With the World Health Organisation already declaring it a ‘pandemic’, coronavirus or COVID-19 has widely been called the world’s biggest health emergency
People locked in their homes, schools and other educational institutions shut, public gatherings banned, religious congregations called off, sporting events cancelled, international borders sealed and airline services stopped over fears of the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) -- the modern world has never been in such a lockdown mode. With the number of infected cases pegged at 2,19,357 worldwide, death toll touching 8,970 (both figures as on March 19 and still counting) and World Health Organisation declaring it a “pandemic” already, no wonder coronavirus aka COVID-19 is being called the world’s biggest health emergency.
This has had a ripple effect on all aspects of life worldwide – health, education, economy, etc, particularly tourism. Countries after countries have pressed the panic button, issued travel advisories, cancelled visas and announced lockdowns. And with panic gripping virtually all corners of the world, trade and commerce has seen unprecedented disruption.
It has been estimated that the global economic loss could be in the upwards of a whopping $2.7 trillion. Smaller economies, especially those dependent on tourism and are bulk producers/suppliers, are expected to take the hardest hit. Further, as resources get diverted to mass produce personal protective equipment like masks, hand sanitisers, gloves, etc, and other emergency products to meet the current global demand, all this is likely to take a toll on other equally important and pressing healthcare programmes.
Poor countries with limited capacity to spend in healthcare and dependent primarily on donor countries and international aid agencies to meet their healthcare requirements will be too hard-pressed as the donors divert their focus, energy and resources to meet the current crisis.
The pandemic has taken a heavy toll in education. As per UNESCO update of March 19, governments in 119 countries have closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the global pandemic. Altogether 107 countries have implemented nationwide closures, impacting over 861.7 million children and youth. A further 12 countries have implemented localised school closures and, should these closures become nationwide, hundreds of millions of additional learners will experience education disruption.
Further, it’s being feared that millions of schoolchildren will go hungry as schools in many poor countries not only serve as centres of learning but also provide food. No wonder, the situation has already been dubbed as the biggest peace-time crisis to have hit the world post World War II.
While China, the epicentre of COVID-19, claimed to have now successfully overcome the “peak” with fresh cases drastically coming down reportedly, the virus has now cast its tentacles across the world impacting virtually every country (176 as per March 19 as per reports). Europe is now facing the brunt of the pandemic. Even India, after having successfully managed to ward off the threat emanating from across its giant neighbour to the north for about two months, ultimately too came under its deadly spell.
. As on March 19, the number of confirmed COVID-2019 cases across India rose to 169, including 25 foreign nationals, prompting the Centre to declare the virus as a “notified disaster”. The deadly virus has now spread to 18 States, and, at 38, Maharashtra reported the highest number of positive cases (till March 19). Three persons have also lost their lives.
Several States have put restrictions on public gatherings and shut down educational institutions, cinema halls, gyms, swimming pools, etc, even as screening of travelers at airports, railway stations and bus terminus’s have been intensified across the country. Overall mass awareness campaigns about the pandemic too have been increased, along with setting up of isolation wards at all district hospitals and opening up of helplines, while railways has withdrew blankets and curtains from AC coaches, and courts restricted hearings to urgent matters only.
Meanwhile, even as COVID-19 posed a serious threat to public health in the country, the crisis was also used as an opportunity by New Delhi to flex its diplomatic muscle. After having successfully air-lifted around 1,400 of its citizens as well as those belonging to neighbouring countries like Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc, stuck in countries like China, Iran, Italy and Japan, the Government of India even proposed formulation of a joint strategy by SAARC nations to counter the coronavirus menace. During a video conference with all SAARC leaders on March 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also proposed a COVID-19 emergency fund and committed $10 million to it. Prior to that, Modi contacted Chinese President Xi Jinping and sent a plane-load of medical and other emergency supplies to China. Modi has also proposed a meeting of leaders of G20 countries to jointly respond to the emergency.
But, as was wont, amidst the panic and heightened activities, there was no dearth of politicking either as the opposition parties lost no time in criticising the Central Government for its alleged mishandling of the situation and ineptitude. And leading the attack on Modi Inc was none other than Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
Nonetheless, at least this much could be said to the credit of the government that India had fared well in staving off the virulent challenge in comparison with some of the more advanced countries like the US, UK and other European nations. For instance, Spain reported a whopping 1,500 fresh cases within a matter of 24 hours on March 14 and Italy reported 252 deaths in one day (March 15) as toll surged past 1,000.
Thus, by design or other factors at work, it’s a wonder that the number of reported COVID-19 cases in India has been minimal thus far despite lying so close to the epicentre of the global pandemic. Countries like Iran, Japan and South Korea fared much worse. However, this can hardly be a reason for the government to lower its guard and get complacent as the full impact of the pandemic is only now beginning to emerge worldwide and the worst may not be over yet, thus proving the worst nightmare true.
Meanwhile, while traditional media pulled out all stops in reporting every development related to COVID-19 in India and abroad and provided regular updates, it was the unverified messages on social media being circulated 24x7 that caused maximum panic in large parts of the country. So, as messages about the deadly virus began to get viral, people resorted to panic-buying of stuff like hand sanitisers, masks and gloves, and within no time these products flew off the shelves creating shortages at many places. With social media having become primary source of information for many, even fake messages on these platforms began to be taken as gospel truths, forcing international agencies like UNICEF to clarify that messages attributed to them were fake.
And in the process, important tips on precautions given out by the government from time to time were lost. Hence, it would be advisable for the Government of India to chalk out a proper plan of action to handle social media during such emergencies in the future to arrest rumour-mongering and panic. Further, the current pandemic should also serve as a wake-up call for the world community to formulate a joint strategy in responding to such global health emergencies, which currently appears non-existent. In this era of globalisation where barriers are being brought down to ease movement of people and goods worldwide, risks of “global pandemics” should also be factored in.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. Views expressed are personal)