The National - News
COVID-19 OUTBREAK SHOWS THAT SPEED IS KEY
▶ Governments must learn from countries paying a heavy toll for a delayed response to the pandemic
As much as 75 per cent of the UK’s coronavirus death toll of about 45,000 people could have been avoided
With new cases reported around the world at a rate of more than 200,000 each day and governments reimposing restrictions, the coronavirus pandemic is not over.
It is also clear that its effect varies hugely, with some rich nations hit far harder than poorer neighbours.
Tentative explanations for this situation are beginning to form and tying them together is a phenomenon that caught some governments out – with tragic results.
Scientists gave it the unremarkable name of non-linearity, but its power is anything but unremarkable.
It means that small events do not always have small consequences.
We have all experienced it in everyday life. Sleeping through an alarm and getting out of bed 15 minutes late could mean we miss a crucial meeting and that may have long-term consequences for our careers.
Now some governments are witnessing the consequences of what were, at first glance, slight errors in their response to the pandemic.
Nowhere demonstrates this more clearly than the UK. In mid-March, about a week after the country’s first recorded death from Covid-19, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that “cases could double every five to six days” unless action was taken.
Even at the time, that seemed too slow and members of the public said official figures suggested cases would double every three days.
The government’s figure was based not on data from the UK but from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak was first reported.
Analysis showed the armchair experts were closer to the truth and, on March 23, Mr Johnson announced a lockdown.
A pandemic is the quintessential non-linear phenomenon. One infected person passes the virus to several others and after a few days of incubation and contact with more people, each of them infects several others, an effect that gives the reproduction, or R, number.
The result is exponential growth. If R equals three, this means the number of infected people grows as powers of three – that is nine, 27, 81, 243 and so on – a rate of growth that can quickly engulf a nation.
To end the pandemic, R must be brought below one. But its non-linear effect means even a short delay in taking action can vastly increase the death toll.
In the UK, the maths of exponential growth showed the epidemic roughly quadrupled in size every week.
Crucially, that four-fold increase remains baked in for the rest of the epidemic. In other words, one week of delay keeps the number of cases four times higher than they needed to be until the epidemic ends.
Put another way, as much as 75 per cent of the UK’s current Covid-19 death toll of about 45,000 people – the third-worst per capita in the world – could have been avoided.
It is a lesson in the power of non-linearity, underlined by the experience of countries that are faring much better.
Vietnam had its first case on January 23 and the government put its pandemic response plans into action the next day. Districts locked down and there was mass testing.
The rapid response means Vietnam has fewer than 400 cases and not a single death.
In general, Asian countries demonstrated the effectiveness of speed when facing the non-linear threat of epidemics.
But there is one important exception: Japan. It, too, has reported fewer than 1,000 deaths, despite having a more elderly and vulnerable demographic that countries such as the UK.
Yet Japan’s response was far less strict than those of some of its neighbours, with its plans to tackle the virus only taking shape in late February.
Japan’s lockdown policy amounted to little more than a polite request, and mass testing was not carried out.
Dr Tomoya Saito, director of the crisis management team at the National Institute of Public Health of Japan, highlighted three features of the nation’s response.
The population has a long tradition of wearing face masks and the country has a well-established track-and-trace system.
The government also advised the public to avoid the three Cs: closed, crowded spaces with close contact. Studies early in the epidemic revealed these to be prime places for outbreaks.
That highlights the flip side of non-linearity. It can turn seemingly minor countermeasures into major victories against the virus.
This offers important lessons for future pandemics, as well as the Covid-19 outbreak.
There are now calls for a global coalition to be set up to investigate this multi-pronged strategy.
Governments around the world need to take this call seriously, because the biggest lesson of the pandemic so far is that every second counts.