Op-eds in the time of corona

Published March 17, 2020
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN times of a pandemic, how does one write an opinion piece on politics? Is it just irrelevant or frivolous — both harsh judgements for journalists who assume they are always relevant and always serious. Or should everyone turn comfortably to pontificating on infectious diseases and matters of public health, throwing caution and lack of know­ledge to the wind. Neither seems advisable.

As a desperate effort to meet a deadline without sounding ill-informed or out of sync, here are a few recommendations for those who have the time to read something a little longer than tweets on the coronavirus. Perhaps, someone out there is ‘socially distancing’ or staying at home for some other reason and has some time to read. Or perhaps, someone is just a wee bit interested in learning about what is happening to us and others around the world.

The first is a slightly lengthy piece (‘Evacuation from China, Quarantine in the UK: A Covid-19 Dispatch’) by Lavender Au who was evacuated from Wuhan to Great Britain. Available on the New York Review of Books website, it provides a detailed account of the ‘lockdown’ of the city and what it entailed. And what an eye-opener it is as governments around the world either consider ‘lockdown’ or are advised to implement it to stop the spread of the virus.

In Wuhan, this meant “exiting the [residential] compound was a case of writing down your name, ID number, and apartment number, and listening to the guard advise you not to go out, even if you were out of vegetables…”

Some recommendations for those who have time to read something longer than a tweet on COVID-19.

As a British citizen, the writer does get to leave, flying back to Great Britain, but only after being allowed to reach the airport, filling out four forms at two different stages and getting her temperature checked twice with a scanner as well as a thermometer. When she is finally let on the plane, the ­passengers are “separated by nationality into three aisles on the plane. Toilets were labelled UK, Germany, and Italy to prevent any cross-contamination by national group”.

The second half of the piece is a detailed account of the quarantine in Kent as the British government ensures that the arrivals are not ill. Two weeks of wearing masks and gloves and microwaved food and Primark clothes; two weeks in which only the smokers ever revealed their full faces.

Hers is a personal, human account, but it also provides an indirect glimpse at what it entails to lock down a city full of people. It is no easy task and makes one think of the capacity it requires; ­something we need to consider as calls come for lockdowns and curfews.

For a more scientific/medical insight, the London Review of Books offers ‘Wash your hands’ by Robert Beale, who says that “if governments move rapidly to contain and delay the spread, and effectively provide optimal medical care, we can expect a case fatality rate just under one per cent — though there is still a lot of uncertainty about this”. (This piece was recommended by Shahrukh Wani.)

A short article by LRB standards, it discusses the virus, its DNA, how funding for research varies with outbreaks, and provides a short overview of how different countries have handled the outbreak — from China to Korea to what to expect in the United States and Great Britain. Beale warns that the expensive and time-consuming testing which enabled South Korea to stem the spread is not really possible in low- and middle-income countries, which will leave the latter with measures like social distancing that in turn will lead to hardship.

He also explains the vulnerabilities of the coronavirus — washing, as well as its low mutation rate, which will allow the development of an ­effective vaccine. Towards the end he quotes an infectious disease expert:

“1. This is not business as usual. This will be different from what anyone living has ever experienced. The closest comparator is 1918 influenza.

“2. Early social distancing is the best weapon we have to combat Covid-19.

“3. Humanity will get through this fine, but be prepared for major changes in how we function and behave as a society until either we’re through the pandemic or we have mass immunisation available.”

A slightly similar piece is ‘They’ve contained the coronavirus. Here’s how’ by Benajamin J. Cowling and Wey Wen Lim in the New York Times. This one offers a detailed discussion of how Asian countries — mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore — stemmed the spread and how the latter three did not take as draconian measures as the first.

But as one reads this detailed piece, it is clear that medical facilities as well as state capacity are essential to such efforts. In addition, the writers point out all four places “had to contend with the SARS outbreak of 2002-03 and they internalised the lessons of that experience. Institutionally… they developed testing capacities for new viruses as well as hospitals’ abilities to handle patients with novel respiratory pathogens”.

The fourth piece has been widely shared on social media already. ‘Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to “flatten the curve”’ by Harry Stevens appeared in the Washington Post.

Using data and graphics, it explains how social distancing can make a huge difference and stop the spread of the disease. The point here is that once a disease reaches a country, experts aim to slow its spread so that the health services are not overwhelmed (as in Italy or Iran); and this can be done by social distancing, argues the article.

However, what is interesting is that the article argues that social distancing can work more effectively than attempted quarantine such as the one imposed by the government in China. Let us see how this plays out in the real world since, at the moment, it appears that more and more governments are opting for mandatory restrictions. But these are still early days and no one really knows what to do and how to do it.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2020

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