Dan O'Heirity

I have referred to previous virus outbreaks on a number of occasions. We have experienced Bird Flu (China), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (China), Covid 19 (China), Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (Saudi Arabia), the Ebola Virus (West Africa) and Swine Flu (Mexico). Each of these viruses have been passed to from animals to humans in what are known as “zoonotic events.” We have also seen the  HIV / AIDS pandemic (West Africa with the earliest known case identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo).

I was in my late teens when the HIV / AIDS pandemic emerged and I have been reflecting upon the fact that it took a long time for governments to take the pandemic seriously and it took even longer for people to become aware of how easily HIV could be spread and how deadly it could be. Today, I somewhat serendipitously came across a story about what we could learn from the HIV / AIDS pandemic as we try to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

First, the article suggests that we have learnt from HIV / AIDS that there is a need for early and widespread testing to ensure accurate data when making health response decisions. With respect to the United States, the article says that,

The federal government’s botched testing rollout [for Covid-19] could turn out to be one of the great public health failures of modern times, having blinded the US public health response at a critical juncture.

I’ve reported in detail on the failed roll out of testing for Covid-19 in the United States and I’m not going to cover the same material again suffice to say that it took around 6-8 weeks for testing to become available with Trump telling the country that everything was under control and that there was nothing to worry about. In other words, the United States got it wrong in the early stages of the virus because of the delays in making testing available and because people in the United States were being given the wrong information.

Secondly, given that containment of Covid-19 is assumed to have failed in the United States due to the inadequate testing program, the article makes a strong case for the need to focus on mitigating the spread of the virus in the community through implementing social distancing measures. The article is of the opinion that putting these measures in place is well underway across the United States. 

If public health measures are adequately and rapidly implemented with the coronavirus pandemic, it could lead to about 67% fewer patients who need ICU beds, which could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives.

The article was published on March 22nd, 2020 and so whether or not the United States manages to effectively implement social distancing measures is currently an unknown.

Third, the article argues that the response to the pandemic needs to be “expert driven”, or driven by people who actually know a little something about pandemics. In other words, politicians need to get the right advice and they need to act on it. I would refer you to my earlier point about Donald Trump telling America that everything was under control and that there was nothing to worry about with Covid-19. The article says,

An expert-driven approach is needed for pandemic preparedness and response. The failure of our elected government and political leaders to respond rapidly and effectively in the early days of the HIV epidemic is partly why it has become one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

There is a final point that I have touched on in a previous blog post in response to the preposterous claim by the Australian Prime Minister that the Covid-19 virus is a once in a 100 year event. That final point is that,

Given the likelihood of another pandemic in the future, we should remember the missteps and inept leadership we have seen in the fight against Covid-19 and vow not to let this happen again.

In the time that I have been writing this entry, roughly one hour, my preferred data source has updated to report 350,536 cases worldwide. So, in a single hour we have seen an increase of 1,325 cases or roughly 22 new cases world wide per minute. This increase in numbers has brought Hong Kong to mind, a country where I lived and worked for three years. Using the same data source that I used earlier, Hong Kong currently has 356 Covid-19 cases with 4 deaths from the virus. This fact is utterly astonishing when you consider that Hong Kong borders China that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Unlike the United States which seems to have mismanaged the virus outbreak to a very significant degree, Hong Kong. Taiwan and Singapore have all put in place measures to contain the virus in the first instance and then to mitigate the spread of the virus. This article looking at how these three countries have managed the Covid-19 pandemic says that,

Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been hailed for using those hard-won lessons [from SARS] to combat the new coronavirus—officially COVID-19 and a relative of SARS.

Examples of taking effective early action have included:

  • Closing borders with China early and against WHO advice
  • Instituting screening programs for Covid-19 at airports
  • Communicating clearly with the public on e.g. getting tested
  • Ensuring widespread testing along with infection tracing
  • Instituting social isolation and social distancing measures

In conclusion it might be fair to say what whilst the United States failed to learn the lessons from the HIV / AIDS pandemic, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan did learn the lessons from SARS and, at this point in time, it seems that the three “countries” have responded effectively to the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, ultimately, only time will tell.

First Published March 23rd, 2020

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