As things improve, let’s hope for the best, but prepare for the worst | Sunday Observer

As things improve, let’s hope for the best, but prepare for the worst

There is no expert in the country who can answer the question ‘when, and how we will see the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic?’. If the current curfew, or the strategy of enforced social distancing works, and if there are no further cases, say at the end of a reasonable period under the current near total lockdown — at least in some districts — it’s well and good, and the country would be able to limp back to normal, battered, but not broken.

But what’s a reasonable period of time, and who can define that? Is it three weeks? Is it a month? Two months or more?

The length of the period notwithstanding, there are too many variables to predict anything with any degree of certainty. The main question is, can the spread of the virus within the country be reduced to zero at the end of the period of curfew in the key districts?

Let’s hope and pray it doesn’t happen, but yet, a turn of events in which just one person escapes the dragnet at the end of the curfew period on whichever date it occurs, cannot be entirely ruled out.

Let’s assume for convenience, that the curfew in the last district to have it in force, guessing it’s Colombo for instance, is lifted on a given date in the near future.

All is well, and the curfew would have been presumably lifted at that time as there are no more Covid 19 patients in the district. But assume just one individual has escaped the dragnet and is diagnosed with the disease, days after the curfew is lifted for one last time after many months.

In the worst case scenario, that elusive individual in his asymptomatic phase, may infect another cluster of people. These people in turn may disperse through the district, and though most can be identified, all of them, let’s assume, cannot be contact-traced in good time. As a result more cases begin to appear in various locations in the district.

What happens next? Is the entire district to go under lockdown once more for an indefinite period, after the lengthy lockdown it has already suffered for months has been finally lifted?

CLOSURES

Such a scenario is macabre, and perhaps these are the worst of our fears that would never probably materialize. This writer apologizes for even having to bring up the eventuality. Such a worst case scenario is unlikely to happen in the most damning of our nightmares, but does it mean that the country has to stop planning for one?

The reasonable answer should be a no. Anything is possible, though not probable, and the worst case scenario of non-containment past the eventual lifting of curfew, is a contingency we as a people have to plan for, despite all sanguine indications. Unforeseen difficulties in containment in the long term are possible, given the unpredictable nature of the virus spread so far.

Even if not a single case is reported after all the curfews have been lifted in all districts, airport closures for a long time will probably be a concomitant necessity. There is no point in risking a return of the outbreak in districts which have hopefully returned to normal after a long and painful period of lockdown, by reopening airports.

All that can be said at the moment is that the future is still uncertain. Yes, the virus will go away some day, but when and how is at this point, a massive and unpredictable unknown.

In the worst case scenario, continuous lockdowns that occur sporadically and in serial fashion lasting, say, until the end of 2020, are just not viable, no matter who says what in the various sectors that are stakeholders in the resolution effort that addresses this crisis.

If and only if the foregoing worst case scenario as explained does occur, a painful period of recurring  curfews for months on end in key districts would be unviable on several counts.

What the virus doesn’t finish off, could be wiped out by a totally crippled economy if such a situation ever comes to pass. Governments the world over would have well intentioned lockdowns, but in many countries, if the restrictions last for anything longer than say the mid point of 2020, the result would be economic chaos.

It’s entirely possible that any prolonged curfew in key areas, that last beyond the end of June of this year, would cause more deaths of people due to debt, deprivation and pain of mind, than the virus could have caused in the first place, however negative the impact of its spread in the long term.

JOB LOSSES

Dire prognostications are being made about the global economy in the meanwhile, and IMF head Kristalina Georgieva has said the world would face the worst crisis since the depression of the 1930s.

The number of people filing unemployment claims meanwhile in the U.S, the largest economy, hit a record high this week. The E.U shut off its borders completely to foreign visitors.

Such unprecedented developments are expected to halve world economic growth for this year.

In such a backdrop the Sri Lankan domestic economy would not be able to protect itself from the impact of the expected depression in the rest of the world, no matter what happens within our borders.

The strategy going forward if total containment of the virus is not possible despite all good intentions before at least the end of May this year, would therefore be of crucial importance.

Government policy makers are already bracing for impact with a planned self sustainability drive, and calls are being made for domestic agriculture at household level to brace for any impact from potential food import restrictions.

The economy however does not turn on food production alone. Tourism and travel may not revive significantly in the coming months, or even as the end of 2020 approaches.

This would mean major job losses in the tourism and allied sectors in the country. Any prolonged shutdown would significantly affect other sectors as well, and none of these issues can be addressed by domestic agriculture or domestic production only.

DYSFUNCTION

The best case scenario would be for the virus spread to slow down and come to a complete halt in the next month or so i.e at least by the end of May. If this happens globally and in Sri Lanka, economies could quickly be on the mend, despite everything.

But if there is no vaccine on the horizon and if the virus spread cannot be contained by any chance in this country by the end of May, the continuous lockdown strategy may even have to be abandoned.

Any such change of policy would automatically raise the question of the meaning and purpose of the initial — currently ongoing — curfews. Any change in strategy if the virus continues to spread beyond May could also render the national health sector potentially helpless, if the numbers of the Covid stricken patients increase if the curfews are lifted.

In such a case, rulers and governments of many countries would be potentially damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. If curfews and lockdowns have to be continued beyond the end of May/June by any chance, our economy would be under threat of complete dysfunction. If the curfews are not continued beyond May, and if the epidemic spread continues past that month, the health sector will not be able to cope with the outcome, and the shock of possible multiplying fatalities would impact severely on the national psyche.

The best hope therefore under all circumstances would be for a complete halt to the virus spread at least by the end of May, and a resultant lifting of all curfews at that time.

But if such sanguine hopes do not come to pass, some extremely hard decisions may have to be made.

A question could be raised: is the country prepared to end all lockdowns by the end of next month, no matter what?

The possibility of such a drastic decision having to be made in the long term interests of the people’s collective well-being looms large in the possible worst case scenario. Drastic decisions may call for a drastic psychological shift or a general preparedness of the national psyche to embrace one option over another. Else, the economy could be in free fall, and the damage would be worse than from the virus in the first place.

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