What has COVID-19 taught us thus far.

On a brighter note, more than 150 countries have less than 100 cases as of April 5, 2020. That being said, there probably isn’t an unaffected country on our planet. I am from Nepal, and we have identified 9 cases with one local transmission as of April 5, 2020. One recovered, and 8 in isolation with no death reported to date.[1] It may be hard to comprehend the effect 9 cases have on a country where the probability of dying between the age of 15 and 60 years is 171 per thousand, but total expenditure on health is only 5.8% of GDP. The effect is fairly straightforward but too subtle to get the spotlight amidst this crisis. I contemplated if this is the right time to document these subtleties, but reflections are most useful for future reference only if made accurate. And a major component of accurate reflection is the “time since the event.”

I will take you to the time during my USMLE step 3 preparation and try to tie that in with my point here. One typical day during my preparation, I was doing my 2nd Uworld block and stumbled upon a deceivingly simple question. The gist of the question was: why do patients ask for euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide? I, in the hope of breezing through the question, answered physical pain. To my surprise, that was the most common wrong answer—the right answer: the anticipation of a lack of control and loss of autonomy.
If we are to understand the fear my country is going through, we need to let that information sink. The anticipation of a lack of control makes people ask for help in ending their life.

Nepal ranks 150 in terms of the overall health system in the world. I have been a doctor in one of the most academic tertiary care hospitals here, and I won’t hesitate a second to tell you that our health system will break the moment a fraction of the so-called tsunami of COVID-19 hits us. The country has been on lock-down for nearly two weeks now and plans to stay that way for some more days [Meetings is ongoing, and the final decision hasn’t been reached]. Of course, that will mean people will not have enough money to sustain. Patients of chronic illness will not have enough medicine. The country’s already crippled economy will be damaged beyond repair, and whatever first steps the country was attempting to make towards development will not only be held but legs fractured and eyes blinded. If God forbid, the pandemic hits us hard, no one in Nepal will have outrage that we did not increase the number of ventilators. That just isn’t a variable worth considering [to the general public], given our economy. We are talking about a country where when a village gets a USG machine; it is not used until inaugurated by someone at a position and the inauguration is celebrated like a festival. Everyone who understands the stake knows that we are praying to avoid a war we will invariably lose.

Having said that, I am impressed by the steps taken by the country. Lock-down was a gutsy move. Right when the director-general told people of WHO that lock-down is just a second window of opportunity for countries to prepare for what is to come, I was interested in what our preparedness looks like. Makeshift quarantine rooms are being constructed, test kits being brought in [Update: test kits were of too poor quality to use and hence were returned to China].[2] Patan Academy of Health Sciences, where I studied, has taken the initiative to make their own PPE. Some municipalities are mobilizing locals to make sanitizers, and the government is subsidizing some of the public expenditure. Of course, proportional to the country’s economy, but all this is happening when the country has 9 cases. Remember that actual physical pain was a wrong answer, and the anticipation of future suffering was the right one?

Number of ICU beds increased as preparation for COVID-19 at Patan Academy of Health Sciences, Nepal. Image by Saugat Sen Dhakal via https://www.healthaawaj.com/news/11928/
PPE being prepared at Patan Academy of Health Sciences, Nepal. Image by Saugat Sen Dhakal via https://www.healthaawaj.com/news/11928/

With people staying inside comes a myriad of difficulties. We have already seen it happen, “lucky” us! Everyone will start hoarding on essential supplies, which will increase the price because, apparently, the market still runs on supply and demand. Fear, loneliness, and abundance of time to ruminate on every minuscule of a problem on earth will start showing their effect. Depression, anxiety, and many other psychiatric morbidities will use the time as a breeding season. Household violence increases, and quality of life will take a big toll. Less affluent portions of the population will take a bigger hit in all aspects because inequalities in health are a double injustice; most affected are the people who are already suffering. The graph we hope to flatten will lend its height to the one plotting many other problems.

But we are willing to take that trade and probably everyone should. By no means am I saying that Nepal is doing a great preparation because I know it isn’t. There is much more we can do if we had the resources and global political influence.

We have seen countries with abundance kneeling before this virus. I pay my deepest sympathies to the lost lives around the world and even deeper respect to the frontline warriors. My message here, I guess: When prevention is better than cure is wrong not only because there is no cure but also because you know you will fail to provide care, you better prevent it as your life depends on it. Because it probably does.

Cite this article as: Sajan Acharya, Nepal, "What has COVID-19 taught us thus far.," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, April 13, 2020, https://iem-student.org/2020/04/13/what-has-covid-19-taught-us-thus-far/, date accessed: August 8, 2020

References

  1. WHO. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report—76 [online], 06 apr 2020. [cited 2020 Apr 6]. Available from: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200405-sitrep-76-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=6ecf0977_2.
  2. Sapkota R. Nepal to test COVID-19 test kits from China. Nepali Times [Internet]. 2020 Apr 1 [cited 2020 Apr 6]. Available from: https://www.nepalitimes.com/latest/nepal-to-test-covid-19-test-kits-from-china/ 

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