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4th April – Editorials/Opinions Analyses

Contents:

  1. The spectre of a post-COVID-19 world
  2. Explained: Cytokine storms — or when the body’s own immune system leads to COVID-19 deaths
  3. Coronavirus lockdown: Factors countries should consider when lifting restrictions

THE SPECTRE OF A POST-COVID-19 WORLD

Focus: GS-III Indian Economy, Disaster Management

Why in news?

  • As COVID-19 spreads exponentially across the world, and the figures of those testing positive as also the numbers of deaths keep increasing in near-geometrical progression, profound uncertainty and extreme volatility are wreaking havoc of a kind seldom encountered previously.
  • It might, hence, be wise to start thinking of what next, if at least to try and handle a situation created by the most serious pandemic in recent centuries.

The Significant role that China plays

  • The problem with the novel coronavirus is that with the exception of China, which battled another coronavirus epidemic in 2003 (the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic) there is little available for most nations on which to base their assessment of what next.
  • What is known is that China’s growth rate has further plummeted, even as it was confronting an economic slowdown which had been in the works for some time.
  • The consequences for the global economy of China ceasing to be the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods are considerable, and with no country in a position to replace it, this development will precipitate a further economic downturn internationally.

How other Countries are affected?

  • If China was the worst affected nation initially, the United States, Spain, Germany and Italy have since eclipsed China.
  • Many other countries are today facing a serious plight, and few, if any, remedies are as yet available even as the human costs keep mounting. Still, it is important to think of what lies ahead.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a more difficult time.
  • The world was already having to contend with an uncertain economic environment, with industries in turn facing newer challenges such as having to adjust to a shift from cost efficiencies to innovation and breakthrough improvements.
  • Added to this were: a global slowdown, increasing political and policy uncertainties, alterations in social behaviour, new environmental norms, etc.
  • Newly emerging economies, such as India, were even more affected by all this, than some of the older established ones.

How is India being affected?

  • At one point, India was estimated to be among the 15 most affected economies by the COVID-19 epidemic.
  • A recent industry estimate pegs the cost of the lockdown at around $120 billion or 4% of India’s GDP.
  • The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) had at one point warned that the COVID-19 impact, and the existing stress in the financial sector, meant that India would require up to six months even after the entire course of the COVID-19 epidemic is over to restore normalcy and business continuity.
  • India has, no doubt, acted with speed in the wake of the pandemic and declared a lockdown early on.

Impending Global Economic Decline

  • Uncertainty, panic and lockdown policies are expected to cause demand worldwide to decline in a precipitous way.
  • This will inevitably lead to a vicious downward cycle, where companies close down, resulting in more lay-offs and a further drop in consumption. A precipitous decline in GDP would follow.
  • To compensate for this loss, massive inflows of government funds would be needed, but most governments, India included, might find it difficult to find adequate resources for this purpose.
  • Equally important, if not more so, is that such massive inflows of funds (if they are to be effective) should be here and now, and not later, by which time the situation may well have spiralled out of control.
  • Global coordination was a must in the extant situation.

Changes faced by the Major players in the Economic field

  • U.S. command of the global commons has weakened. Meantime, China and Russia have strengthened their relationship, and improved their asymmetric capabilities.
  • The challenge from China is becoming more obvious by the day — measured by purchasing power parity, the U.S. is not the largest economy in the world as of now.
  • Even more daunting from a U.S. standpoint, and also representing a sea-change from the recent past, Russia has become far more economically and politically stable and an important power broker in West Asia.
  • These shifts cannot but, and are likely to, have a direct impact on the liberal international order.
  • It could, in turn, give a boost to authoritarian regimes and authoritarian trends.

Social concerns

  • Moving away from the political and economic consequences of COVID-19 are other concerns arising from an extended lockdown, social distancing and isolation.
  • Psychologists are even talking of an ‘epidemic of despair’ arising from a fear of unknown causes, resulting in serious anxiety and mental problems.
  • Extended isolation, according to psychologists, can trigger a different kind of pandemic even leading to possible suicidal tendencies, fits of anger, depression, alcoholism and eccentric behavioural patterns.

Digital factor

  • One possible, and unexpected, aspect of the COVID-19 epidemic could be the thrust it could provide to ‘digital authoritarianism’.
  • China’s authoritarian methods seem to have helped it to contain the spread of the virus — at least for the time being.
  • Somewhat similar tactics are being employed by some other countries as well. In turn, leaders across many nations may find China’s methods, and the embracing of technology to refashion authoritarianism for the modern age irresistible, and a standard to be adapted, even if they profess to be democratic.
  • The rise of digital autocracies could lead to digital repression, and in the age of AI-powered surveillance, create a capacity for predictive control, or what is often referred to as ‘social management’.

EXPLAINED: CYTOKINE STORMS — OR WHEN THE BODY’S OWN IMMUNE SYSTEM LEADS TO COVID-19 DEATHS

Focus: GS-III Science and Technology

Why in news?

