Dr. Widad: Coronavirus – A Pandemic Like no other

Co-founder of Defend International, Dr. Widad Akreyi, was invited to write a piece on how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the world for the Netherlands-based Women Generation. The article was submitted on 19 April 2020 and published in May 2020

Dr. Widad Akreyi is a medical expert and award-winning international humanitarian. The author of several books and research papers, she holds a PhD in public health and epidemiology, a master’s degree in genetics and is a peer-reviewer for high-profile medical journals.

Coronavirus Pandemic: A Crisis Like No Other

Dr. Widad Akreyi

COVID-19 pandemic is a global, multidimensional public health concern with political, social, economic and gender implications. The mortality and physical effects are accompanied by psychological consequences that extend beyond the traditional boundaries of emotion. After weeks of lockdown, some countries are cautiously easing stay-at-home restrictions, whereas for others the battle has just began. This is a crisis like no other. It is a formidable challenge for all humanity and needs to be addressed as such.

Notably we still do not know how the next months will play out, and the exact number of people to be affected remains unknown. Yet, we know that the very contagious virus spreads from infected individuals’ respiratory droplets, such as coughing, sneezing, breathing and talking. Transmission may also occur through contact with contaminated surfaces. The symptoms range from fever, cough and shortness of breath, which sometimes progress to serious respiratory distress. The first cases were reported in China in December 2019, but within a short span of time it became a global public health emergency that has proven to be difficult to resolve. According to Johns Hopkins University, as of April 19th, there are more than 2,347,875 cases of coronavirus worldwide, and nearly 161,400 have died because of it.

Given the massive death toll and in preparation to safely reopen the economy, the race for containment and treatment is on. The resurgence of cases in some Asian countries following reopening suggests prudence is warranted. As epidemiologists, we cannot stress enough the importance of identification, isolation and contact tracing in controlling infectious disease outbreaks. Access to adequate testing, vaccines and potential affordable medicines must be at the center of any long-term COVID-19 response. In all cases, sharing information on research and public health policy in a timely, consistent and accessible manner will be crucial to contain the pandemic and decrease mortality.

Although researchers are doing everything they can toward the development of diagnostics and therapeutics, they alone can’t stop the virus. Millions of people are adhering to stay-at-home measures for their own safety and that of their communities. The pandemic has crushed every notion of normal life. Millions of workers are suddenly without jobs or income. People wait in long lines for food giveaway. The path to higher education is changing. Study spaces are closed until further notice, and colleges are creating online programs while considering whether to offer classes this fall. No major gatherings are allowed in many countries for the foreseeable future. In comparison, few countries have adopted a deliberate strategy of minimal testing with a focus on targeting clusters of infection and contact tracing.

Either way, the crisis has reshaped so much of our lives. And as more and more people are infected, there are new reasons to worry. The nations’ mental health is being pushed to the brink with anxiety. A blanket of fear and sadness has wrapped the world, it grows heavier by the day, showing little sign of going away for the immediate future. Uncertainty and social distancing are key components of the pandemic. People are losing their ability to move around freely and to physically connect. Some are anxious for their health and that of their friends and family. Others are bereaved over the sudden deaths of loved ones and fellow human beings. All these stressors lead to grief, and possibly also depression. Grif, in particular, is not a linear experience. It may come in waves, triggered by events or memories. In this context, it is important not to minimize your loss, thinking it is not as huge as that of others. It is also important to refrain from avoiding those who are grieving. We all have a role to play in supporting each other.

While we are all affected by COVID-19, the effects are especially hard on communities already vulnerable due to armed conflicts, poverty or neglect. Concerns mount as millions of forcibly displaced persons are at higher risk of the infection. Many of them are left without life-saving assistance. Their access to testing, medical care services, food, clean water, sanitation and other basic necessities is limited to say the least.

Another pressing issue has to do with the fact that this emergency has magnified inequalities and the numerous forms of discrimination faced by women and children. It is expected that cases of violence against women will continue to increase and go under-reported. Since the lockdowns, residents have been trapped in homes with abusers. It is well-known that stress results in increased cases of domestic violence. When the aggressors lose their jobs, their feeling of losing control correlates with a frustrating attempt to gain a false sense of control by becoming more violent, which makes the need for policy actions to reduce potential harm to vulnerable populations and safe places for the victims more crucial in confusing times. On a related note, and as we grapple with gender aspects of COVID-19, it becomes clear that countries and territories led by women are praised for embracing a precautionary approach. From early on, the female leaders relied a combination of compassion and rigor into managing the crisis.

One more critical aspect is the potential region-specific ramifications that may result from the crisis. The health systems and socio-economic structures in fragile and war-torn countries that are less-developed and poorly equipped to deal with infections, risk being paralyzed because of possible massive losses of life, if the pandemic is left unchecked. Moreover, COVID-19 makes matters in regions such as the Middle East, Africa and Asia, all the more daunting. It is worsening pre-existing political and economic conditions. Countries with autocratic leanings will abuse the pandemic to move towards authoritarian government rule. We are already seeing indications of this. Some political leaders, taking full advantage of the chaos caused by coronavirus, use the outbreak as apparent cover for a blatant power grab. Certain ethnic and religious minorities are disproportionately impacted by emergency measures that are now being implemented either separately or in conjunction with the so-called “anti-terror laws.” In other words, governments with totalitarian agendas will likely misuse the pandemic in order to rule by decrees for indefinite periods without judicial control, which threatens the future of human rights.

On a wider level, the pandemic has put regional and international collaboration to the test. At risk of losing credibility, EU was criticized for showing too-little solidarity and for failing to ensure proper cooperation among its member States, bringing its “all for one spirit” and unity into question. Italy, for instance, has slammed EU for not responding to pleas for medical equipment to tackle its coronavirus emergency. Amid calls for stronger, more concerted action, the head of European Commission apologized to Italy. Deep division remains, though, on sharing the financial and medical burdens the crisis has unleashed. Consequently, from now on, governments across the globe may strive to identify vulnerabilities to pandemics, aiming ultimately to strengthen their capacities by creating sustainable solutions to better manage future shortages. A new trend may take shape during the post-COVID-19 era, signaling a shift away from globalization and unions to political fragmentation and national protectionism.

All in all, COVID-19 is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation, and it is a test of our humanity. The crisis is international in scale – not just in terms of its spread and severe human cost, but also in terms of repercussions. Failure to take the outbreak seriously will bring the global economy to a grinding halt. Global leadership and massive cooperation are needed to curb the pandemic that knows no borders. Governments must develop plans for a comprehensive public health response – one that is based on the principles of justice and respect for human rights. Human safety and the protection of the most vulnerable must be the priority at this time. Therefore, we urge world leaders and citizens to apply humanitarian principles and values in all day-to-day decisions.


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