Drastic action needed to confront potential threat from COVID-19

22 March 2020
Drastic action needed to confront potential threat from COVID-19
Photo: Thura/Mizzima

Myanmar has a decision to make. Take what may seem drastic – and undoubtedly unpopular –  measures in the face of a to date low rate of suspected COVID-19 cases in the country or wait and have its hand forced when increased testing and rapid community transmission of the virus portend a potential surge in cases with catastrophic effects for the country.

If the potential worst-case scenario is to be avoided, then it becomes imminent that now is the time to react intelligently and proactively to the existential threat posed by COVID-19. Granted some measures have already been enacted, but further steps such as suspending all Thingyan events and festivities, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer and urging diligent social distancing along with wide-scale testing (as available) are of essence.

Countries that have acted intelligently and proactively to the threat have by-in-large fared much better than those that have not. And the failure to curb social excesses, be it New Year celebrations in China or Mardi Gras in Louisiana, an epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, has placed populations at an unnecessarily high risk level.

Moreover, Myanmar’s urban centres serve as potential breeding grounds for the rapid dissemination of the virus. A quick comparison of Yangon and New York City, where response was slow and erratic, makes the point. The New York metro area’s coronavirus outbreak is a case study in how the illness can spread at lightning speed in a packed, high-velocity environment. And the economic importance of New York City and Yangon to their respective countries cannot be overstated.

New York City has over 8.5 million inhabitants, some 10,200 per square kilometer and a capacity of 53,000 hospital beds. Yangon’s metro area is home to around 7.5 million people, over 12,300 per square kilometer. Meanwhile, as of 2015, the entirety of Myanmar had access to just over 50,000 hospital beds.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York City was announced on March 1. But by March 20, cases had risen from 800 to 8,000 in the span of a single week, with the projected peak number of cases still over a month away. New York City mayor Andrew Cuomo announced on March 18 that in 45 days the city could have a need for 110,000 beds, twice its current capacity, 37,000 ICU units and 10 times the number of ventilators currently available (30,000 versus 3,000).

Having taken too long to initially respond to the potential threat posed by COVID-19 the city has now been forced to take even more drastic action, including the closing of virtually all public spaces, requirement of all non-essential personnel to remain home from work and the closing of all bars and restaurants. These steps, taken collectively, will suffocate daily activity in the business and financial hub of the country for a period that could last months – causing inestimable economic loss, not to mention the deaths of untold victims of the virus.

The urgency, or lack thereof, in confronting the virus in the United States, much of Europe, Iran and elsewhere, stands in contrast to the approaches of countries such as Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, who have seen relatively limited, or contained, epidemics.

Taiwan, which has seen just over 100 cases to date, has thus far managed to keep ahead of the infectious curve, initiating their response to the COVID-19 threat days before the danger was even verified by Chinese authorities. The island nation was able to do this through a combination of early response, pervasive screening, contact tracing incorporating technology (namely big data sets), transparency and capable central command.

Taiwanese authorities have been able to collect information on nearly every citizen’s 14-day travel history and ask those who visited high-risk areas to self-isolate. Mobile phones are also tracked to ensure people that need to stay at home do just that. 

Meanwhile, Taipei has gone to great lengths to keep citizens well informed on every aspect of the outbreak, including daily press briefings, regular broadcasts from the President’s office and an active presence on social media. Messages routinely conveyed to the Taiwanese public are generally simple in nature, stressing the importance of hand washing, face masks, social distancing, eschewing mass gatherings and the dangers of hoarding.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries have chosen to stress scientific studies that claim the virus is less aggressive and dangerous in geographic regions exemplified by a hot and humid climate, noting a lack of significant community transmission in expected locations based on population proximity to previous outbreaks and extensive population interaction through travel. Myanmar, in general, fits the criteria; though certain areas of the country obviously have a different climate to that of the central plain and southern Myanmar.

However, the science on COVID-19 and climate is far from settled, with at least as many studies disputing any positive correlation between a warmer climate and the diminished threat of COVID-19 infection rates. David Issacs, an Australian pediatric specialist in infectious diseases, told The Globe and Mail, “At the moment, this particular coronavirus seems to be spreading regardless of seasonality. The thing that seems to make the most difference is whether you recognize cases early and intervene early. And if you do that, that limits spread.”

Nonetheless, a warmer climate may help explain the relatively slow spread of the virus in Thailand, which has designated 35 assessment centers for COVID-19 and is largely considered by Western epidemiologists to be attentively confronting the threat. Yet, Thailand, with 411 official cases as of March 22 is at the same time struggling to deal with the disclosure of five COVID-19 cases on the island of Phuket previously denied for weeks.

If Myanmar were to be overrun by COVID-19, the country will not have the necessary resources available to it to combat the virus. Unemployment, especially in urban areas, will skyrocket, domestic supply chains and export production will be severely negatively impacted, and general discontent will likely arise owing to a mandated lack of mobility, loss of finances and difficulty in acquiring basic household foodstuffs.

Now, in short, is the time to take measures necessary to prevent the more drastic lockdown of cities and large swathes of the country. It is absolutely essential to suppress the potential spread of the disease before the country, and its economic centers, is potentially overrun.

Lastly, the pros and cons of minor discontent over present policies to suppress the pandemic versus the ramifications of having to face a full-blown months-long national emergency need not be explained. As it stands, the ruling National League for Democracy stands largely unchallenged in the country’s heartland. And it is unlikely to face a significant challenge from a rival political faction in the lead-up to general elections at the end of the year. However, a full-blown COVID-19 crisis – with all its associated personal losses in health, life, freedom, well-being and finances – could well cause the Myanmar electorate to ask whether the party has lost its mandate to rule.

Is Nay Pyi Taw willing to take the risk?