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Putting The Economy Back On Its Feet While Fighting COVID-19 – Analysis

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Singapore and the US show the way

As in other countries of the world, the outbreak of the COVID-19 led to lockdowns and severe border restrictions in Singapore. But come July 2021, with 40% of its population vaccinated and with an aim to cover two thirds by August, COVID-19 is seen by the Singapore government as a disease which can be contained, and more importantly, lived with. If contained, the virus need not interfere with normal, or near normal, economic activity.  

Three Singapore government ministers wrote an article in the Straits Times recently, saying that it was time Singaporeans learned to live with the remnants of COVID-19 as part of life because it will continue to exist in their midst while not being as threatening as before. COVID-19 will be like the flu of the 1960s. It will not paralyze daily life. “The bad news is that Covid-19 may never go away. The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst,” the Ministers said.

The fast pace of vaccination in Singapore, will make it harder for the virus to transmit and, more importantly, harder for it to kill. Most of the sick will recover in home quarantine. Due to the government’s new outlook on the virus, Singapore’s Monetary Authority expects the GDP to grow at 6% this year.

The US and several Western countries have also been easing Covid-19 restrictions even though they have a much higher number of cases and death rates than Singapore. According to CNBC, a combination of systematic resilience and high doses of fiscal and monetary stimulus has boosted US economic recovery. In the last quarter of 2020, US GDP increased by 4.1%, with the total of goods and services produced just US$ 270 billion less than the figure before Covid-19 struck. The Wall Street Journal says that the UK is planning “to deal with COVID, as it did the flu, through annual vaccination programs,” despite the fact that it has been struck by the Delta Variant.

Sri Lanka, however, is in a much more difficult situation as COVID-19 hit it hard in many critical sectors, made worse by lockdowns, travel restrictions and forced ceasing of economic activities. World Bank has said that Sri Lanka’s economy contracted by 3.6% in 2020. “Swift pandemic control measures hit sectors like tourism, construction, and transport especially hard, while collapsing global demand impacted the textile industry. Job and earning losses disrupted private consumption and impeded investment. As a result, the economy contracted by 16.4 percent (y-o-y) in the second quarter.” 

Though there was an improvement at the end of the year, Sri Lanka has a long way to go. Fortunately, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is keen on reviving the economy and has opened it to an extent despite the daily clamor for lockdowns from the medical fraternity.  

Role of Vaccination

Vaccination will keep the virus under control by making it less virulent and obviating the need for hospitalization. According to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka has received 1,264,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine; 3.1 million Sinopharm vaccine doses; and 130,000 doses of Sputnik V vaccine. Altogether, the country has received a total of 4,494,000 vaccine doses.  “In July, 4 million doses of Sinopharm vaccine and 2.5 million doses of Sinovac are expected to be received. Arrangements have also been made to obtain 2 million Sputnik V doses. In addition, 5 million doses of Sinopharm vaccine, 2.5 million doses of Sinovac and 2 million doses of Sputnik V are expected in August. By getting down 3 million more Sinopharm vaccine doses in September, we could vaccinate 13 million people by the end of September this year. This is a very satisfactory situation,” he told the nation in a recent TV address.

Government will be well advised to see that the President’s promise is kept and resist the temptation to re-impose lockdowns and movement restrictions which will only retard the economy, affect income generation, and lead to economic distress and possible social unrest.  As in the West, while taking steps to contain the pandemic, no room should be given to paranoia about the virus. Paranoia will damage public morale and their confidence in the future. As in the West and Singapore, individuals and companies should not be prevented from working but asked to function normally taking precautions, which are well known, simple and effective.  

Most Develop Immunity

The present COVID 19 pandemic is undoubtedly very severe as compared to other recent pandemics. Globally, there are currently 184 million COVID-19 cases and almost four million have died. But as experience with past pandemic shows, the overwhelming majority in any country or society, will survive. And, as Dr.Thomas Mockaitis, a Professor of History at DePaul University, stated: “Those who survive will have immunity.”  

Michael Greshko, writing in National Geographic in January this year says that “the likeliest long-term outcome is that the virus SARS-CoV-2 (the other name of COVID-19) will become endemic in large swaths of the world, constantly circulating among in the human population but causing fewer cases of severe disease. Eventually (years or even decades later) COVID-19 could transition into a mild childhood illness, like the four endemic human coronaviruses that contribute to the common cold.”

According to Paul Duprex, Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research, “enough people will get COVID-19 and enough people will get the vaccine to reduce person-to-person transmission.”

But this transition will not happen overnight. Experts say that the COVID-19’s exact post-pandemic trajectory will depend on three major factors: (1) how long humans retain immunity to the virus (2) how quickly the virus evolves, and (3) how widely older members of the population become immune during the pandemic itself. The human immune system can confer varying degrees of partial protection from a pathogen, which can stave off severe illness without necessarily preventing infection or transmission, Greshko says.

He cites a 2013 study in infectious diseases which shows that, on an average, humans are first exposed to all four of these coronaviruses between the ages of three and five, which are part of the first wave of infections that young children experience. “These initial infections lay the foundation for the body’s future immune response. As new variants of the endemic coronaviruses naturally evolve, the immune system has a head start in fighting them off—not enough to eradicate the virus instantly, but enough to ensure that symptoms don’t progress much beyond the sniffles.”

It is well known that the virus is its own enemy. Every time it infects you, it tops up your immunity, says Marc Veldhoen, an immunologist at Portugal’s University of Lisbon.

However, the transition from a pandemic to a minor ailment depends on how the immune response to COVID-19 holds over time.  Greshko quotes a study published in Science tracked the immune response of 188 COVID-19 patients for five to eight months post-infection, and while individuals varied, about 95% of patients had measurable levels of immunity.

Research on early variants of SARS-CoV-2 suggest that at least 60% to 70% of the human population will need to become immune to end the pandemic phase. And new vaccines to combat variants should be found and produced quickly. Efforts to vaccinate the developing world hinge, in part, on vaccines that can be stored in a standard refrigerator, such as the vaccines under development by Oxford/AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, Greshko says.

COVID-19 will not disappear entirely, but countries can minimize the threat from it and learn to live with it without sacrificing economic growth, as the developed world is showing.  

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P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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