MR Prime Minister, as a nation we are congratulating ourselves, our Government and you on our low Covid-19 infection rate. It looks like the swift actions to close borders and educate the public on infection avoidance are having the desired effect. We thank you for these actions—I’m sure they will save many lives.
However, as well as thanking you, this is also a plea for you to go further whilst we are still ahead.
All around the world we are seeing too many governments leaving things too late—only locking down when their health services are bursting at the seams.
The US, which had 3,500 cases a week ago, is now struggling to cope with ten times that number. They’re already scrambling to make more hospital beds available in short time (President Donald Trump promised 1,000 in 48 hours).
Fortunately for them they have practically unlimited resources to make it happen. I’m sure Mr Trump strongly regrets not acting earlier—it seems likely that it could cost him a second term.
The problem we have is that we’re all getting a little too excited by our small confirmed case numbers. With such encouraging numbers, and no locally transmitted cases, it certainly looks like there’s a lot to be excited about. However, we really need to look at how we got those numbers.
Our testing is very limited in both its quantity (311 tests at the time of writing) and its variety (only testing travellers, or people with links to them). This isn’t a complaint or criticism—the testing protocol is the right thing to do with the resources available. It’s just a reminder that when dealing with data we can’t forget its limitations.
What we additionally need to know is how many people are at home, self-isolating with a probable case, but haven’t been tested, and how many people are out in the public spreading the virus but showing no signs (recent reports seem to indicate asymptomatic transmission in over 30 per cent of cases globally).
The Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, insisted what’s really needed is to test, test and test. Ideally that’s what we should do. However, the virus is here now, and testing in the required numbers isn’t going to be possible for some time to come. We need another plan to keep the virus at manageable levels.
That brings me back to my plea. Please complete the lockdown now. Schools may be out, but traffic on the roads is still at reasonably heavy levels every morning. Each day non-essential retail activity is not only continuing but also being unapologetically promoted. Retailers continue offering shoes, clothes, electronics, furniture, hardware, fabrics etc. at never-to-be-repeated prices to get customers into their stores. In turn this requires the support of distribution and factory workers who are also heading into work to form part of gatherings well in excess of ten persons every day.
I do have faith that businesses generally try to protect their workers from Covid-19 as well as they can. They work hard to provide appropriate sanitation, facilitate social distancing and educate their workforces. However, the big issue in all of this is public transport. Every day commuters bunch together in crowded buses, maxis and taxis to get to and from work with no hope of maintaining social distancing protocols. This must surely be the most fruitful hunting ground for the virus.
I don’t think you can blame the businesses—it’s what they do very well all the time. They are driven by profit but, in most cases, they also are committed to paying their staff. That also fuels their desire to continue operations. In fairness I believe that most have not yet grasped the enormity of the unfolding situation. Unfortunately, they will only stop their operations when you make them stop. You’ve done your part by putting several measures in place to help them weather the storm. It’s now time to make them put the safety of their staff and customers at the top of their agendas.
The WHO website indicates that the US recorded its first case on January 21; that rose to six by the end of the month. On February 29 the US had still only reached 62. It might have seemed like a major acceleration when this hit approximately 3,500 by March 16.
Even with that size of jump I don’t think Donald Trump would really have expected the number to hit 31,600 cases six days later. I think he’d agree now that it’s better to act early and be safe rather than sorry.