Global pandemic scene

Soaring numbers

Print edition : July 03, 2020

At a launch terminal in Dhaka on June 1 after the government loosened lockdown restrictions. Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP

Waiting to collect identity cards for aid outside a government office in Peshawar, Pakistan, on June 16. Photo: Muhammad Sajjad/AP

Except for a handful of countries, the rest of the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

THE pandemic surges on unabated, with Latin America now becoming the epicentre. South Asia is not too far behind for that matter. Countries that failed to prepare adequately to deal with the pandemic despite being given sufficient warning are now paying a heavy price. Only a handful of countries such as New Zealand, South Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Vietnam have been able to fight the virus without suffering significant numbers of casualties. By the third week of June, Brazil, India and Mexico had higher death tolls per day than the United States. More than eight million people around the world had been affected by the pandemic by mid June with around 440,000 recorded deaths. Even in the West, the death rate is being under-reported. So far, a real accounting of the mortality rate has yet to be done worldwide.

As far as the infection rate is concerned, India has overtaken the United Kingdom and is now number four after Russia. Pakistan and Bangladesh are also witnessing a spike in infection rates. Pakistan lifted its national lockdown on May 9, and within a month, the infection rate surged to over 100,000. The government is no doubt aware that the real numbers are much more. According to figures released in the second week of June, at least 2,400 Pakistanis have died after contracting the virus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has put Pakistan on the list of the top 10 countries where the virus is on the rampage.

Pakistan

The WHO wrote to the government in Islamabad strongly criticising its handling of the pandemic and the decision to lift the lockdown. The WHO has recommended that the lockdown be reimposed, stating that the government had not met any of the criteria needed for its lifting. Experts have warned that the virus will peak in July/August and could claim more than a million lives. The medical infrastructure in Pakistan is in no condition to cope with the pandemic. Very little testing is being done. The mortality rate among doctors is among the highest in the region. In the first week of June, the medical association in Punjab province reported that 40 per cent of the doctors working in hospitals were infected with the COVID-19 virus. There are reports of medical workers getting assaulted on a daily basis by relatives of COVID-19 patients angry with the unavailability of beds or the treatment being given.

There are only 600 beds available for intensive care patients in a city such as Karachi that has a population of more than 20 million.

The WHO estimates that Pakistan, the fifth most populous nation in the world, with a population of more than 200 million, has only around 750 dedicated ventilators for those affected by the pandemic.

Prime Minister Imran Khan was initially reluctant to order a lockdown, prioritising the economy over the pandemic threatening the lives of millions of citizens. He was, however, overruled by the military establishment. Imran Khan was of the view that a country like Pakistan could hardly afford the luxury of a lockdown, but the military establishment and he are now on the same page. The World Bank has projected that the country’s economy will shrink by 0.2 per cent in the next fiscal year and that more than 18 million of the country’s 74 million jobs will be lost because of the pandemic.

Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the pandemic has hit hard. By the second week of June, Bangladesh had more than 70,000 recorded cases of people infected with the virus. Experts expect the numbers to double before the end of June. The testing facilities are limited. In the limited tests that were conducted, it was found that one out of five people tested in Dhaka, the capital, turned out to be positive. The number of deaths due to the pandemic has not been properly quantified according to health professionals in the country and international agencies.

The country has the lowest ratio of hospital beds to patients in the world. More than 34 doctors have already died from the infection. The official death toll by the second week of June is around a thousand, but this figure in all probability is misleading. The national lockdown ordered by the government in the last week of March was lifted in the first week of June even before the pandemic showed any signs of easing. A catastrophe seems to be in the offing in South Asia, with countries such as Nepal too witnessing a surge in infections.

If the situation in South Asia is dire, Latin America is currently worse off. Brazil has recorded more deaths than all countries barring the U.S. Most Brazilians hold their President, Jair Bolsonaro, responsible for the mess the country finds itself in. He is the only head of state to openly oppose any restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus. After initially dismissing the deadly new virus as nothing more dangerous than an attack of the flu, he soon resorted to flaunting miracle cures.

In late March, taking the cue from his close ideological friend, U.S. President Donald Trump, the Brazilian President touted chloroquine as the drug that would save Brazilian lives and make the pandemic go away. “God is Brazilian. The chloroquine is right here,” he proclaimed in early March. Since then over 45,000 Brazilians have died after contracting the coronavirus, and the daily death toll now is the highest in the world. The Brazilian Health Ministry had a proven record of fighting the epidemics that hit the country in the past and had advocated physical distancing and other safe practices as soon as the coronavirus surfaced. Initially, Bolsonaro too supported the Ministry’s actions but then suddenly took a diametrically opposite stand. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, the Health Minister at the time, ascribed Bolsonaro’s abrupt change of stance to his prioritising economic stability over health.

