COVID-19 is a human crisis and a challenge of a century

After the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920 that wiped out an estimated five crore (50 million) human lives, almost a 100 year later, COVID-19 is posing a similar pandemic threat to humanity across the world. It has posed a huge challenge for the mankind as there is no known cure for this highly infectious disease as of now.

This virus was first detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China on December 31 of last year after pneumonia of unknown cause was detected in Wuhan and was first reported to the WHO Country Office in China. Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization of an outbreak of a novel strain of coronavirus causing severe illness, which was subsequently named SARS-CoV-2.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some cause illness in people, and others, such as canine and feline coronaviruses, only infect animals. Rarely, animal coronaviruses that infect animals have emerged to infect people and can spread between people. This is suspected to have occurred for the virus that causes COVID-19. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) are two other examples of coronaviruses that originated from animals and then spread to people.

Shortly after the epidemic began, Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and made the data available to researchers worldwide. The resulting genomic sequence data has shown that Chinese authorities rapidly detected the epidemic and that the number of COVID-19 cases have been increasing because of human to human transmission after a single introduction into the human population.  The scientists analyzed the genetic template for spike proteins, armatures on the outside of the virus that it uses to grab and penetrate the outer walls of human and animal cells. More specifically, they focused on two important features of the spike protein: the receptor-binding domain (RBD), a kind of grappling hook that grips onto host cells, and the cleavage site, a molecular can opener that allows the virus to crack open and enter host cells.

What is worrying is that COVID-19 virus seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community (“community spread”). The virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes.  WHO continues to recommend that isolating, testing and treating every suspected case and tracing every contact must be the backbone of the response in every country. This is the best hope of preventing widespread community transmission.

While the pandemic has given a kneejerk shock to neglected epidemiology studies and research, at the same time, it has posed a monumental challenge  before the drug scientists to find a medicine/vaccine at the earliest. Meanwhile, respiratory etiquette (for example, by coughing into a flexed elbow), social distancing, lockdowns and public education remain the best option for communities where the spread is yet sporadic.

The crisis has no end in sight in immediate future unless some miraculous drug/vaccine or environmental factors stops its spike, so it will extract a heavy cost on economy and all societal systems including education system. In this backdrop, educationists and technology providers along with policy makers must enter into a dialogue and create frameworks for online learning/teaching so that disruption in education is mitigated and students remain engaged to knowledge creation and transaction

Below are a few excerpts from the statement of UN Secretary General, ANTÓNIO GUTERRES  on COVID-19’:

As people’s lives are disrupted, isolated and upturned, we must prevent this pandemic from turning into a crisis of mental health.  Young people will be most at risk.

Children are also paying a heavy price.  More than 800 million children are out of school right now — many of whom rely on school to provide their only meal.  We must ensure that all children have access to food and equal access to learning – bridging the digital divide and reducing the costs of connectivity.

Health spending must be  must be scaled up right away to meet urgent needs and the surge in demand — expanding testing, bolstering facilities, supporting health care workers, and ensuring adequate supplies – with full respect for human rights and without stigma.

It has been proven that the virus can be contained.  It must be contained. 

If we let the virus spread like wildfire – especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world — it would kill millions of people.