Pandemic primer: An authentic guide by scientist-practitioners, which was the need of the hour

September 6, 2020 8:00 AM

On January 13, Thailand confirmed the first case of Covid-19 outside China. How swiftly it spread all over the world “in less than eighty days” makes compelling reading.

A file photo of a mother and child wearing masks inside a bus in Lucknow (Express photo)A file photo of a mother and child wearing masks inside a bus in Lucknow (Express photo)

By Amitabha Bhattacharya

There has been such a deluge of information—scientific, pseudo-scientific and popular—on the dreaded pandemic that has killed nearly nine lakh people, infected over 26 million and immersed in fear and anxiety the rest of human race that the publication of an authentic primer, written by three dedicated scientist-practitioners, was a pressing need. Swapneil Parikh, Maherra Desai and Rajesh Parikh—experts directly involved in battling the scourge in Mumbai—have put together all that an educated person should know about the disease in a language that is elegant and shorn of unnecessary jargon.

The book covers what had ravaged different parts of the world in the last hundred years starting with what is popularly (and wrongly) known as the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. It had killed about 100 million out of a global population of 1.8 billion (as a proportion of today’s population this translates to about 427 million).

According to latest evidence, it was an H1N1 virus, “possibly originating in China, and may have evolved from an avian influenza virus in birds”. The authors notice the ironic twist to the rhyme that children used to sing:

I had a little bird
And its name was Enza
I opened a window
And in-flu-enza!

To give perspective on infectious diseases, the Asian Flu pandemic of 1957-58 infected between 250 million to one billion people and killed around two million; the 1968 Hong Kong Flu pandemic killed over one million people, the HIV has since 1981 caused the death of over 32 million so far. These have been followed by 2002-03 SARS epidemic, 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, Ebola epidemic of 2013-16, Zika epidemic and now the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Wuhan story has been analysed with every relevant detail. Much of it is in public domain, especially of the delayed action and suppression of crucial information. What is not well known is that “In the eight-hour window between the announcement and implementation of the ban, over 300,000 workers fled the city. The Lancet estimated that over 5 million people left Wuhan before the citywide quarantine.”

On January 13, Thailand confirmed the first case of Covid-19 outside China. How swiftly it spread all over the world “in less than eighty days” makes compelling reading. The statement of Joshua Lederberg, the 1958 Nobel Prize winner, that “Viruses pose the single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on this planet” never appeared so prophetic.

How Covid-19 affects the human body and the methods of combating the disease have been discussed in a manner that is objective, compassionate and even kind. Without compromising with science, the authors have taken care to ensure that the narrative does not turn unduly scary. In fact, truth often dispels unfounded fear.

Quoting Sir William Osler, “Humanity has but three great enemies: fever, famine and war; of these by far the greatest, by far the most terrible, is fever”, the book also reminds that mankind has in the past faced similar challenges and has largely come out of such crises. The chapter on Treatment and Vaccination throws light on how the global effort has started yielding results that raise hope. Another chapter of practical interest deals with Dos, Don’ts and Myths. While debunking the conspiracy theories and misinformation, the authors gratefully remember Dr Li Wenliang who posted in a chat-group of colleagues, on December 30, 2019, of seven confirmed cases. He was harassed and threatened by the state authorities. Though finally exonerated, he had by then contracted the disease and passed away on February 7. The book shows how the politics, as also the economics, of the disease in the times of social media assume crucial importance.

This precise but comprehensive work ends with Beyond COVID-19. It warns us of the emerging infections and bioweapons as a new kind of terror. Pleading for easy access to quality healthcare for the world’s poorest, the authors ask, “Will AI-powered medicine be human centred and help those who need help the most? Will humanity’s brightest minds be inspired to fight for her sickest, poorest and most vulnerable?” Let us work and hope for that brave new world.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a former IAS officer who has also worked in the private sector and with the UNDP

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