A study by the Sao Paulo Medical School estimates that the number of COVID-19 infections in Brazil could be 15 times higher than the official figures being put out. Bolsonaro had ordered the mass production of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in the pharmaceutical laboratories run by the Brazilian military. Brazil had imported large quantities of raw material for the production of the drugs from India. According to epidemiologists, the country has wasted immense resources in producing drugs that have a minimal impact on the treatment or curtailment of the virus. If the predictions by the Sao Paulo Medical School are accurate, Brazil would have had more than five million patients by the end of May.

Bolsonaro even now opposes quarantines and physical distancing measures and has vociferously encouraged his fellow citizens to carry on with life as usual. He refuses to wear a mask and is seen every other day mixing and shaking hands with his supporters. As the death rates started spiralling in early June, the President ordered the government to stop publishing comprehensive statistics on the number of deaths and the infection rate of the coronavirus.

“We are sorry for all the dead, but that’s everyone’s destiny,” the President remarked when the death rate was soaring in the first week of June.

The Brazilian Supreme Court had to intervene and force the Health Ministry to keep on releasing the data regarding the scope and trajectory of the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Gilmar Mendes, a Supreme Court judge, described the government’s “manipulation of statistics a tactic of totalitarian regimes”. He said that “the trick would not eventually absolve the government from an eventual genocide”.

Two eminent doctors who had served as Health Ministers in the Federal government left office in the last couple of months because of unscientific diktats that emanated from the presidency on the ways to handle the outbreak. The new appointee as Health Minister is a serving military officer with no expertise in communicable diseases. He promptly issued guidelines for the widespread use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat patients.

The President urged his supporters to stage public protests against State governments that have imposed lockdowns and quarantine measures while discouraging the use of hydroxychloroquine. Eduardo Bolsonaro, the President’s politician son, claimed that there was a conspiracy hatched by the left wing to downplay the efficacy of the drug in the treatment of COVID-19. “The objective is to demonise the medicine even though they know that it is effective to save lives,” he said. Damares Alves, an evangelical pastor and the Minister of Human Rights, Family and Women, described hydroxychloroquine as a “miracle drug”.

All the clinical trials carried out so far have found the drug to be ineffective in the treatment of the coronavirus. The Bolsonaro government is in fact trying to implement a “herd immunity” policy with its propagation of the chloroquine-based drugs.

The Brazilian police launched raids on the offices and homes of Bolsonaro’s right-wing supporters who have been staging noisy demonstrations almost on a daily basis in major cities demanding the lifting of the lockdown and the imposition of military rule. As the evidence of corruption, mismanagement and malfeasance pile up against the President, his only hope for survival comes from sections of the Brazilian military. Eduardo Bolsonaro recently stated that military rule was inevitable. “It is no longer an opinion about if but when it will happen,” he said.

There is suspicion that the business cronies and political associates of the President are funding these sections of the military. The anti-Bolsonaro protests in cities such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are much bigger and spontaneous. Bolsonaro’s public approval ratings have dramatically sagged after the coronavirus devastated the country.

With the health system unable to cope and the economy in free fall, there have been growing demands for the impeachment of an incompetent President. Legislators have already made 35 impeachment requests against him. The majority of them were submitted after the pandemic hit Brazil. “Having failed to unite Brazilians in the face of a pandemic, Bolsonaro and his government could be the first to be toppled by it,” said Robert Muggah, director of the Igarape Institute, a Brazilian think tank. Bolsonaro is already being investigated for corruption and electoral misconduct. The most damning charge against him is that he poses a threat to the public health system in Brazil.

The President and his supporters, on the other hand, are calling for the dissolution of the Congress and the Supreme Court and for the reimposition of military rule to deal with the growing instability. As it is, Bolsonaro has filled his Cabinet with military men, both serving and retired. There are more military men in the Cabinet now than there were in the two decades when the army ruled Brazil.

Augusto Heleno, a retired general serving as the National Security Adviser to the President, warned of “unpredictable consequences for national stability” after the Supreme Court let a corruption enquiry into Bolsonaro’s supporters go forward. Bolsonaro served in the army and has at every opportunity been praising the military’s right-wing coup of 1964.

He is the only democratically elected President to virtually be requesting his army to stage a coup and take over. He thinks only the army can clear the mess he has created in the country mainly through his disastrous handling of the pandemic.

A letter from the Editor


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