Forget the daily league tables of Covid-19 incidence, the announcements of new continuing lockdowns, and social restrictions. The most instructive news has been coming out of India. According to large scale testing, some 30 percent of the population of Delhi now has antibodies against the coronavirus.
That number has been rising steadily. An even bigger antibody count – 57 percent – was registered earlier in a crowded section of Mumbai, and 51 percent in Pune. If these trends continue, these cities and then the nation as a whole could well reach the 60 percent antibody level that provides a high degree of herd immunity. India might well reach that point long before the much-promised vaccine arrives. Even most vaccines are only partial barriers, as flu and pneumonia vaccines have long shown.
If indeed a vaccine is devised soon, it may provide at best 60 percent immunity, and need annual repetition, in which case Covid-19 can’t be eliminated in the same way as smallpox and polio. The world will have to learn to live with it like pneumonia and tuberculosis, both lung-related diseases. Some rich, well-organized societies such as South Korea and Hong Kong believed they could eliminate it with lockdowns. When apparent success turned to failure, they reimposed lockdowns.
But this looks like an endless cycle to nowhere, a mirage like the silver bullet vaccine in which billions of dollars are being invested. Hong Kong’s latest wave has died down but the restrictions are crippling businesses and another wave is more than likely if the territory opens its borders. South Korea meanwhile, so praised early on, faces a huge new outbreak. Europe went some way to removing internal restrictions but some countries, notably the UK, have adopted beggar-thy-neighbor policies on entry even while their own cases remain as significant as the next door country – France.
As with many aspects of Covid-19, there is as yet no certainty as to the level of effectiveness and longevity of the naturally-acquired antibodies. But it does seem that resistance to Covid is already high in these Indian urban centers. One-third of Delhi is about six million people. So far India has only three million reported cases of the disease and 56,000 deaths attributed to it. Of course, these figures are sure to be an under-estimate but even if multiplied by ten they bring the total cases to 30 million out of 1.4 billion and deaths to 500,000. Given that India regularly has about 500,000 deaths a year from an age-old scourge, tuberculosis, at worst the Covid threat is no greater than the normal TB one. What is more, TB hits the young and middle-aged much more than the old-age group who are the main victims of Covid (and usually in connection with other conditions). The antibody data also suggest that in the major cities vast number have been touched by the disease but no serious symptoms.
Earlier in the outbreak, the scientists (initially in the UK and still in Sweden) who advocated a herd mentality approach rather than lockdowns and praying for a vaccine, were booed off the stage by media and politicians driven by daily Covid-related death counts. But looking back at events in Europe, it is clear that large apparent death numbers were of average age 80-plus, mostly having existing conditions such as heart disease or diabetes. Rates were especially high in care homes – but the average length of residence of such homes is less than two years anyway. After spiking, death rates are back below trend.
In India, the economic destruction continues to be massive with job losses and enforced return of migrant workers to their villages causing huge hardship to tens if not hundreds of millions. The price for the largely ineffective measures urged by the World Health Organization and undertaken by a Modi government anxious to show itself as “tough” outweighs any benefits – poverty, loss of education, loss of rudimentary health care, loss of vaccinations against other diseases, etc.
The Philippines is another case of a country with a leader who wants to appear tough, locking down much of the most productive part of the nation but failing to prevent the spread. In the cases of both countries, governments lack the resources and organization to significantly offset income losses, particularly given the high levels of self-employment in informal service activities. The social and economic costs have become so high that President Rodrigo Duterte has had to backtrack on restrictions at a time when cases have been soaring.
While the WHO and the virus-science establishments focus almost all their attention on a war they will almost certainly lose, other health threats go unattended. Governments, university research scientists, and pharmaceutical companies have been dragooned into focusing billions of dollars and man-hours on this one disease. Meanwhile, where are the billions for investment in new antibiotics to replace the ones already failing due to resistance, not least the rise of hospital-caught infections that kill large numbers every day?
New thinking is needed. Lockdowns do not work in most poor countries. In richer and more highly structured ones they work for a while then start to fail, causing new lockdowns. Meanwhile, governments pile up enormous debts subsidizing employment and enterprises. Sooner or later they will be forced to face the reality that short-sightedness has failed, and that reliance on one group of scientists to the exclusion of the wider scientific and social community has been a disaster.
One disaster however has not yet arrived. The world could be facing “multiple famines of biblical proportions” within a short few months,” Executive Director of the World Food Program David Beasley warned in April, citing the impact of the coronavirus epidemic as well as natural disasters and changing weather patterns.
Fortunately, the one group of people who have not stopped working despite all the lockdowns, market closures, and government propaganda aimed at keeping people in-doors are the farmers. Their lives depend on getting to the fields and planting and reaping. So it is not surprising that in otherwise hard-hit Asian countries including India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, agricultural output is the only part of the economy which has kept on growing so far confounding Beasley.
Prices of the main global food crops -- rice, wheat, corn, sugar and soybean – all saw upticks in March and April but have slipped back to pre-Covid levels. On the long-term horizon, they remain about where they were in 2010.
Curiously, media obsessed with the case and death counts and the need for masks, hand-washing, anti-bacterial cleansing have failed to notice what a fine job the farmers are doing by apparently ignoring official policies and getting on with their work. This may not of course last if they are frightened into curtailing their efforts and focus on only producing enough for themselves and immediate communities rather than supply the market which feeds the cities where 35-50 percent of the people live.
Then the cities ruled by blinkered politicians, bureaucrats, and self-styled virus experts will have only themselves to blame if there are famines of “biblical proportions” or, rather more likely, face appeals by leaders like Xi Jinping to people to “clean their plates,” not waste food and eat less meat.
Philip Bowring is co-founder and consulting editor to Asia Sentinel