Precautions are absolutely necessary to contain and prevent the importation and local transmission of the coronavirus. But the precautionary measures adopted must be evidence-based. Extreme measures may become necessary eventually, but at this stage there is no reason to cause unnecessary panic.
The Task Force which has been established should immediately recruit an epidemiologist and a statistician to help it devise a strategy to combat the virus.
In the United States, some epidemiologists are predicting that the virus can peak within the next six weeks. While modeling is not a perfect science, it does give authorities a guide from which they can make interventions. Right now Guyana is in a wait-and-see mode; that is a disastrous strategy when it comes to this highly contagious virus.
Once this virus spreads more widely in Guyana, the local authorities would not be able to contain it. An unimaginable catastrophe will result, because the bulk of our population is narrowly concentrated along the sea coast and this creates the perfect conditions for an epidemic.
Statistical modeling needs to be done to determine possible worst case and realistic case scenarios. Guyana has approximately 750,000 persons. Some people say as much as 80% can be infected, but not everyone will be infected at the same time. This is why you recruit persons with data and statistical modelling skills to do this.
From these numbers, the Task Force should begin to identify buildings – outside of hospitals – to care for the critically infected. The reason for this is that infection is only part of the problem. The real challenge is the ability of the health system to cope with the many cases.
Not only do we not have enough beds or ventilators to deal with an epidemic, but we do not have the numbers of medical personnel to handle such a crisis. The Task Force needs to ensure that there is sufficient protective gear available for health workers should there be a worst case scenario. And it should also begin to procure stockpiles of ventilators, as expensive as they may be. China is the only country with the capacity to fill large orders in a short period of time. You have to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
The Task Force should have been more broad-based. Everything, however, cannot be left to the Task Force. The political parties during the election produced tens of thousands of jerseys and caps for its supporters. Thousands of Guyanese were enthusiastically donning their political t-shirts during the months of January and February. Party flags made out of cloth are still hanging from some lantern posts. The parties have the means to mobilize their supporters to make their own protective face masks, as is being done at present in Cuba.
The cost of one of those jerseys can buy at least five good quality face masks. Now that the campaign is over, the parties should invest in these things and begin to share them out nationally so that people can protect themselves.
Some people do not feel that face masks are necessary. But there can be no harm in wearing one – and wearing one, signals to others that you are being responsible. This, at the symbolic level, is priceless. It will encourage others to show greater responsibility.
It is ironic that the Task Force is said to be contemplating ‘extreme measures’, a euphemism for a lockdown. But why contemplate a lockdown when there are no efforts at mass distribution of face masks, and when the health sector is nowhere near in a state of readiness to deal with exponential increases in infected cases.
The government, therefore, should concentrate on addressing the medical response and on tracking persons who would have been in contact with infected persons. The political parties should concentrate on producing and distributing face masks and hand sanitizers. The private sector should emphasize social distancing and finding ways to protect their staff. Give our school teachers the task of providing public education.
If everyone plays his or her part, this pandemic can be contained locally. The number of infected persons in Guyana has not increased in one week. This could be good news or it can simply be due to the limited testing that is taking place.
Either way, it gives the authorities the time needed to better plan for the critical weeks ahead. They should make the best use of that time, and one way of doing this is to utilize a more evidence-based approach to measures to combat the virus.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper)
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