LETTERS: Corona: Scientific evidence vs populist decisions

A researcher conducts a Covid-19 coronavirus test in the laboratory. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to severe diseases.

The current novel coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, which began in December 2019, presents a significant challenge for the entire world. The virus has been detected on every continent except Antarctica with concentrations of thousands of cases in some areas. The World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11.

Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, an infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing and to avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.

Keeping a safe distance approach is a challenge in developing and/or underdeveloped countries where the radius between the community household is less than recommended safe distance space.

The majority of the countries have exercised forced quarantine to curb the spread of the pandemic. Countries experiencing new cases have taken swift action to suspend the schools. A total of 85 countries have closed schools. Besides, most of the employees in the private and public sectors are no longer working but a few are working from home. Countries are shutting down the retail economy (shops) except pharmacies and grocery stores. People have been instructed to stay at home and may enter public places only for necessary shopping or commuting to work. This kind of forced quarantine is crucial to minimise further cases. However, no substantial evidence has emerged to show the impact on the economy precisely in Low-Middle Income Countries.

More than 60 percent of the world’s employed population is in the informal economy, hence it means that they cannot afford not to work from home and a day spent without work means no pay. A new International Labour Organisation report shows that two billion people work informally, most of them in emerging and developing countries. That is very practical in low and middle-income countries with new Covid-19 cases and exercising forced quarantine.

The loss of income for casual workers in low and middle-income countries will result in extreme mental stress for people already earning meagre incomes. This demands urgent attention to prevent homelessness.

In response to the crisis, some governments like Germany and the US have introduced a short-time work allowance and granted generous credit assistance, guarantees or tax deferrals for distressed firms and individuals.

A short-time work allowance approach is granted when the regular customary weekly working hours are shortened temporarily in companies or departments due to economic reasons or an inevitable event.

The approach has been tested and proved to be an economic cushion and all countries that are quick to make shutting down of activity nationwide should be replicating the approach, which is a policy in developed countries to prevent job losses. However, for the African countries, there are no economic boosters in place to cushion the citizens.

It’s important to learn the disease trend and stringent measures in place in other countries and put the evidence-informed experience into context rather than follow the majority decisions, which are not evidence-based. For example, even though the forced quarantine might seem to work its evident the disease has a close to 14 days’ asymptomatic window period, hence the new cases infected today will be evident in a fortnight. Therefore, in those countries who are surprisingly reporting the cases now might experience increased cases in the next coming weeks.

Gathering evidence about effective interventions to inform decision-making rather than following a panic intervention that might not be one size fit all based on the context is crucial. On the economic perspective, a severe recession due to the disease can no longer be avoided, and some economists are already calling for governments to introduce measures to reinforce aggregate demand. But that recommendation is inadequate, given that the global economy is suffering from an extraordinary economic scenario. Researchers will need to keep emerging research under close review to curb the current evidence gap.

Leyla Hussein Abdullahi, Research and policy analyst at the African Institute for Development Policy.

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