with 55 deaths; mortality around 5.2 percent. CDC is expecting at least 160 million infections in the US alone. That is roughly half of all Americans.
This writer fears, when all is said and done, if every single government around the world doesn’t do its part diligently, we might be looking at much larger morbidity and mortality numbers than the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.
We humans are trying to walk the line in a manifestly dystopian landscape.
From Mary Shelley to Edgar Allan Poe, from Begum Rokeya Hossain to Margaret Atwood, from Albert Camus to Stephen King, writers of fiction have carried out thought experiments in dystopian and alternate world writing. These extrapolate from historical and contemporary sources to describe the upheaval of the status quo and the end of the world, as we know it. Writers of science fiction have been especially good at it.
It is unfortunate, though, that writers’ warnings about the Climate Apocalypse, the Anthropocene, the scale of capitalistic disregard of the environment and subsequent human-inflicted damage on the planet have gone unheeded. Humanity continues to invade and gouge out spaces once inhabited by animals and plants. As Alanna Shaikh, a global health expert and TED Fellow, said in a talk on March 11, 2020, “This is not the last major outbreak we’re ever going to see. There’s going to be more outbreaks, and there’s going to be more epidemics. That’s not a maybe. That’s a given.” If we accept that — and this writer thinks we absolutely should — we need also accept that all those fictive dystopias once thought many years away have finally caught up with our present.
Reworking the words of the science fiction writer William Gibson: The end of the world is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.
Covid-19 may be here to stay.
It may roar across the globe and boomerang back to Asia; or it may go quiescent, as many seasonal strains of flu do, and return next winter as an endemic virus that learns to cohabitate with us.
Either way, Pakistan needs to be prepared for its return; to learn to coordinate its emergency response in the face of future threats of epidemics, to marshal its means and resources to provide the most cost-effective healthcare and environmental solutions. Our demographics are in our favour; why not start tapping into our youth’s limitless enthusiasm and obvious intelligence? Where are our especially designated science teams who could go out to rural areas and teach basic science concepts through narratives in regional languages? We have thousands of aspiring data scientists looking for experience, medical students in need of research projects and college graduates looking for decent jobs. Why not utilise them to create networks of telemedicine, where basic health questions could be answered using telephones or, at most, Skype or Facebook Messenger? Why not reward young entrepreneurs who create new apps, wherein users can log Covid-19 symptoms and be immediately directed to helplines with up-to-date triage information about the closest fever camps or clinics with testing-and-treatment capabilities?
Of course, before these measures can be introduced we need to work towards clinics with such capabilities. While in these uncertain times one is tempted to think about a brighter future, the need of the hour is swift action. As the federal government mulls over doing even the bare minimum like encouraging social distancing, the virus is spreading and the economy is tanking.
We must learn from the quick spread in countries like neighbouring Iran, and ready our defence before time runs out. Otherwise, the virus will torpedo our lives in more ways than are immediately obvious. As the world is fast learning, it's not a question of if, but when.