Out of my mind: Beware false coronavirus optimism

Written by Meghnad Desai
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Published: April 12, 2020 4:30:21 am


The manner in which the virus spreads initially, its later acceleration, the juxtaposition between people tested and the number of positive and the number of dead, have a shape which is well-known in statistics and hence a tool that is reliable. (Representational/Getty Image)

The COVID-19 pandemic is everywhere the only topic of conversation. Many countries are in lockdown. The virus is hard to beat, affects anyone and everyone, rich or poor. Scientists are trying hard running against the clock to understand what determines the speed of the spread, the groups who are more or less vulnerable, the choice of strategy — to mitigate or to suppress the choice of means — isolation or herd immunity testing or medicines.

So far the number of deaths in India has remained small. There seems to be a wave of self-congratulations. Friends call me up and say proudly that there is something unique about India and Indians — their food habits, their insistence on bathing and washing every day, several times if necessary, the warm weather etc.

Patriotism is always welcome, but not unrealism. The manner in which the virus spreads initially, its later acceleration, the juxtaposition between people tested and the number of positive and the number of dead, have a shape which is well-known in statistics and hence a tool that is reliable. All countries fall into a general, almost universal, pattern. The start is slow after the first few positive cases. But then the spread steps up gradually. India is at the initial stage where the curve is low and flat. When Britain was at that stage, the government and its scientific advisers thought they had the freedom to choose when the big upsurge will come. Indeed all Western European countries were aware that the rise would come, but optimistic about the period before its acceleration. The US was perhaps the most relaxed, or at least Donald Trump was.

The European countries had a reason to be optimistic. Their hospital capacity could handle the cases if the rise could wait till spring. They thought they could flatten the curve. So the wish became father to the thought. Italy realised 10 days too late the speed of acceleration and paid a price for it, in so far a five figure total of the lives lost. Spain has mimicked the same pattern.

There is little doubt that the UK will follow the same shape a week or two later. The US’s numbers may reach six digits.

The disease is not very discriminating between people. You hear that the elderly are more susceptible than the young. Even so, young people are among the dying in countries which are further on in the cycle. The key is the chance of coming into contact with someone who has got it. Since the origin in Wuhan, it has been carried everywhere else across the globe by travellers. From Wuhan to Singapore and to the ski slopes in the Alps and then to the UK is how the first case arrived in the UK, and most probably via the ski slopes to Italy. By then dozens had it.

Thus it is the internationally mobile and the people they are likely to meet and the next lot whom the people who met the traveller will meet, string together the daisy chain. Indian experience confirms it. But beyond the first infection, the spread may be much more rapid in India because of lack of facilities and of hygienic habits of crowded market places, where one traveller may infect half of Khan Market.

Beware optimism. Be alert. Stay alive.

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Meghnad Desai

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/coronavirus-cases-fake-rumours-india-lockdown-covid-19-pandemic-6358286/

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