How has our understanding of Covid-19 changed?

Many are walking with a bounce in their step as coronavirus lockdown restrictions ease across the world. To our relief, even the blanket news coverage of the pandemic is looking more like a patchwork quilt these last few weeks.

In places that have been remarkably spared like Australia and New Zealand, we might conclude that the threat of the virus is fading because of our cooperation with government directives and responsibility towards our fellow citizens.

And to be sure, strategies like personal hygiene and social distancing have helped slow the spread of the virus. But the more we learn about Covid-19 and our response to it, the more we might wonder if we overestimated its threat.

Early Australian modelling suggested a global death toll of up to 68 million, or 15 million in a best-case scenario. Lockdowns were put in place to “flatten the curve”—in other words, to spread the caseload out over time so as not to overwhelm our hospital systems.

But as infection rates continue to slow in most countries, it seems possible that we are squashing the curve almost entirely. A total of 380,000 deaths is a terrible tragedy, but it is thankfully just a small fraction of early estimates.

Vigilance remains our great ally as we keep battling against a virus with many unknowns. Infection rates may yet spike as we re-open, and we are still learning about the long-term effects of the virus. For these reasons and more, the great danger to avoid is stating one’s case with too much certainty.

With all this said, however, there is evidence that we might have panicked more than necessary in the early days—and that we can be cautiously optimistic as we return to our normal lives.

So how has our understanding of this pandemic changed since earlier in the year?

Covid-19 is far less deadly than we first thought

The World Health Organisation originally reported that 3.4% of people infected with Covid-19 would succumb to the virus. As with other pandemics, they were confident that this death rate would drop as testing increased.

Just last week, CNN reported that the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now puts the death rate at 0.4%—and that figure is only for those with symptoms. If asymptomatic carriers are included, the death toll could be lower still. (For comparison, the fatality rate of the flu is around 0.1%).

The virus may not easily spread from surfaces

Research released in mid-April found that the novel coronavirus could remain detectable on various surfaces for many hours and even days at a time. This was an important justification for “safer at home” messaging and the shuttering of public facilities and businesses worldwide.

The CDC originally issued guidelines in line with this research, but just over a week ago the institute changed its tone. Based on newer epidemiological data, their website now explains that the virus spreads mainly through person-to-person contact and that it doesn’t easily spread from surfaces.

Lockdowns may actually be ineffective

The debate over extended lockdowns versus reopening the economy has become a heated one, especially in the United States. But a fascinating study comparing various US states showed that, in fact, there is no relationship between Covid-19 deaths and lockdown policies.

Adjusting for variables, the study found that states with strict lockdown policies actually had almost twice as many infections per capita than those without them, and also more deaths per million—the opposite of what might be expected. Wilfred Reilly, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University, writes:

The fact that good-sized regions from Utah to Sweden to much of East Asia have avoided harsh lockdowns without being overrun by Covid-19 is notable. The original response to Covid-19 was driven by an understandable fear of an unknown disease. The epidemiologist Neil Ferguson projected that 2.2 million people could die in the US alone, and few world leaders were willing to risk being the one who would allow such grim reaping to occur …
And empirical analyses of national and regional response strategies, including this one, do not necessarily find that costly lockdowns work better against the virus than social distancing.

Lockdowns may lead to global famine

It’s widely acknowledged that locking down would have had a devastating impact on the world economy. What the debate in Western countries has largely missed, however, is how lockdowns here will affect food supply chains elsewhere.

Many families in developing nations rely heavily on international tourism for survival. Others depend on family members in the West—who are now out of work—sending regular financial support.

All of this has led David Beasley, director of the United Nations World Food Program, to warn that the world could face “multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.” In his assessment, there is “a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of Covid-19 than from the virus itself.”

Lockdowns have prompted a spike in suicides

Another story only now beginning to make the news is the adverse affects of lockdowns on mental health and suicide. Following Boris Johnson’s announcement of a lockdown, numbers of people in the UK reporting significant depression and anxiety more than doubled.

Studies in the US reveal similar trends there, even suggesting that more lives will ultimately be lost than were saved through lockdowns. Here in Australia, modelling conducted at Sydney University warns that an additional 1,500 suicides may result from the impact of the coronavirus restrictions.

Doctors in California report seeing more deaths from suicide than coronavirus since the lockdowns began. Similar stories are emerging from countries as diverse as India, the UK and Thailand.

Reactions to the virus may be causing a wider health crisis

There may also be a broader health crisis developing. About 600 American physicians recently sent a letter to the White House warning of patients avoiding routine medical tests and emergency care due to excessive fear of the virus. The cancelling of elective and routine procedures has likewise contributed to their concerns.

“These include 150,000 Americans per month who would have had a new cancer detected through a routine screening that hasn’t happened, millions who have missed routine dental care to fix problems strongly linked to heart disease/death, and preventable cases of stroke, heart attack, and child abuse,” the letter says.

Where to from here?

There is no doubt that we are still facing a global health emergency. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives to Covid-19. And while many Western nations are experiencing a reprieve, our attention shifts to countries like Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico whose death rates continue to rise.

Without the intervention of governments, this pandemic could have been much more dire. And we must be careful not to expect perfect foresight from our leaders, or judge them using data that is only now emerging.

But as we learn more about Covid-19 and our responses to it, we can only hope that national leaders learn from newly emerging data, from the wide-ranging effects of their decisions, and from one another.


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