India has seen coronavirus in summer, the times when it was probably weaker, and its effect in winters remains to be tested.
Srijan Pal Singh
In March 1918, towards the final years of the first world war, the first wave of Spanish Flu was observed. This early wave thought to be brought by Chinese laborers who were working in Europe. It spread first in the European war zones and soldiers on all sides took the disease deep into their countries as they returned or were released from prisons. By June, the infection had reached Australia, Russia, China, India, Africa, Japan, and most of Europe. Then in July 1918, the infection subsided. The first wave was mild, many people fell sick, but the mortality remained so low that virtually no quarantine measures were imposed.
Then in September 1918, the second wave arrived. By this time the infection had reached all the continents of the world and it proved to be extremely deadly. In the first wave, the victims were mostly the very young or the very old – and younger ones were mostly let off with little or no symptoms. But the second wave of Spanish Flu in the winters of 1918 showed what is called the W-Curve, where a high number of deaths was among the young and old, but also a huge spike was seen in the middle, healthy 25- to 35-year-olds in the prime of their life. Within 3-4 months of the second wave of Spanish Flu in 1918, the US lost 300,000 lives, Mumbai reported 15,000 deaths in a population of 1 million, and across India the death toll was about 20 million within this short span of time. It would take two more waves before Spanish Flu closed on its own – but the second wave remained by far the deadliest of all.
Of course, one of the principal reasons why the second wave proved to be so fatal was the fact the science of those times was not advanced enough to even understand what was causing the infection. But there were more than just technological reasons for this spike.
After the first wave, there was a sense of complacency in societies across the world that the worst of Spanish Flu is over and most people found it tough to absorb that there was a bigger second wave coming. Life with Spanish Flu was “normalized” – parades were held, travel was promoted and festivals were resumed. This false positivity proved lethal in the mind. Secondly, infections spread by viruses tend to be more dangerous in winters than summers – the effect of sun and heat does not support most viruses. This fact was not known by the scientists of those times, as they did not even understand what a virus looks like.
In 2020, dealing with an even more dangerous novel coronavirus we must not forget these lessons from a century ago. We must not normalize with coronavirus by assuming that “life must go on”. There is no peace with an unpredictable enemy. We cannot go about conducting examinations and elections in old ways – any of these events can have a similar trigger which was the threshold between the first and second waves of Spanish flu. In 2020, Dussehra, Diwali, Christmas, and new year cannot be conducted in the 2019 model. No matter how much we dislike it, life will NOT go on normally with this virus still around us. The enforcement of the prevention measures we now know must be strictly enforced – both legally and also socially. Assuming that young people are “safe” is foolish – because we know the virus may alter.
Remember, we have only seen this virus in summer, the times when it was probably weaker, and its effect in winters remains to be tested. And a growing threat we are already witnessing is combination infections – where coronavirus is coming with dengue, typhoid and even cholera in a deadlier form. Even the USA is bracing for a combination infection season of seasonal flu and Covid19 in the coming winters and Europe is facing a second wave of infection. Remember, our lesson from the first wave of COVID-19 earlier this year – in severe healthcare crisis, global trade and alliances fail – and every country is practically left to itself. India must take this warning seriously and stockpile the necessary resources and medicines, provide training and protect healthcare workers which will be needed in the event of a second wave in winter. There will be a tight rope walking between maintaining economic activity and saving lives from infection. Government has to play this role, and also the opposition needs to be mindful not to get opportunistic and use the pandemic as a political bait. The cost of political gaming can be heavy in the coming months.
Then there is our approach to the solution. We need to be cautious about over-relying on vaccines. Vaccines are slow – after all, they are given to perfectly healthy people and we need to ensure they do not cause side effects. Hence, they cannot be rushed into testing hence four-phase testing is followed. Statistically, nearly 19 out of 20 vaccines that show success in the first phase end up failing by the time they reach the last stage of the trial. Even if a vaccine does come by the end of this year – it would take several months for it to reach you. Even if you get it, there is no guarantee that it will be effective beyond a few months, as the virus is already showing the ability to mutate (alter its structure). American President, Donald Trump, on the advice of his medical fraternity, is rightly saying that more than vaccines to stop coronavirus, it is medicines for treating coronavirus which is more important in the short run.
Till that day, you only have your mask, social distance, and sheer willpower to fight against this virus.
Srijan Pal Singh is the CEO of Kalam Centre. He is an IIM Ahmedabad graduate and was the advisor for Policy and Technology to Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Views expressed are the author’s personal.