Lessons from the past | Daily News


Lessons from the past

An article that appears in these pages yesterday the horrors of the Spanish Flu from a century ago, which killed around 100 million around the world, on top of the 16 million deaths in World War I.

While medical science has advanced rapidly in the intervening 100 years (back then, no one had even seen a virus) and we have a better understanding of viral diseases, two things still remain true today. Viruses can jump from one person to another rather swiftly and there is no cure for any viral disease. We are yet to find answers to these questions.

Another development has taken place in the last 100 years – the world population has grown to more than 7 billion, from less than 2 billion in 1920. This means that more people are living in much the same space. Global Travel has also grown exponentially – incidentally many of the best known airlines are marking their 100th anniversary this year, which means that we have been travelling more and more for 100 years.  It is international travel that took the virus so rapidly from its epicenter in Wuhan, China to the rest of the world.  

Even a century ago, doctors who treated the Spanish Flu realised one thing – keeping people apart helped slow down the trajectory of the virus. There was no fancy term like “Social Distancing” back then, but countries that somehow imposed such rules escaped with a relatively low casualty rate. And thanks to the pioneering work of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician and scientist who discovered the connection between germs and hand hygiene in 1850, doctors already knew that handwashing with any kind of soap could save lives. Soap actively pulls viruses apart, leaving them unable to replicate. A century later, we are still leaning on these two time-tested practices to save lives.

Back then, the world did not have a central authority or mechanism to take hold of a developing health crisis. Today, we have one – the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is perhaps the most important agency of the United Nations (UN). The WHO’s leadership at this juncture is highly commendable. The men and women of the WHO are on the frontlines of the evolving COVID-19 landscape, along with their counterparts from the national health services of all countries. In fact, the WHO has warned that the virus is accelerating its spread, a stark warning to nations that are still ambivalent about their COVID-19 response. The WHO has also directly appealed to the public to fight the virus, as seen in a video featuring top footballers, produced in association with the FIFA.

It has become clear over the last two months that countries which took the harshest measures to fight the Coronavirus are now reaping the dividends. China, where nearly 80,000 contracted the virus, is recording hardly any domestic cases now (most of its cases are now ‘imported’ – Chinese citizens or others coming from other infected countries).

This is due to a weeks-long lockdown of major cities and curtailment of transport networks. Other countries and territories such as Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong also have achieved similar levels of success thanks to such measures.

Singapore’s secret was its highly sophisticated “contact tracing” system whereby the authorities could identify all parties that had come into contact with a given infected person. They even have a smartphone app for contact tracing called TraceTogether. In a move to help the international community combat the coronavirus pandemic, the Singapore Government will be making the software for TraceTogether, which has already been installed by more than 620,000 people, freely available to developers around the world.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said that the app, developed by the Government Technology Agency and the Ministry of Health, will be open-sourced. Launched last Friday, the TraceTogether app can identify people who have been within a 2 metre radius of coronavirus patients for at least 30 minutes, using wireless Bluetooth technology. Its developers say the app is useful when those infected cannot recall whom they had been in proximity with for an extended duration.

On the other hand, many countries in Europe have learned the hard way that social distancing measures should be implemented much earlier in the contagion’s cycle. While deaths in the magnitude of the Spanish Flu are unthinkable in today’s advanced societies, even 13,000 deaths is simply too many. Sri Lanka’s leaders have been extremely pragmatic in announcing the current social distancing measures at this stage of the Coronavirus spread. Now it is up to the people to respect the curfew and other measures aimed at keeping them indoors. These steps have been stipulated for the greatest good of the greatest number and the more we respect them, the sooner we will be able to get back to normality.

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