Coronavirus Pandemic: A Lesson In Social Responsibility

Coronavirus Pandemic: A Lesson In Social Responsibility
Never before in the history of the world has a flu virus subjected mankind to such misery and abject humiliation. Although influenza pandemics have been around in the past century and even earlier, this pandemic is exceptional in the swiftness with which it has engulfed the entire planet.

In Pakistan, the presence of the first two cases of COVID 19 - travellers returning from Iran - was acknowledged by the authorities on 26th February, 2020. However, by 22nd March, this figure had climbed to an astounding 730 cases according to the Johns Hopkins Official website tracking the number of confirmed cases. This scenario is most likely to worsen as the coronavirus spreads and infects the more vulnerable populations in the country – the elderly, the poor and malnourished – increasing the death toll and human suffering.

According to World Health Organization, on March 22nd, there were 292,142 confirmed cases of COVID 19 and 12,784 deaths worldwide. COVID 19 has left in its wake collapsing economies, struggling airlines and millions of daily wage workers out of work. Travel restrictions have been put in place and stock exchanges have plummeted.

What makes this pandemic so sinister is the fact that it is being caused by a novel virus – a brand new virus that has evolved from a previously existing virus or viruses that the human race has never been exposed to. We had little prior knowledge of how the disease spectrum would unfold, what complications it could lead to or how to treat this infection. Yet, even at the onset, one thing was obvious-each one of the humans was susceptible. Since there was no previous exposure, there was no pre-existing immunity.

The virus, though, is not invincible. It cannot survive outside the body for longer than 48 to 72 hours; it is easily killed by disinfectants and by rigorous infection control precautions like hand washing. Despite that, it spreads fast with one infected person spreading it to another 2.6 persons on average. Alarmingly, during the first 5 days of the infection, one is completely unaware of having contracted the infection, being asymptomatic during this period and innocently spreading the pathogen by droplets escaping the nose and mouth and also by contact.

The transmission rate of COVID 19 (the average number of persons likely to be infected by one infected person) varies between 1.4 and 4.0. Compared to that, ordinary flu has a transmission rate of just 1.3.

The coronavirus causes typical respiratory infection or flu, with cough, fever and difficulty in breathing. However, like for all viruses, there is no known treatment. The deadliest aspect of the infection is that it rapidly leads to complications like pneumonia, necessitating the provision of ventilators and other emergency paraphernalia for the victims.

As a result, mortality is relatively high even with the best health care. The more rapidly the epidemic advances, the more heavily the hospitals are burdened, healthcare workers exhausted and supplies diminished. Healthcare systems, even in well developed countries, like the UK and Italy are struggling under the patient load. Millions of lives are at stake. Can we do something about it? Yes, but only if each and every one of us takes up his/her social responsibility. We can control it but only if each one of us is careful.

There are some simple tips to avoid the infection: hand washing with soap and water, covering our mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing, better hygienic practices and avoiding contact with those infected. But the problem is that four out of five infected persons have no symptoms. Under these circumstances, WHO advice on preventing the spread of COVID 19 is focused on social distancing measures – remaining indoors and hence limiting exposure to infected persons. This step is likely to slow the progression of the epidemic or, in other words, flattening the curve. Containment or social distancing is hard to achieve in a culture like Pakistan’s where the norm is to shake hands or even hug while greeting others.

However hard it may seem, in order to save lives, we must do all of these. The government has done what it could - sealing borders, closing down schools, arranging for many workers to work from home online, imposing bans on travel and commerce. Even gathering of more than four people has been restricted by the authorities. What is most likely to happen is that many daily wage workers will be laid off due to all these restrictions. As part of our social responsibility, we must provide for those who lose their jobs. After all, if one person is forced to roam around, he/she puts the entire society at risk.

It should also be noted that as the disease spreads, the immunity of the population also increases. As more and more people become immune, the likelihood of contact between susceptible and infected individuals reduces thus slowing the spread of disease. If only we could protect the more vulnerable amongst us from exposure, we could increase the immunity of the population at large.

So it is essential to keep the elderly at home and safe. Moreover, all those returning from travel abroad must be quarantined without exception. They must be isolated for 14 days and not released until they test negative for the virus.

This is an unprecedented emergency. It calls for unprecedented measures and for once it requires each one of us to play our role. We need our religious scholars to come forward and support the government in bringing about an effective control of this disease. We can pray at homes for the entire Muslim Ummah rather than putting the entire society at risk by gathering for congregational prayers. After all, in Italy, the priests were one of the most severely hit population groups because they visited the sick often and frequently ended up contracting the infection themselves. We need educators/public health specialists to provide authentic information to allay fear and distress that can lead to panic buying and shortage of food items and medicines.

The examples of China, UK and USA are before us. We do not have the state-of-the-art medical infrastructure that these countries have but we do have the ability to educate and motivate our citizens to rise to the occasion. Each one of us must fulfill our social responsibility.

Dr Sayema Awais is a public health specialist, epidemiologist and adjunct faculty at Health Services Academy, Islamabad. She can be reached via