The scariest thing about the novel coronavirus is that any of you reading this may have it and yet be asymptomatic. Nepal has reported just a single case. Probably at least a few more are infected. In a coronavirus infection, the older you are, the more severe symptoms you are likely to show. Particularly vulnerable are the elderly with preexisting health conditions like heart and lung ailments. Thankfully, Nepal is a young country with an average age of 21.6 years. Just around four percent of the national population of around 30 million are over-65.
Thus, even if the global pandemic touches Nepal again, most of the sufferers here will fully recover. Yet that is cold comfort. First, we have inadequate test kits and a potentially large number of asymptomatic young carriers of the virus. In that case, they could pass on the infection to the more vulnerable elder members in their homes and communities. With our under-funded and over-stretched healthcare system, complications among the elderly may then explode. It is telling that in places with good healthcare systems novel coronavirus fatality rate is around 0.5 percent, compared to around 3.4 in places with bad ones.
It is vital to test all those who show even some symptoms of novel coronavirus quickly. But that is not enough. Over the past week or so, China and South Korea, the two Asian hotspots of coronavirus, have been able to cut the number of new infections drastically through a rigorous tracing and prompt isolation of all those who have come in contact with proven coronavirus carriers. The results have been drastic: the number of daily new cases in China has plummeted from 3,500 in late January to under 24 (as we went to press).
This gives us hope that even if the virus reenters Nepal, it can be contained. But only if the country can strictly adhere to the rules that have worked elsewhere. Our ability to contain the virus depends on the ease of availability of protective masks and sanitizers. On whether we can build enough isolation units in our hospitals, on whether temperature checking at all our public buildings can be made mandatory. Other effective measures include shutting down schools and cinema halls, limiting the use of public transport, and minimizing hospital visits.
This is no time to panic though. The government should discourage hoarding of essential commodities like medicines, LP gas and daily edibles through the assurance of their continued and timely supply. It’s all too easy to become selfish in times of crisis. Citizens may only need a gentle nudge to their conscience to behave more magnanimously. But after the WHO has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a ‘global pandemic’, Nepal will do well to brace for the worst. Again, it will be dangerous to bank too much on the low number of reported infections.