Coronavirus | Opeds and editorials

The COVID cycle

Governments have the opportunity to shore up their credibility and regain the trust of citizens

The summer of 2020 is yet to come upon us, but we are all facing the heat. At the time of writing (March 22), the SARS-CoV-2 virus has claimed the lives of over 13,000 people from over 3,07,000 infected. There is good news in that over 92,000 people have completely recovered from COVID-19 and that there is far more seriousness about tackling the spread than there was a couple of weeks ago. We humans have the enemy in our sights, and we believe we will emerge victorious in this battle.

Let us not forget though that viruses stay around because of their ability to mutate and to adapt to conditions that are hostile. The virus that caused smallpox was first suspected to have latched on to humans sometime between the 3rd century BC and the 7th century CE. Vaccination against the disease emerged from an experiment in 1796 and by the early decades of the 19th century, it was accepted as the best way to prevent the disease. And yet, smallpox continued to ravage humanity around the world. Though the mortality rate came down from 40% (earliest, 18th century estimates) to 17% (20th century estimates of average), the disease was not eliminated. In fact, an epidemic of smallpox in India between 1926 and 1930 had a mortality rate of almost 43%, while the mortality rate from 1921 to 1930 in the U.S. was 0.7%.

The WHO’s first programme for global eradication of smallpox was initiated in 1959. It languished for a few years until 1967, when an “Intensified Eradication Programme” began. The intensity was characterised by two non-medical aspects: establishing a surveillance system to detect and to follow up on suspected cases and mass vaccination campaigns. Even with such changes (and greater commitment from governments around the world to eliminate smallpox), it was only in 1980 that the WHO declared the world free of smallpox.

The last person to die of smallpox was not from an impoverished ‘third-world’ country: Janet Parker died of smallpox on September 11, 1978 at Birmingham, U.K. That the solitary case did not become an epidemic at that time was mainly because over 500 people believed to have been in contact with her during the first two weeks of her condition were vaccinated and quarantined. Those were the days when institutions commanded a lot of respect; when governments were more trusted than today. In the case of smallpox, the respect and trust seem to have been well placed.

As the world woke up to the enormity of COVID-19, respect and trust were not among the top 10 words to describe governments, or institutions. But in the past few weeks, it has been heartening to see expertise reclaiming some of the respect it should rightfully have. It needed experts to decode the virus genome — and those experts had the luxury of standing on the shoulders of other experts who, over the years since 2003, have been working on decoding several variants of the SARS-CoV-1 virus. Without such long-lasting efforts, it would not have been possible for us to begin our assault on COVID-19.

Governments have the opportunity to shore up their credibility and regain the trust of their citizens. Even in the age of WhatsApp rumours and armchair specialists, those experts who have been completely truthful and transparent are the ones who have inspired the citizenry to heed their instructions. Few have attempted to bask in the limelight; they are doing what is expected of them as experts and not playing politics, or currying favour to get their way. Experto crede will be fashionable when the experts favour not the rulers but the science.

This epidemic of COVID-19 will wind down in months or in weeks. During that time, each of us should objectively assess how we treated the institutions that protected us from the worst aspects of the disease. And learn that there are areas we should fear to tread, even as we seek to know how we are being saved. For, make no mistake, SARS-CoV-2 will linger around. And unless we are able to demonstrate that institutions deserve respect and governments deserve trust, the virus will win when it strikes the next time.

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 12:30:09 AM |

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