Covid’s grim milestone | Sunday Observer

Covid’s grim milestone

7 November, 2021

Five million. That is the number of people who have succumbed to Covid worldwide in just 22 months. This is a staggering number, but the sad reality is that it is on the rise all over the world. The death toll, as tallied by the Johns Hopkins University, USA, is about equal to the populations of Singapore and New Zealand or Los Angeles and San Francisco combined. It rivals the number of people killed in battles among nations since 1950, according to estimates from the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Globally, Covid-19 is now the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and stroke.

The staggering figure is almost certainly an undercount because of limited testing and people dying at home without medical attention, especially in poor parts of the world. Nearly 250 million Covid cases have been reported worldwide since March 2020 and three million new Covid cases were reported worldwide last week alone. Hot spots have shifted over the 22 months since the outbreak began, turning different places on the world map red.

This is a very grim picture, but many of the infections and deaths could have been prevented if more people were vaccinated. Several safe and effective vaccines are available. They have been proved to cut down on hospitalisation and deaths. In this context, it is unfathomable why more people still fall prey to Covid. There are several reasons for this.

One of the main reasons is the unequal distribution of vaccines. While many wealthy countries have inoculated most of their populations and hoarded enough vaccine doses to jab them twice over, there are some poor countries, especially in Africa, which are yet to inject even a single person. This is a chilling reminder that there are two ‘worlds’ on Planet Earth.

Developed countries have been slow to donate their excess doses to the COVAX vaccine distribution mechanism and some rich countries actually oppose IP waivers and technology transfers that will enable the developing world to manufacture the vaccines in their own facilities. Moreover, if the rich nations allocate even a fraction of their defence budgets for Covid vaccines for the developing countries, vaccines can be made available for all in next to no time.

Sri Lanka is extremely lucky in the sense that most of the adult population over 20 years has now been vaccinated. Sri Lanka is among the top ranking countries in terms of vaccination. But even in Sri Lanka, there is a segment especially among youth that are shying away from vaccines mainly due to their belief in various myths spread on social media. Fears that vaccines cause infertility and genetic mutations have prevented many from facing the needle.

Another reason why Covid thrives is that many people are not following health guidelines properly. Here in Sri Lanka, many people are already behaving as if Covid is gone from our midst forever. They do not wear masks properly, do not wash hands properly and do not follow social distancing guidelines. It is a recipe for disaster.

It is important to remember that Covid is still very much in our midst. The careless behaviour of the public has already led to several waves of Covid. Public health experts warn that another wave could be upon us as soon as next month if the public does not take the health guidelines seriously. This is an ominous warning from the experts that we should take seriously. One can just look at several countries in the Western world that thought they had eliminated Covid, only for it to reappear with a vengeance. We should avoid that mistake.

This is all the more important because there apparently are variants of the Coronavirus that are ‘immune’ to the vaccines. They are said to be more lethal than the Delta variant which caused havoc here. Now that our borders are open again, there is every possibility that such super variants could enter the country. However, if we diligently follow health guidelines even those variants can be defeated. If we cannot, we might face serious repercussions.

However, there are a few silver linings in the dark Covid cloud. It might soon be possible to take a pill to defeat or cure Covid. Both Merck and Pfizer (maker of the famous mRNA Covid vaccine) are trialling anti-Covid pills that will literally take the sting out of vaccination. These pills are said to be ideal for mild to moderate Covid cases and even to prevent the disease in the first place.

They have a success rate of more than 50 percent according to preliminary studies. Both companies are in the process of getting the regulatory approvals. Sri Lanka is also contemplating purchasing the Merck product and an experts’ panel is reviewing all the data pertaining to it. There will also be other methods of delivering vaccines such as nasal sprays and dermal patches. This is good for those who hate injections or just fear the needles.

We are still learning more about Covid and some of its associated conditions such as Long Covid, whereby ‘cured’ patients experience debilitating symptoms for months on end. It was heartening to note that several Sri Lankan researchers have been recognised recently for their efforts to understand the disease. More Sri Lankan scientists should be involved in such efforts.

A global research effort is needed to generate a better picture of Covid so that more strategies can be evolved to tackle it. In the meantime, we should all play a role to keep it at bay by strictly adhering to the health guidelines at all times.