"Let’s stay the course while moving forward."
I do not intend to rain on the parade over the COVID-19 vaccination rollout in several countries. Most experts, thought, still advise caution – and for good reason. Even those experts who have expressed optimism that the virus will most probably be tamed sooner than expected, at the earliest by June, have somehow pulled back. There is hope but “better safe than sorry” is the prevailing thread. Despite the expected acceleration of the global vaccination program with the addition of three or four more vaccines about to be issued emergency authorization authority (EUA) after those given to Pfizer, Moderna and Astra Zeneca, the guidance in most if not all countries remains: stay the course while moving forward.
Stay the course means abiding by the most basic protocols: use masks and face shields, practice physical (social) distancing and frequent handwashing, and avoid crowded place specially indoor areas. Moving forward includes ramping up health care capacity especially involving trained health workers, organized and efficient roll out of the vaccination program and progressive opening up of the economy. Some experts like Dr. Luis Ostrosky Zeihner, professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist with the University of Texas (UT Health) in Houston even suggested that if one cannot get a COVID-19 vaccine just yet to instead get the regular flu shot which is usually done once a year just to build one’s confidence and inspire the family and the community in abiding by the basic protocols.
"I truly believe,” Zeihcner said in an earlier interview in a health magazine, “that if we all work together, and focus for the next three or four months, we can go back to normal life as we know it.” That is a very encouraging advice indeed which we ignore at our own peril.
We may not be as optimistic as Mr. Zeihner, but there is enough reason to be hopeful
if we learn our lessons well. After all, notwithstanding the intense competition among scientists and medical experts worldwide for the development of cures against any and all kinds of diseases, this pandemic has ignited healthy collaboration within the global scientific and medical community. This is reassuring.
While there is so much more which we still have to know about this pandemic, we are certain that there will be more breakthroughs in terms of taming COVID-19 this year. For one, experts now tell us that COVID-19 is not just a respiratory disease but can affect our other organs as well. Early on, doctors in Italy and Spain, two of the most affected countries in Europe, said that while being treated for COVID-19 symptoms, patients developed thrombosis leading to heart attacks. So now they are more focused in their diagnosis of COVID-19 patients tracking not just the usual symptoms for respiratory infections but those associated with other related ailments as well.
This outbreak has also engendered a surfeit of “treatments” which doctors used in treating similar infections (flu, SARS1 and MeRs) that they then used on COVID-19 patients with better than average efficacy. Indeed, this outbreak has led to the development of therapeutics and, hopefully, the ultimate treatment, faster than most other pandemics in the past. Everybody concedes that the sense of urgency which accompanied the discovery of the vaccines now being rolled out would not have been possible in ordinary times.
Our 300-day experience under intermittent lockdowns and other measures has also enhanced the capability of our health care workers and other personnel to respond more effectively to this and future outbreaks. More facilities to test, track and treat COVID-19 infected persons will now be more easily available even as more medical personnel will now be better equipped to provide care and treatment. Additionally, other essential service workers within the health care system and other sectors will now be in a position to provide faster and more effective responses as and when needed. This is not mention the training which has been made available to those in government to ensure that treatments will be administered faster and better.
This outbreak has also exposed the gaps not just in the health care system but in governance as well leading to the realization that enhancing the system’s capability to respond to any kind of outbreak requires more than just stitching the requirements within health facilities but the support services and sectors as well. The need for dedicated transport services for health care workers at the start of the lockdowns was identified early on as a critical response measure..The upscaling of isolation quarters as well as production and logistical support for basic supplies and equipment was also pinpointed as the lockdowns extended beyond the normal.
The movement of people and goods which was a major challenge in the early days of the lockdown will continue to stay with us for the foreseeable future as domestic travel gets into gear as the need to open up productive sectors gets more pronounced. Stakeholders in the tourism sector which employs millions of workers will now have to be more focused on ensuring adherence to the basic protocols as well as the use of technology in opening up more areas for tourism and travel. The opening up of other sectors from agriculture to construction to education to mining to food processing and, of course, to small and medium enterprises including those in the informal economy will require skillful balancing between the health protocols and the inherent dynamics of work in these sectors.
Indeed, as the world transits to a new beginning the cautionary tale remains the same: Stay the course while moving forward. There is no other way if we are to look forward to building back our lives better.