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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 11-04-2020 11:02

Waiting for the end

Covid-19 is here to stay and we will have to get used to living with it, just as we have with whatever causes the common flu, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, pneumonia, diabetes and many other deadly ailments.

After Covid-19 made its escape from the entrails of a bat, pangolin or other wild creature and sent its countless offspring on journeys that took them to the ends of the earth, hundreds of millions of human beings suddenly found themselves under house arrest, many of them in hovels which are every bit as squalid as the niche that was the virus’ original home. Just how long their confinement will last is anybody’s guess. Coached by epidemiologists – of whom some must be enjoying their moment in the spotlight – many government officials, among them president Alberto Fernández, are brushing aside warnings that the looming great depression will cost far more lives than the pandemic. They want people to remain indoors for at least several more weeks so the virus can be properly “contained.”

By this, they mean they want the infection rate to slow down enough to allow the health system to cope with the expected overload, hence all the talk about “flattening the curve.” They cannot believe that for some mysterious reason the virus will by then have called it a day and gone back to where it came from.

Covid-19 is here to stay and we will have to get used to living with it, just as we have with whatever causes the common flu, cancer (which every year takes almost 10 million lives), cardiovascular diseases, (which kill even more), pneumonia, diabetes and many other deadly ailments. Even if scientists do manage to produce an effective vaccine in the not too distant future, it would be most unlikely to wipe out the virus. Few think it could be about to share the fate of its relative which gave rise to smallpox, a fearful serial killer responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths until in 1980 the World Health Organisation declared it totally eradicated.

If the extreme measures almost all governments have taken are anything to go by, Covid-19 must be regarded as far more dangerous than anything we have yet seen. Initial attempts to calculate the death rate seemed to bear this out, but as they were based on the small proportion of men and women who had been tested because they were suspected of being carriers, it was soon appreciated that the alarming conclusions reached by the WHO were greatly exaggerated.

According to the Buenos Aires authorities, fully 70 percent of those who have the virus show no symptoms at all. Some specialists, such as the head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency, go even further; they think the real number of people who have contracted the coronavirus could be up to 10 times higher than the official statistics make out, in which case it would still be more lethal than the seasonal flu, which in a bad year can contribute to the deaths of 650,000 people worldwide, but hardly nasty enough to justify the shutting down of the international economy for a prolonged period.

In the coming months, all countries will have to restore a semblance of normality, even if this entails letting the coronavirus continue its gruesome work alongside all the other ailments which, in a world in which all deaths have to be attributed to something specific, prevent us from living forever. When this happens, the much derided advocates of “herd immunity” will be able to say they had it right because, seeing it is now too late to halt the pathogen in its tracks, we have no choice but to put up with its presence.

While there are those in Alberto Fernández’s government, and in Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s, who think it would be a splendid idea to coop up the old and infirm in their rooms until the threat finally vanishes (something which is most unlikely to happen any time soon), the harm such a drastic measure would inflict would be certain to exceed any possible benefits. Like it or not, perfect safety has always been a fantasy; even the most risk-averse can be struck down at any moment. As happens in countries at war, “vulnerable” people want to get on with their lives no matter what is going on around them.

Containing the spread of the coronavirus is one thing, getting rid of it is something else entirely. When the number of deaths blamed on it drops to a certain level, it will have to be treated much like the seasonal flu which, on occasion, demands a fairly vigorous response but nothing like the no-holds-barred lockdowns that in much of the world are currently seen as mandatory. Many people will catch it and some will die, as they have been doing from a variety of cruel diseases throughout the ages.

Never in human history have so many people been summarily ordered to remain in their houses, flats or shacks for weeks on end, with the police and, in some places, the military waving guns at any they imagine to be flouting the rules. So far, it would seem that most have been willing to do their bit for the common cause by staying where they are because they assume it is in their own interest to do so, but the cooperative mood could change if word gets around that the local government or powerful cliques are trying to exploit the situation. Nobody knows what the results of the huge sociological experiment that is underway will be; providing people remain convinced that their rulers are acting on behalf of the common good in an efficient manner, there would be little to worry about, but should they appear to betray the trust placed in them, the reaction could be ugly.

President Fernández and his team were doing well until last week, when one day they encouraged a very large number of elderly pensioners and younger folk on welfare to crowd streets in the vicinity of banks, where many of them waited for hours in lines that stretched for several blocks. The unedifying spectacle they staged drew the scornful attention of newspapers and television channels the world over. The following day, it was revealed that the government had paid grossly inflated prices for foodstuffs and other items intended for the poor. Though the president tried to put things right by quickly firing 15 employees of the Social Development Ministry, the damage had already been done. Almost overnight, his government had shown itself to be not merely ham-handed but also riddled with corruption, thereby undermining the moral authority it had won by its energetic response to the dangers posed by the virus that has the entire world on tenterhooks.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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