Capital Grapevine
Capital Matters

Capital Grapevine

Virendra Kapoor

Heat, humidity, genetic immunity, demographics, aging populations all in play here

Let us be clear. The global battle against the coronavirus pandemic has been far from perfect. Every country has muddled along, including China, failing to do something absolutely necessary --- and doing ,which in hindsight, looks a sheer waste. Absent a precedent and foreknowledge about the behavior of the new virus, governments tweaked policy as they went along, unable to anticipate how the virus would behave.

Here in India, critics have panned the Government for the terrible plight of the migrant workers. But, put your hands on your hearts, and say truthfully if, on the evening of March 24th, could anyone have foreseen the hardships millions of migrant-workers living in big cities would face. Because even the government did not believe that after three weeks it will not be back to normal. Allowing migrants to return to their villages was not sensible anyway, it carried the twin risk of disruption of economy and the heightened risk of carrying the virus to the hinterland.

Suffice to say everyone in Europe, North America and in India is wiser after the event. Such 20: 20 vision is a gift of hindsight. Who and how anyone else would have handled the fight against the pandemic is unclear, though quite a few foreign leaders had initially dismissed the coronavirus as of no consequence. The US, UK, Brazil are the biggest culprits in this regard.

Given that we are an open society, it is for the government to defend its alleged acts of omission and commission. But what we are interested in highlighting is the sharp difference in the number of cases and fatalities in India as against those in Europe and America. Aside from searching for a vaccine to tame the virus, scientists are also examining the unusual phenomenon of a far lower death toll in the subcontinent than in the more advanced western countries with superior healthcare systems.

India has done well to stave off a large number of fatalities. It has fewer than one in a million. China, where it all started, has recorded only about 5,000 deaths. Thailand, where the virus went next, again has fewer than one death. Remarkably, as a news report noted, Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia have thus far recorded no deaths due to coronavirus. In sharp contrast, Britain, Italy and Spain have lost 500 people per million, the US, 300 per million, while Germany, which managed the pandemic better, recorded about 100 deaths per million.

Among other factors, researchers are exploring a link between obesity and corona deaths. Generally, people in Asia tend to be leaner while those in western countries are overweight and fat. For instance, 36 percent of the Americans are obese as against four percent in India, two percent in Japan and Vietnam. As per the medical standards, 28 percent Britons, 24 percent Spaniards, 22 percent Germans were obese.

What accounts for the huge difference in death tolls between the most advanced countries and the relatively poorer countries? Could it be demographics? The average age of a country’s population could be a factor. Or the secret could lie in the vastly different weather conditions. Both factors seemed to be favourable to India.

India is a relatively young country, with only seven percent of its population above the age of 65. The western societies, in sharp contrast, are old and aging. However, Japan , which has a much larger percentage of old people, has only recorded seven corona deaths per million. But this could be explained by the fact that the Japanese society is well-served by a first-rate healthcare system and the people are known to maintain very high standards of personal hygiene and social distance. The reason why even dirt-poor countries in Africa have much fewer cases is ascribed to the relatively young population.

Again, there could be genetic factors at play in determining how the coronavirus plays out in different populations. People in Asia are supposed to have better immune systems, having perhaps grown used to live with polluted water, air, food, etc. This immunity could be another factor to resist the virus attack. Also, unlike the western populations, the anti-tuberculosis BCG vaccination at birth is supposed to protect against the virus.

As for the heat and humidity acting as a shield against the coronavirus in tropical countries like India, scientists believe that there is a definite connection here. They are encouraged by the research into the SARS-I and SARS-II epidemics which established the link between heat and humidity and the spread of the virus. Admittedly, the coronavirus is a totally new strain which so far has defied a cure, but the global scientific community is increasingly veering to the view that the reason for high number of deaths in the developed world as against the developing world could lie in different weather conditions, age and health profile of populations and the degree of genetic immunity.

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A tell-tale tape of power struggle

The suspension last week of the Himachal Pradesh’s Director, Health Services, A K Gupta, following the release of a taped conversation with a liaison man of a pharmaceutical company may not be a simple case of corruption. Insiders in the ruling party circles suspect that Gupta may have fallen victim to the power struggle between Chief Minister Jairam Thakur and his predecessor Dhumal. While Gupta was immediately relieved of his charge, the Pradesh BJP President, Rajeev BIndal, was forced to resign. In the taped conversation between Gupta and the middleman the former is heard telling the middleman to deliver Rs. five lakhs to Bindal. Bindal was appointed the State BJP chief at the instance of former Chief Minister Dhumal. It is now said that Thakur may well have neutralized the threat he had faced from the former chief minister.

It may be recalled that Dhumal lost the opportunity to head the BJP Government following the 2017 Assembly poll only because he had failed to win his own MLA’s seat. But Dhumal never gave up the ambition to stage a comeback. The tell-tale tape could seal the fate of Bindal. And embarrass his patron, Dhumal, who is now on the back foot. But it is sure to provide Thakur the opportunity he was looking for to strengthen his grip by having his own nominee as the next BJP President of the State unit. Politics is so full of intrigues and manipulations it is hard for ordinary people to make sense of it, isn’t it?