Troops disinfect the airport in Daegu, the South Korean city hardest hit by the novel coronavirus. Photo: AFP

Countries locked down, 3 billion people confined at home, livelihoods lost and a global economy battered – is all this worth it for a pandemic considered far less life-threatening than the Ebola virus?

Ebola killed up to 50% of its victims. But it was not as contagious as Covid-19. Ebola mostly spread through bodily fluids like sweat and blood during its final stages.

People infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes the Covid-19 respiratory disease) can transmit the infection one to three days before symptoms start to appear, says a study released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Unlike Covid-19, Ebola symptoms were so severe that medical officials could quickly identify and isolate those who had contact with victims of the disease.

“One coronavirus-positive person can infect 406 persons in 30 days in the absence of preventive measures like lockdown or social distancing, ” Indian Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal informed the media on Tuesday. “But with up to 70% measures in place, the number of infections per positive person comes down to a maximum of 2.5 people.”

It could be worse. A Covid-19 carrier in South Korea known as “Patient 31” transmitted the virus to more than 1,100 people in Daegu and Seoul as she merrily went about her daily life attending church and lunch buffets with friends.

Infection-reduction measures such as lockdowns, despite resultant economic costs, became unavoidable with the unique nature of Covid-19.

“You don’t have relatively healthy people with the [Ebola] virus walking around shedding the virus – going on the bus, going shopping, going to work – as we do with Covid-19,” Reuters quoted Dr Christine Johnson, a professor of epidemiology with USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT project, as saying.

Covid-19 does not have Ebola’s brutal mortality rate but its victims showing delayed symptoms can need intensive care, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is undergoing at London’s St Thomas Hospital.

Not Ebola, but bigger impact

Because of its rapid infecting power, the sheer number of people contracting Covid-19 in a short time is stretching medical resources worldwide, such as hospital beds and ventilators. It is crowding out non-Covid-19 patients needing surgery and treatment, including diabetics with kidney ailments and heart patients.

A medical worker wearing protective gear takes a rest as he waits for ambulances carrying patients infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus at an entrance of a hospital in Daegu on February 23, 2020. Photo: AFP/Yonhap

Those with serious health conditions could become vulnerable to life-threatening infection when they go to hospitals crowded with Covid-19 patients. So alternative Covid-19 care centers are being set up worldwide, further stretching medical staff and resources.

For that reason, two US Navy hospital ships, Mercy and Comfort, have been deployed in Los Angeles and New York to treat non-Covid-19 patients.

USNS Comfort arrives in New York City to serve as a referral hospital for non-Covid-19 patients in shore-based hospitals. This allows hospitals to focus their efforts on Covid-19 cases. Photo: US Navy / Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Adelola Tinubu / US Navy Media Resources

“In the face of unprecedented demand, New York City hospitals have constrained supplies that need to be judiciously managed for high-risk patients,” Rishi Khakhkhar, a resident emergency physician at Elmhurst Hospital, wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

Dr Khakhkhar delicately mentioned what The Wall Street Journal reported as New York hospitals preparing the dreaded “Live or Die” guidelines: choosing between whom to give ventilators and whom to let die.

Contagion power of Covid-19

Like SARS-CoV-2, tuberculosis germs can live in our body without making us sick. This is called latent TB infection. This means we have only inactive (sleeping) TB germs in the body. The inactive TB germs cannot be passed on to anyone else, according to CDC.

But the unique threat of Covid-19 is owed to the asymptomatic nature of the SARS-CoV-2: “asymptomatic” meaning anyone can be carrying the virus without showing symptoms and unknowingly infect others.

Such contagion power makes effective lockdowns unavoidable. The wishy-washy versions of “lockdown” in the US and UK are irresponsible – and outrageous considering 16,600 Covid-19 deaths in the US and 7,900 in the UK.

In India, one-third of the more than 5,000 reported SARS-CoV-2 cases across the country (expected to rise steeply to 10,000 by the weekend) are attributed to an event held in Delhi by an Islamic group, Tablighi Jamaat, the impact multiplying since Asia Times published a report on this on April 2. Covid-19 cases doubled in India at the high rate of 4.1 days due to the Tablighi Jamaat event, instead of 7.4 days, the Health Ministry said.

Because of Tablighi Jamaat being India’s “Patient 31” or not, India looks set to extend the 21-day lockdown beyond April 14.

India with the rest of the world faces uncertain times until a vaccine is found for Covid-19.

Covid-19 could leave lasting positive health and attitudinal impact because of what it is costing us – lives and livelihoods lost. Harder to forget such lessons learned from pain.

Or as in school days when we students who did not listen to the teacher were detained after class. Looks like Mother Nature has detained humanity at home for not heeding warnings – and we have “detention” punishment while Ma Nature does an urgent repair job for the planet we call home.

While what happens in the next few weeks is unknown, more predictable is a different life in a post-Covid-19 world – we hope a wiser and healthier, if less wealthy, world.

Raja Murthy has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990 and earlier for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden, The Hindu and others.