By Tensing Rodrigues
When shall we be able to breathe free without a suffocating mask? That’s a question that is at the top of the mind of most of us. It’s not only because the mask is suffocating; which it indeed is. It’s because the mask is a constant reminder that all is not well; it is a reminder of jobs that can be lost and of the incomes that can fall; it is a reminder of turmoil in the stock markets and of the threat of banks going bust. It is natural therefore that we should be looking for the signs of the pandemic ending.
The answer to this question will depend upon what we mean by end. End can mean the point when the infection ceases to be a significant threat; they call it the epidemiological end point. The other meaning of end is when almost all aspects of social and economic life can resume without fear of higher than average mortality or long-term health consequences related to COVID-19.
The two are closely related, but need not coincide. Epidemiological end point is supposed to be reached when community or herd immunity is achieved. To understand what this means we need to understand how the virus operates. When a virus enters our body it uses us as a Xerox shop; it makes several copies of itself using our cells. In the process it makes us sick. Then these new copies spread to other people and repeat the process. But when the virus attacks our Xerox shop once, our bodies recognize its face. So, if it comes again they kill it at the door itself. When a large number of people in a community are affected, the virus finds it difficult to locate a vulnerable Xerox shop, and it dies roaming around. So slowly the pandemic ends.
The epidemiologists call this the herd immunity; and, given the various parameters, it is supposed to be reached when about 60 to 70 per cent of the population has been infected. A large part of this population will not be seriously affected, that is the infection will pass off with only mild symptoms. Some may not even know they have been infected. It all depends on the fighting capacity of the body. And that depends on the lifestyle and lifestyle sicknesses.
Of course age is an important factor. Very young children whose immunity is not fully developed and old persons who have lost it, will be seriously affected by the infection. The rest can simply go through it and become immune themselves and help the community by letting the herd immunity level be reached fast. Herd immunity level can be achieved faster by adopting vaccination. But we still do not have vaccines which have stood the test of time; and that will take at least five years.
It is not enough for vaccines to create immunity from COVID- 19. They should be fairly free of side effects; an important side effect could be reducing immunity to other viruses. Also mass vaccination will require a mass testing for previous infection; that is, it is risky to vaccinate a person who has already developed antibodies for COVID-19.
So, the practical end of the pandemic, that is the resumption of normal economic activities, cannot really wait for achieving the herd immunity through vaccination or otherwise. And in economic activities I am including learning activities. I feel that opening of educational institutions is very important; we do not want to end up with a wasted generation. Let us not deceive ourselves that we are doing the needful through online learning.
Not because online learning cannot work; it can very much take us to the next level but not as an emergency option. If online learning was a part of our learning process earlier, it would have worked very well. We have never shown our students and teachers that mobiles, tablets and laptops can be used for learning; they have always been means of entertainment and pass-time. That is the reason the grand scheme of giving tablets, laptops and PCs to students and teachers ended up as a joke, if not an outright disaster. Therefore the educational institutions have to open.
The question is how, given all the risks. Every problem has a solution. This is not the place to work those solutions out. And what is true of the educational institutions is true of all economic activities. Economic paralysis is not a solution for pandemic. We need to work around it. Till the herd immunity is achieved we have to work around the risks. Once we adopt this attitude, slowly everything will fall in place; production will pick up, employment will pick up, incomes will pick up, investment will pick up.
To know why we can say that so confidently, we only need to see the difference between the big cities and their backyards. At least in some of the big cities the roads are once again choked and there is a cheer on the faces of the workers. And as for COVID-19, the recovery rates are outsmarting the infection rates, which are still high. It is the attitude that has made the difference.
*The author is an investment consultant. Readers can send their comments and queries to [email protected]