The devastating effects of Spanish flu of 1918, the Asian flu of 1957, and the Honk Kong flu of 1968 are well known. From these outbreaks we have learnt that pandemic mortality rates can be high, infection spread is rapid and health systems can get overloaded – all of which cause confusion and fear and a lot of social and economic disruption.
By the 1980s, those of us who work in public health were very happy that most infectious diseases appeared to have been controlled in most parts of the world by way of simple measures such as vaccination, personal hygiene, quarantine and personal care. The scourge of smallpox was wiped out in 1980. But then we had the horror of the HIV/Aids outbreak that still causes much misery and pain. More recently, we have had concerning outbreaks of Ebola, Zika, H1N1, Sars and Mers. These instances warn us against complacency where infectious diseases are concerned.
lCovid-19 pandemic threat
We are now watching the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic crisis unfold. The disease, caused by a novel strain of coronavirus, is rapidly spreading worldwide and affecting large percentages of populations in most countries. The disease presents a serious risk to the elderly and those with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and others with weakened immune system.
It is true that around 80% of people will experience only mild symptoms and will make a full and speedy recovery. That is a blessing. But if we carry on with our normal lives because of this, we make that blessing a curse, spreading the disease widely to others who are vulnerable.
While the disease is spreading worldwide, the science and governmental commitment are on our side. Please allow us to explain.
We have available to us effective public health measures that will result in favourable outcomes in terms of reducing the disease rates and slowing the virus transmission, thus reducing mortality and human suffering. Examples of these measures include social distancing, quarantine, isolation, staying home (especially if you are sick), avoiding large gatherings, and simple hygiene measures such as hand-washing and covering one’s mouth while coughing and sneezing – all of which are very helpful. Providing emotional and mental health support is also essential.
The simplicity of these methods should not obscure their effectiveness – every day you spend at home deprives the virus of its means of transmission, and every week that we collectively spend at home is like a hammer blow to the virus, saving countless lives and preventing untold human tragedy and misery. And washing hands with soap and water, lifts and removes viruses and also breaks them apart. For these reasons, most health professionals are huge advocates of these measures. It is our hope that one day soon, there will be a vaccine against Covid-19, but for now there simply is no other alternative to the current approach if we want to stop this virus in its tracks.
While there is merit to the evaluation of the seriousness of this disease, we need to present and discuss the data to the public with caution to avoid any misinterpretation and sensationalism associated with this outbreak. A couple of examples illustrate this viewpoint. One, projected incidence rates as high as 70% and 80% (in Germany and New York) are open to interpretation. Two, the reported fatality rates may be biased skewed by the fact that the testing in some countries tends to be limited to the people showing the most severe symptoms. The numbers cited in the press may therefore exaggerate the overall fatality rate of the disease.
Misinformation and rumors concerning the coronavirus pandemic are common and worrisome. Even worse, the sensationalising of any data and or information has the potential to obscure the scientific truth, and consequently compromises the public’s true understanding of the disease. Further, it can create fear and adversely affect healthcare utilisation.
lTransparency, decisive action and public support helping Qatar beat Covid-19
The mission of the Ministry of Public Health is to protect the health of every person in the State of Qatar, whether they are Qatari or non-Qatari, young or old, residents or visitors, so we are remaining extremely vigilant in our measures to control and limit the spread of the coronavirus. We have been encouraged by the success we have had so far in controlling the spread of the disease but we are ever watchful and are prepared to introduce further measures if needed.
The pandemic strategy is being implemented by three broad sectors that are working together to combat the virus. Firstly, we have the government, which acted swiftly to limit the movement of people into Qatar and to reduce the level of physical interaction among people within the country. These measures have been implemented in an orderly fashion and have been extremely effective.
Secondly, we have the healthcare sector, which has provided testing opportunities, high-quality patient care and research advice. We extend our deepest gratitude to all of our healthcare providers.
And thirdly, we have the people of the community, who are playing a crucially important role by self-isolating, maintaining high levels of personal hygiene and supporting one another. Remember, just because we are distancing ourselves physically does not mean that we cannot remain socially connected via telephone and using other digital platforms. A small gesture like a call or a message from a loved-one goes a long way at the moment.
Because of these measures, we have not seen a big surge in the number of cases in Qatar and for that we are thankful but not complacent. Our rigorous testing regime and our commitment to be as transparent as possible, provides us with reliable data which can help us in our battle against the virus. Through our decisive strategy and collective action, we give ourselves the best chance of protecting the health of everyone in Qatar.
We should not panic nor be overwhelmed by fear. Decisions taken out of fear are seldom good ones. It simply means that we must stay alert to the threat and take swift and decisive actions such as quarantine and isolations when required, implement physical distancing when needed, observation of high standards of hygiene and cleanliness at all times, and to reduce social interactions when appropriate. All of us are in this together. We will, more than likely, witness the slowing and gradual control of the pandemic soon.
*Sheikh Dr Mohamed bin Hamad al-Thani is the Director of Public Health, Ministry of Public Health, Qatar and Associate Professor, Healthcare Policy and Research, Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar.
*Dr Ravinder Mamtani, Professor of Healthcare Policy and Research, Professor of Medicine and Vice Dean for Student Affairs, Population Health, and Lifestyle Medicine, Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar.
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