Covid-19: Why schools, malls, etc should be closed temporarily

MARCH 9 — In responding to the threat of Covid-19, there are two things a society must avoid. 

The first is outright panic, manifested in panic-buying, which helps no one. Crucially, stocking up on tons and tons of cornflakes and toilet paper does nothing to stop the spread of the virus (especially to the most vulnerable among us).

The second (usually more palatable option) is the belief that drastic measures and hyper-caution are unnecessary because “there is no reason to panic.” 

It is common to hear arguments that, well, since Covid-19’s death rate is more or less the same as the average flu, and since the world wasn’t on high-alert with MERS, Ebola, etc. the hyper-vigilance surrounding Covid-19 is unwarranted. 

Why not simply respond to Covid-19 the way we’d respond to any other kind of influenza strain we’re familiar with, right? 

And if people are so concerned about this new flu, shouldn’t we be just as concerned each time we drive on the highway?

Folks who present the above arguments would be dead set against closing (even temporarily) schools, churches, mosques, malls, conferences, public events, etc. 

In my view, these folks miss some key aspects of Covid-19 which render it a categorically different phenomenon than highway accidents or a normal flu or whatever. 

It’s that Covid-19 remains relatively “mysterious” and thus has not been “priced in” to our understanding of the future.

Until a vaccine is available, we should be honest and declare that we simply don’t know what we’re dealing with here (no matter how many WhatsApp messages and news stories we’ve read).

This makes comparing Covid-19’s death rate with other strains, and declaring it to be similar, a faulty move. 

SARS’ death rate is part and parcel of a generally well-understood medical phenomenon; Covid-19’s rate is, as of now, nothing more than uncertain data for something medical experts are still struggling to know more about. 

[Then again, WHO did report that Covid-19’s death rate thus far is about double that of the seasonal flu].

As an analogy, in the airline industry, the possibility of engine failure or turbulence are well-known factors already taken into account for each flight. 

Aviation experts have studied these through and through and, generally, all pilots have been trained to know what to expect and how to deal with such cases.

But just imagine a strange new “problem” which hits aircraft every now and then for which no clear solution is found? Imagine that, say, out of a hundred flights which have faced this new malfunction, two or three have crashed (especially from aircraft which have been in use for longer than, say, 10 years)? 

Now, add in the interesting fact that this glitch will “jump” from plane to plane more with each additional new flight! How long before the entire industry is shut down, is “contained”, until the problem is resolved or at least much better understood?

This is the answer to folks who compare Covid-19 to, say, cancer: You getting cancer doesn’t demonstrably increase the risk of your colleague getting cancer.

The below is from the WHO director-general a few days ago:

“Covid-19 spreads less efficiently than flu, transmission does not appear to be driven by people who are not sick, it causes more severe illness than flu, there are not yet any vaccines or therapeutics, and it can be contained – which is why we must do everything we can to contain it. That’s why WHO recommends a comprehensive approach.”

The director-general goes on to say that containment must be a top priority. 

I’m no med student, but I read that to mean that WHO is generally on the same page as Penang Mufti Dr Wan Salim Wan Mohd Noor who floated the idea of stopping Friday mosque services until the situation is better controlled. 

To Wan Salim’s suggestion, folks like me would also add that perhaps malls and schools should also take a temporary break. 

The issue isn’t about being alarmist; it’s about ensuring that the weakest members of our society don’t get infected.

Ultimately, these are the cards we’re dealt with when it comes to Covid-19. We don’t understand it enough to cure it, nobody has immunity and its growth is exponential and depends on a lot of folks being at places where other folks congregate. 

Therefore, the best way to combat Covid-19 is to contain it, and the best way to contain it is to stop people from getting into contact with each other.

So, will Malaysia seriously consider forcing mall-goers, classroom students and worshippers a month off?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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