COVID-19 vs H1N1, Anyone?

An hour before I woke up this morning, the news flashed on my phone with the headlines “Worldwide deaths from the coronavirus hit 100,000”. Over 1.69 million in over 200 countries have been infected in just 92 days since the SARS-CoV-2 was discovered. The number of diagnosed cases in the US exceeds those of the next top three combined – Italy, Spain and Germany. The US tally stands at 502,513 with 18,679 fatalities, their first reported case was 81 days ago, on January 19. The IMF warned that the global economy is headed for the worst recession since the Great Depression. I remember how bad the 2008 Great Recession was, and this is going to be worse? Many nations have been in some form of lockdown for several weeks. Mostly, this has involved the total freeze on non-essential services but we begin to see the push to loosen the restrictions on key businesses and industries. The WHO warned that a premature lifting of restrictions could “lead to a deadly resurgence”. But, Spain has started to relax their movement control, and Italy is clamouring for the same. Malaysia just extended their MCO by a further two weeks, albeit selected sectors can phase in their re-openings. India and Indonesia with a combined population that is the biggest in the world went into some form of lockdown just a few days ago – testing kits are in limited supply, and we can only wonder how bad the true number of cases and deaths are. Both Japan and Singapore have seen a resurgence recently and have implemented a “circuit breaker” to stop the second wave. Britain is still in lockdown with a record daily total deaths of 980 overnight. In Melbourne, there was a doubling of infections amongst healthcare workers this week. All over the world there have been massive numbers of frontline workers infected and many thousands of doctors and nurses have died. The sharemarket plummeted to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Trillions of government subsidies are being distributed to prop up businesses and millions of people who have lost their pay cheques. Whilst much of the world has been at a standstill, Mother Earth has begun to repair our environment’s eco-systems.

It was on December 1 2019 that a patient showed symptoms of a novel coronavirus in Hubei Province. China reported a pneumonia of unknown cause to the WHO Country Office in China on December 31 2019, confirming 27 cases. On January 2, there were 41 cases. Many suspected SARS or MERS. On January 4, the head of US CDC was personally briefed about the pneumonia outbreak by the head of China CDC. On January 8, China confirmed the existence of a new coronavirus. The five weeks it took China to determine this was a new virus has been used as the reason to accuse China’s communist party of a cover-up. In the ensuing months, apart from a handful of nations, the majority of countries have fared very badly in their failed attempts to curb the spread of COVID-19. When questioned about their unpreparedness and slowness to plan and execute given the many weeks of news coming out of China, the common response from authorities was that no one expected the severity and spread of the disease. So, it was a “cover-up” by the Chinese which justifies their ignorance? The number of cases in China on January 9 was 59 with the first death, that of a 61 year-old man. A day before Wuhan, a city of 11 million went into lockdown on January 23 with confirmed cases at 495, China launched a database to release worldwide the coronovirus genome and information on variation analysis. The speed at which they share this vital information gave the rest of the world precious time to develop their own testing kits and hopefully discover the vaccine sooner. That China took only 15 days to go into lockdown once they determined it was a new virus deserves applause and perhaps the world’s appreciation. Instead, some in the West have taken legal steps to seek Chinese compensation. On January 30, the WHO declared the outbreak was one of international concern. It was announced as a pandemic on March 12, with a total of 125,260 confirmed cases and 4,613 deaths. In the connected world that we live in, it would be uncommon to find anyone who is not aware of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is hardly anyone who has not been affected by it – the fear, the hoarding of supplies, the loss of employment, the incessant news of new cases and deaths, the lockdown, the need to wash our hands, to wear masks, the boredom without our favourite sports, concerts or ballets, the withdrawal symptoms from deprivation of our addictions be it from football, drugs, restaurants, loved ones.

But, we had a similar pandemic just ten years ago. It was declared by the WHO on June 11 2009. One that infected maybe over a billion people, and killed many hundreds of thousands more than COVID-19 has to-date. The WHO announced the end of H1N1/09 influenza pandemic on August 11 2010. Who heard the WHO declare it? Who even knew about its existence before its end was announced? Who feared it? Did anyone rush out to the shops and empty the shelves of toilet rolls, anti-bacterial wipes, hand wash, flour, pasta, rice and long life milk? Were many amongst us scared or distressed by the daily news? Were we told by our governments to remain in our homes for weeks? Did anyone lose their jobs? Were we introduced to the term social-distancing? Did we know of anyone being forced back to their home countries? Were we deprived of air travel and did anyone forfeit their exotic cruise holiday? Were there mass burials like what we are witnessing in the US? The US CDC reported the first human infection on April 15 of 2009 in California. By June 25, the US CDC estimated they had over a million cases, i.e. in 71 days, whereas COVID-19 infected 473,000 Americans in 82 days. Today’s higher R naught rate is a contradiction that requires proper analysis. The H1N1/09 was a zoonotic disease, it came from pigs. According to Wikipedia, “Some studies estimated that 11 to 21 percent of the global population at the time—or around 700 million to 1.4 billion people (of a total 6.8 billion)—contracted the illness.” Let us ponder that for a little longer. That was a hugely terrifying infection rate in a pandemic that lasted for 14 months yet it seemed to have spread all over the world silently and without much commotion. COVID-19 has infected how many so far? 1.6 million, with 100,000 dead. How many deaths from H1N1/09, I asked? According to The Lancet in September 2012, it was estimated 151,700 – 575,400 died worldwide. COVID-19 may very well be as deadly, if not more deadly. The transmission method is the same – they spread from person to person via respiratory droplets. Infection can also occur from touching our faces with contaminated hands. The transmission rate for H1N1/09 was 1.46. COVID-19’s R naught is around 2 to 2.6, but it may drop over time as measures taken to slow the spread become effective. Both spread rapidly across the world; both deadly and knew no borders. There was discrimination along racial or religious lines only because religious leaders continued to ignore health advice from authorities and practised mass sermons, and the virus continues to discriminate against the poor as we see higher fatalities from the impoverished ones with underlying illnesses. 2020 will surely be written in history books as the year ‘the-once-in-a-century’ killer virus brought the world into lockdown. Yet, I cannot understand why the world was calm a decade ago and most were oblivious of the deaths and misery the 2009 pandemic caused. Why are we better informed today? Why are we being locked down or aggressively tracked this time, and why have borders closed? Why have share markets been pummelled this time when in 2009, the Dow was its lowest on March 9 (three months before the pandemic was declared) and peaked on December 28 when the cold winter should have been most severe with fatalities? According to the BBC, the most talked about problem in 2010 was corruption, not the pandemic! The H1N1/2009 pandemic did not even rate a mention in any media review of the year 2010. For an American review of top 10 world events, see Australia’s ABC 2010 review also made no mention of the pandemic. It was as if it never happened. Many reviews rated the Winter Olympics, the Icelandic volcano, Wikileaks and the Haiti earthquake as major events in 2010 worth remembering. Why did a pandemic that infected so many hundreds of millions and killed hundreds of thousands not be an event that is ranked as one of the biggest stories of 2010? Is it because it was so ineptly handled by the US authorities that it was covered up? How can it be that so many deaths were silenced in 2010? Did the US CDC have blood on their hands? Today, when we have Artificial Intelligence and biotechnological advancements being achieved in leaps and bounds, we are informed the vaccine for COVID-19 will still take about 12-18 months to produce. Yet, three billion doses of the vaccine for H1N1/09 were produced, with delivery in November 2009, a mere five months after the announcement of the pandemic. The development of a new vaccine requires quite lengthy human trials, and in this case, once the new vaccine was approved, the time to scale-up production was achieved in just a few weeks. How was that even possible?

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