How best to survive the coronavirus

The contrast between Germany and US
The Odeonsplatz square during a partial lockdown in Munich, Germany. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS/ANDREAS GEBERT

Here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic, desperately trying to figure out how to survive. The US now has the dubious distinction of being the world's leading nation both in terms of number of deaths and identified cases. As this lethal virus wreaks havoc around the world, there are some important lessons.

Uncontrolled contagion can lead to a horrendous surge in illnesses and death. Absent a vaccine or a cure, social distancing and meticulous hygiene are essential to control deaths and infections.

Now comes the tough part. As millions and millions of people lose jobs, understandable disquiet is growing over the fact that the economy is in suspended animation.

What is to be done?

It's essential to avoid the trap of the false binary of pandemic vs. economy. If the pandemic isn't controlled, the economy won't recover. Period.

The US response has been so catastrophic that it has quickly passed China, Spain and Italy to lead the world in coronavirus deaths. It would do well to take a page out of Europe's greatest success story.

Germany is currently randomly testing 3,000 households, part of "an aggressive approach to combat the virus in a comprehensive way that has made Germany a leader among Western nations figuring out how to control the contagion while returning to something resembling normal life," The New York Times reported.

"Other nations, including the United States, are still struggling to test for infections. But Germany is doing that and more. It is aiming to sample the entire population for antibodies in coming months, hoping to gain valuable insight into how deeply the virus has penetrated the society at large, how deadly it really is, and whether immunity might be developing."

Germany's approach has been smart from the get go. The pandemic hit the nation hard, but Germany's fatality rate has been remarkably low. Part of it is statistical distortion. The more you test, the more positive cases you identify (including asymptomatic cases) and so the number of deaths is a smaller fraction of total cases. But there are solid reasons as well. "There are… significant medical factors that have kept the number of deaths in Germany relatively low, epidemiologists and virologists say, chief among them early and widespread testing and treatment, plenty of intensive care beds and a trusted government whose social distancing guidelines are widely observed," The New York Times reported.

When you compare the US response to the pandemic, the contrast is scary. Testing continues to be a debacle here. While it has gone up considerably, it's still way beyond the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation. "You want a [low] percent of your tests to be coming back positive," William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, told the National Public Radio. "Why? If a high percentage of tests come back positive, it's clear there's not enough testing to capture all of the infected people in the community," NPR reports.

I have anecdotal reports from Georgia and South Carolina that it's hard to get tested even if someone has symptoms of being infected.

The biggest contrast between the US and Germany is leadership.

"Maybe our biggest strength in Germany is the rational decision-making at the highest level of government combined with the trust the government enjoys in the population," Prof. Hans-Georg Kräusslich, the head of virology at University Hospital in Heidelberg, one of Germany's leading research hospitals, told The New York Times.

The US is led by President Donald Trump. Suffice it to say that rational decision-making is not the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of Trump. Instead of the thoughtful, considered leadership that the nation desperately needs (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom come to mind), he holds daily pressers which resemble a zany circus-like cheesy reality show. Substantive content is thin. Instead, Trump serves up a buffet of falsehoods, self-contradictory remarks and extended digressive riffs on his pet peeve(s) du jour, liberally peppered with uncouth insults of reporters.

His press conferences sometimes get so out of line that newspapers struggle to report it with a straight face. An exasperated New York Times deadpanned on April 9: "Mr. Trump does not need adversaries to dispute his statements—he does that all by himself. In the course of his daily briefings on the coronavirus pandemic, the president has routinely contradicted himself without ever acknowledging that he does so."

Focus is simply not his thing. The administration's digressions are beginning to have the suspicious look of campaign-year bait for the base. The rants against China, WHO, freezing immigration, tough words on Iran have one thing in common—they aren't going to move the needle one bit in fighting the pandemic that has cost the US over 50,000 lives so far and is crippling the economy.

Many of his Republican Party chums have kissed reason and science goodbye. Republican governors in some states are ignoring public health experts and easing stay-at-home orders vital to keep the virus at bay. Florida Gov. Ron Santis has opened beaches in a state which has a large, vulnerable elderly population. Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick has declared that the elderly should sacrifice themselves for the economy. "There are more important things than living," he has said. (I'm not making this up.) And here in Atlanta, where I live, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has drawn widespread criticism for opening up small businesses like restaurants, massage parlours and barber shops. Do you have any idea how to get a massage or a haircut while practicing social distancing? Neither do I.

Meanwhile, funded by well-heeled conservative groups, "spontaneous" protests against strict social distancing are popping up in several states.

I fear what this ignorant defiance may bring. Singapore, which has recently seen a surge of new cases, offers a cautionary tale.

The coronavirus is neither Democrat nor Republican. The science behind it is unforgiving. Defy it and it will kill you. Literally.


Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.


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