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The socioeconomics of pandemics

After weeks of hiatus, there are now 16 new cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines. Before anything, let’s recap facts.

In February, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency and called on nations to take urgent measures to address the emerging public health threat. Unconfirmed stories developing faster than the pathogen was the bigger issue back then.

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An outbreak’s impact is multifactorial, influenced by the mode of transmission, fatality, and accessibility of the source. Thus, an epidemic is a matter of international security as it causes deaths and disrupts systems and the daily lives of average citizens.

In Asia-Pacific, the fast rate of urbanization has caused a tremendous rise in population density. Better transportation systems have led to the unprecedented mobility of individuals, who are now capable of traveling farther, faster, and more often.

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Factors that weaken the immune system also make people more susceptible. Asians are predisposed to acquire diabetes, making up 60 percent of the world’s cases. East and Southeast Asia have the highest aging population. Aging and weakened immune systems, along with hygiene issues, make the region a potential epicenter for outbreaks.

But the greatest threat is from the public panic and government response, and not from the strain per se. When the public panics, leaders intervene and allot funds to combat the new virus—funds that usually go to other equally pressing diseases like HIV, malaria and measles.

Some 1.1 million people died of TB in 2018. But since it doesn’t make headlines, leaders are swayed to allocate funds to combat the threat of the new virus instead. The decision calms the public while leaders garner political mileage, but this also results in more deaths from less reported diseases—more than the new virus will ever cause, proving that government calls are just as detrimental as pandemics.

COVID-19 is from the same family as SARS. Although unique, it’s also similar with other strains. Damage is expected to be limited over time, as the average death rate of COVID-19 is around 2 percent vs 34.4 percent for MERS and 9 percent for SARS. What’s unique to COVID-19 is its easy human transmission and prolonged incubation period. This makes detection, monitoring, and quarantine difficult.

Since other determinants of infection trajectories are trading and migration patterns, travel bans are set to minimize transmission. But the bans are expected to result in economic losses. It took around 300 days to contain SARS. By then, US$40 billion had been lost globally. That was 17 years ago. IHS Markit reports that China accounted for 4.2 percent of the global economy in 2003, but now holds 16.3 percent of the world’s GDP. China drives major economic growth worldwide, about 39 percent according to the International Monetary Fund. Hence, any slowdown in the Chinese economy will send waves across the globe.

Most of this economic loss is not related to the virus, but to panic, as airlines, hotels, and other industries suffer. This is heavier in China, as leaders have suspended all major forms of local transport in Wuhan and other cities. The lockdowns have disrupted trade and naval shipments through the Yangtze River, trickling to the economy of nearby major cities like Beijing.

Coronavirus outbreaks usually peak in winter and decline in the summer. If the same is true for COVID-19, bans could be lifted by April. Monitoring new cases would establish if the virus follows the trajectory of previous outbreaks and eventually dies out. If it gets worse, China’s contingencies will extend and significantly cripple its manufacturing and export capacities, taking down with them other major global industries that rely on Chinese factories to make their products and on Chinese consumers for sales.

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These highlight that health remains an important framework for global stability and unity. The need for an empirical approach to incorporate region-wide safety nets against infectious diseases into program planning and design gains relevance, as trade and travel intensify. This dynamics reflect that many aspects of the health care system are not disjointed from culture, technologies, social infrastructure, economic policies, and political action.

The challenge is now on us to create protocols and permanent quarantine facilities that will address COVID-19 and any future pandemics.

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Faye Sinoy Travilla, from South Cotabato, is a nurse and doctor. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines Manila and works in local hospitals while helping out in NGOs.

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
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TAGS: COVID-19, World Health Organization
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