FEAR GOES VIRAL
The COVID-19 epidemic is subsiding in China where it originated, and is now erupting in outbreak clusters across the world. First carried by international travellers (mainly new year holiday makers from China in January-February), it spread through public places. Interestingly, pilgrimage sites like Qom in Iran, a little known evangelical sect in Daegu in Korea, churches in northern Italy, and a synagogue New York were cluster epicentres.
A virus is a strand of genetic material that can infiltrate cell nuclei, splicing itself into the DNA of the host and commanding the organism to be its vehicle for transmission. Being a mutant, the COVID-19 is one step ahead of genetically engineered vaccines, and is so smart it piggy-backs on the mobility of human beings to go around the world.
The virus has figured out that it does not make much sense to make the humans it infects so sick that they cannot travel – defeating the purpose of maximum infection. COVID-19 patients can be carriers even though they do not show any outward signs of being infected. Even if they have a sore throat or a cough, they are not bed-ridden and commute to work or travel on business, spreading the virus along the way.
This mode of transmission is also designed for maximum effect. After leaping the animal-human barrier, it took the easiest path for human-to-human infection by entering the respiratory tract through touch or cough droplets. The virus likes the cold, which is why it spread so quickly during the northern hemisphere winter.
Now that the epidemic has gone global, nationality profiling at airports is absurd. On Monday, police at Nagdhunga stopped buses and asked if there were any Chinese on board. Removing visa on arrival for travelers from ‘infected countries’ does not make sense anymore – you either go whole hog and stop all outsider travel altogether like Bhutan has done, or you let everyone in after screening.
In fact, for all we know Nepal is already an ‘infected country’ we just have not bothered to diagnose anyone. Nepal’s officials appear to believe in a vaccine called ‘Pashupatinath’, and expect the protector deity to see us through this crisis. Who knows, it may be our lackadaisical attitude towards personal hygiene, sanitation or waste management that has given Nepalis a certain immunity against viral infections.
Scientist Sameer Mani Dixit at the Central for Molecular Dynamics calls this the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ – by allowing germs to thrive we develop an immunity to viral and bacterial infections just like a vaccine would. Dixit says it was “pure miracle” that the 2012 MERS epidemic did not affect Nepal in a big way.
The coronavirus epidemic adds to the burden of older existing infections that afflict Nepalis, and takes attention away from bigger bacterial killers like TB, typhoid and diarrhoea, vector-borne eukaryote parasites like malaria, or other insect-borne virus like dengue and encephalitis. A public health system already overstretched to deal with these chronic epidemics is not at all prepared for yet another virulent onslaught.
However, we cannot expect superstition or lack of sanitation to save us. Nepal is now linked to the global economy, and as such this worldwide epidemic has hit two of the mainstays of our economy: migration and tourism, which together account for nearly 40% of the GDP.
As Upasana Khadka shows in her column, Nepal is paying a price for such an overwhelming reliance on migration. The moratorium on migrant workers flying to Korea and Qatar is a gut punch to Nepal’s economy. Nepali workers in the Gulf, Malaysia and Korea-Japan are already affected by the slowdown in the global economy.
And the COVID-19 scare hit Nepal right at the start of the Visit Nepal 2020, which means the country will not meet the already unrealistic target of bringing 2 million tourists this year with an ill-planned campaign. March arrivals, except Chinese tourists, were still all right, but there have been massive cancellations of treks and expeditions for April. As our report shows, the impact on employment and income for service providers in hospitality and farmers dependent on selling produce to hotels is huge. VNY2020 has already been put off, and the government has taken the welcome step of using the budget to improve tourism infrastructure.
Despite fear going more viral than the epidemic itself, there are some positive outcomes from COVID-19. Nepal’s hospitality industry has once more recognised the importance of domestic tourism. China’s recognition of the animal-transmission route may actually help save endangered species like pangolins from extinction. Oil prices have come down, and global economic downturn has reduced air pollution and carbon emissions.
Read also: When panic goes viral, Editorial