COVID-19– sifting fact from fiction

The world has changed, literally overnight. Despite ample warnings from epidemiologists, and other scientists, over many years, about facing a futuristic pandemic, very few of us have given these warnings much thought or attention. It is understandable – humans have a reactive predisposition to crisis rather than a proactive one in preventing it. Most of us are simply caught up in a daily race to pay bills, nourish ourselves and our families, educate our children, and strive for financial security.

Covid-19 is more than a wake-up call. It is a hard, cold, slap in the face. As I write this piece, an estimated two million people have succumbed to SARS Covid-19. It is completely unknown how many people have contracted or distributed the virus,as many cases are asymptomatic and testing across the population is not logistically possible. The devastating economic impact, however, has affected us all in many ways, perhaps far greater than the disease itself. Economists have been scrambling to calculate the economic fallout and estimates vary dramatically depending on which model they are using. There are so many variables and outcomes that even the best statistical modelling cannot predict with certainty where we will be at the end of the year, nor how long it will take to emerge triumphantly from recession. 

The viral outbreak was officially reported to the World Health Organization country office in China on 31 December 2019. By 30 January 2020, the WHO declared the outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”. On 11 March, the WHO declared SARS Covid-19 a global pandemic. 

It was only around this time that the world started waking up to the reality of how rapidly this virus was spreading and the deadly impact it was having on some nations, most notably Italy and Spain, and later the United Kingdom and the United States, and subsequently, the rest of the world.

International borders closed rapidly as governments started instituting national emergency plans. Some governments were complacent, and underestimated the severity of the virus, but quickly changed strategy when death rates started soaring among their citizens. 2020 will surely go down in historical archives as the year of political blunders and contradictions. 

The climate of uncertainty and contradictory statements issued by world leaders and medical experts was the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories and misleading news to flourish. With lockdowns across the globe, social media platforms have gone into overdrive in spreading misinformation, and so too have mainstream media. I have watched, morbidly fascinated, how high-ranking politicians, doctors, statisticians, epidemiologists, and other highly qualified and degreed experts have repeatedly argued for and against the severity of Covid-19.

Big media platforms and academic journals have logged a complete record of this mayhem. So perhaps it is unfair to be overly critical of the conspiracy theorists or armchair specialists when they are being spoon-fed misinformation from “reputable” sources. 

What is needed is reliable and trustworthy information. We need to understand the science behind statistics and how this is measured up against the impact of SARS Covid-19. I was most dismayed when I read an article published in The New York Times on 14 April 2020, of how health officials were adding mortality rates to Covid-19, without having carried out tests on the victims. That is data manipulation plain and simple, and the very thing that leads to misinformation, false news, and conspiracy theories. Scientists, health officials and statisticians need to be thorough in their assessments and data interpretation. There is no denying the severity of SARS Covid-19, but we need to question how data is obtained and interpreted. I do not doubt that scientists will be studying the figures for months to come, and academic rigour will ensure we eventually obtain correct and reliable information.

An article published by the World Economic Forum, originally from Reuters, highlighted the lack of academic rigour and peer review in numerous academic publications.    There are currently hundreds of medical and scientific studies focused on SARS Covid-19 and a race to get results published. It is commendable that academics across the world are writing up their findings, and publishing papers and making them available to colleagues, but it is equally important that they receive adequate peer review and scrutiny before publication. While reputable journals are retracting some published submissions, it is often too late and gets into the wrong hands. 

There is no simple answer because the situation and circumstances are complex. It is the biggest health and economic crisis post World War II that governments have had to face. It is unreasonable to be overly critical of how politicians have reacted. I would not like to be placed in a situation where I must make hard decisions about the economy against the backdrop of people dying due to lack of appropriate action.

The standard protocol when dealing with an infectious and highly contagious disease is “contain and isolate”. Restricting global travel and implementing social distancing are part of containment and isolation. Understandably, with today’s global trade and production output, such a move is bound to deliver a detrimental and lasting blow to the world economy. Hundreds of thousands of people stand to lose their incomes, and they will understandably be angry. The long-term impact of depression and associated psychological conditions must not be underestimated. These conditions can easily lead to increased substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence and crime. Governments will need to institute social health programmes to manage depression and anxiety. The impact could last for many years and difficult to measure. 

Despite the devastating economic outlook, I do see some positive outcomes. People are more likely to change their ways only once they have been personally impacted by a traumatic event. I am not overly optimistic about reports of decreased pollution levels, urban wildlife thriving due to lack of people in public spaces, or ecosystems regenerating due to a decline in demand for resources. These are all temporary and fleeting. 

Our economic model relies on production, manufacturing, and the exploitation of resources, including a consumer base onto which to deliver these commodities. We can certainly reflect upon “sustainable development”, but the world has over seven billion people to feed, house and entertain. Unless we see a reverse trend in human population growth, sustainability will remain a pipe dream. I fear that the economic stimulus needed to revive the world economy and get people reemployed may accelerate habitat loss and environmental destruction. We cannot be complacent.    

However, I do believe post-Covid-19 the world will be more aware of environmental issues, including climate change. The best available evidence to date suggests that SARS Covid-19 was a viral mutation with origins in a bat species that jumped through an intermediary host (pangolins are suspected) to humans through a raw wildlife market in Wuhan. The World Health Organisation is currently investigating the exact origins. This has placed a spotlight on wildlife harvesting and trafficking. Many countries are now scrutinizing this trade. Those affected and those who have lost loved ones as far away as Italy, Spain, England and America will be seeking answers. It is an appropriate time to reflect on environmental issues and how we interact with the natural world – our life support system. Perhaps SARS Covid-19 was the environmental stimulus package we needed to set in motion a mindset shift toward a better relationship with our natural world. We can only hope. 

Article and photos by: Warren Schmid

Warren holds a Master of Science degree in Ecological Sciences awarded by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He has three decades of experience in ecology, conservation science, invasion biology and herpetology. He has worked as a journalist, magazine editor, and lecturer, and has presented talks, seminars, and lectures.


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