Human Writes: The People vs The Virus

  • Living
  • Monday, 13 Apr 2020

An electronic billboard with a sign of the times, #DUDUKRUMAH and #StayAtHome, beside an eerily deserted Jalan Parlimen, Kuala Lumpur, with the KL Tower in the background. — FAIHAN GHANI/The Star

We live in strange times. Overnight, our world has changed unbelievably. “Normal life” has vanished.

In the first week of April, more than a third of the world’s population has gone under some form of restricted movement or lockdown. Borders closed, schools shut, airlines stopped flying and workplaces went virtual using videoconferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams. Cities that never sleep were lulled; top tourist destinations like Rome became ghost towns. The pandemic also created pandemonium in grocery stores.

Seismic shocks are expected with the economy. The rule of law has hardened as leaders flip-flop over action. We look to health workers for succour and to scientists for solutions. And we worry for older loved ones.

Who could have imagined this two months ago?

When can normal life return? That’s a million-dollar question.

An effective vaccine could answer that conclusively. A few candidates are already being tested. Normally, vaccine development takes over a decade. Three phases of clinical trials are needed – a process that cannot be hurried for safety reasons. But there’s hope we’ll have one in 18 months or even a year. We can only hope.

New drugs also take years to develop, so research is looking at licensed drugs. Drug trials for four possible treatments are underway in 70 countries, including nine hospitals in Malaysia. Trials on blood plasma from recovered patients, which contain antibodies, will prove if this is effective.

In the meantime, it’s The People vs The Virus.

In poor countries unprepared to fight, the virus will sweep through leaving a trail of dead. We’ve put up a tough fight, but the virus is moving quickly by stealth. Even if we appear to vanquish the virus, it won’t be over. Cases could be imported from countries battling explosive epidemics, a fear among Asian nations. We’ve long had a problem with illegal immigration from Indonesia, where Covid-19 is raging. You think that will stop now?

As long as the virus lurks in a corner of the world, it’s not over. One case could reignite a fire. Moreover some cases are asymptomatic. In mass testing in Iceland, 50% of those tested positive for Covid-19 had no symptoms.

So this could go on for months, with a lull then another wave of infections. Countries may relax restrictions and reopen schools and businesses, only to revert back to regain control. We’re a long way from a vaccine or infections peaking in a population. That’s why Malaysia's movement control order (MCO) – which has just been extended for the second time, to April 28 – must be reasonable. If it’s too strict, with a very high social cost, compliance is difficult.

It’s crazy that 4,000 MCO offenders have been arrested (as at April 10). Detention in crowded lockups defeats the purpose of the MCO! Arresting lone joggers and dragging them to court risks infection. Police officers are at risk – 66 have tested positive (as at April 10). Anyway, outdoor exercise with social distancing may be feasible – other countries allow it. Malaysian lawyer and human rights activist Charles Hector suggests police investigate cases after the threat has passed and send people back home for now.

We also need to weigh the costs to businesses, supply chains and daily wage earners. The consequences could be bad. People may need help to survive. A partial MCO with social distancing could be an option.

Covid-19 is changing our lives. It has ended mass gatherings. But it is bringing people together online. I’ve caught up with my many foreign friends. I’ve heard Covid-19 stories from families in New York City, San Francisco, London and Madrid. I heard about a headache and sore throat as first signs, about dry coughs and diarrhoea, about losing the sense of smell, about a high fever in one and no fever in another. I heard about the healthy baby that the sick family couldn’t kiss. And the 40-year-old who found relief by sitting in a chair for days rather than lying down.

My friend in Moscow showed me his Covid-19-positive certificate, which warns of a massive fine and five years jail if he dares step out of his apartment. My friend in Madrid told me tearfully how she could not see her father’s body or give him a funeral. This virus is brutal.

The more we know about the virus, the better we can deal with it. We should normalise it, not stigmatise or hide it. One person who doesn’t disclose recent trips or gatherings attended could infect dozens of people, some of whom could die.

The pandemic has shown us what and who really matters. Our lives are in the hands of healthcare workers and scientists. Our needs depend on grocery store workers and delivery service providers, not celebrities. We are realising what is truly important – our families and our health.

To end this pandemic, we must end it for everyone. The planet needs unity badly not only for this battle but also to solve crises such as climate change. This fight is for humanity. We win by doing this together.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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