Evidence is emerging that a subset of the infected patients develop severe COVID-19 because of an overreaction of their immune systems, which triggers what is known as a “cytokine storm syndrome” (CSS).

Who are vulnerable?

  • Various studies have shown that the disease has more severe consequences for those above the age of 60 years, and especially those with existing co-morbidities such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, chronic respiratory disease and cancer.
  • Some countries have also reported deaths of younger people, including teenagers, after catching the infection.

What is the Immune system and How does it work?

  • The immune systems in our bodies protect us from bacteria, viruses, and parasites by removing them from our systems.
  • The immune system gets activated by things that the body does not recognise as its own.
  • These things are called antigens, and include bacteria, fungi and viruses.
  • An effective immune system response involves inflammation, an important and indispensable part of the process.
  • This is visible when, for example, you hurt your knee or ankle — the area of this external injury becomes red and swollen, and the immune system in response deploys white blood cells to the injured area to begin work on repairs.
  • Without such an immune response, injuries would not heal, and infections would become deadly.
  • Inflammation has an important protective function.
  • The release of inflammatory mediators increases the blood flow to the area, which allows larger numbers of immune system cells to be carried to the injured tissue, thereby aiding the repairing process.

What is the Cytokine storm and How does it work?

  • However, if this inflammatory response is not regulated, very dangerous consequences can follow.
  • This is when a ‘cytokine storm’ can be triggered. The damage to the surrounding cells can be catastrophic, leading to sepsis and potentially, death.
  • Cytokine Storm occurs when large numbers of white blood cells are activated and release inflammatory cytokines, which in turn activate yet more white blood cells – severely.
  • This can occur when the immune system is fighting pathogens, as cytokines produced by immune cells recruit more effector immune cells such as T-cells and inflammatory monocytes (which differentiate into macrophages) to the site of inflammation or infection.
  • In addition, pro-inflammatory cytokines binding their cognate receptor on immune cells results in activation and stimulation of further cytokine production.
  • This process, when dysregulated, can be life-threatening due to systemic hyper-inflammation, hypotensive shock, and multi-organ failure.

What is the role of cytokines in the immune system?

  • Cytokines are signalling proteins that are released by cells at local high concentrations — a cytokine storm or CSS is characterised by the overproduction of immune cells and the cytokines themselves because of a dysregulation in the process.
  • A severe immune reaction, leading to the secretion of too many cytokines in the bloodstream, can be harmful since an excess of immune cells can attack healthy tissue as well.

What causes the severe immune reaction in the first place?

  • The United States National Cancer Institute (NCI) says on its website that a cytokine storm can occur due to an infection, auto-immune condition, or other diseases. Signs and symptoms include high fever, inflammation (redness and swelling), severe fatigue, and nausea.
  • Cytokine storms are not exclusive to coronavirus patients. It is an immune reaction that can occur during other infectious and non-infectious diseases as well.

How does CSS impact a COVID-19 patient?

  • In the case of any flu infection, a cytokine storm is associated with a surge of activated immune cells into the lungs, which, instead of fighting off the antigen, leads to lung inflammation and fluid build-up, and respiratory distress.
  • CSS is seen as a likely major cause of mortality in both the 1918-20 Spanish Flu that killed more than 50 million people worldwide, and the H1N1 (swine flu) and H5N1 (bird flu) outbreaks in recent years.
  • Increased pro-inflammatory cytokine responses against human coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-1 (which caused SARS), SARS-CoV-2 (which is responsible for the current COVID-19 pandemic), and MERS can result in acute lung injury and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
  • If the clinical features of CSS are not recognised and adequate treatment is not promptly instituted, multiple organ failure can result. Researchers writing in The Lancet have suggested that all severe COVID-19 patients should be screened for hyper inflammation.

CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWN: FACTORS COUNTRIES SHOULD CONSIDER WHEN LIFTING RESTRICTIONS

Focus: GS-III Disaster Management

Why in news?

  • As China seems to have “flattened the curve” of its coronavirus cases and is no longer the country with the highest number of infected people or with the highest death toll, all eyes are going to be on it in the coming weeks, as restrictions are slowly lifted on residents after over two months of lockdown in different provinces.
  • In Wuhan, the former epicentre of the infection outbreak, restrictions are scheduled to be lifted on April 8.
  • But this hardly means that China is done dealing with coronavirus, as experts have advised caution and will observe the country to see if there is a resurgence in cases once the restrictions are lifted.

When lockdowns are lifted, what research says

  • The trajectory China follows after restrictions are lifted will have significant takeaways for the rest of the world, especially for the US and countries in Europe, which are the new epicentres of the global pandemic.
  • When lives of residents in China slowly slip back to normal, what needs to be seen is if the number of COVID-19 cases increases again, and if due to this, a second lockdown will be required in the country.

Is resurfacing of the virus a possibility?

  • The virus might have difficulty in resurfacing as strongly as the first time if the majority of people in a given population have been infected and developed “herd immunity” as a result.
  • But this may not necessarily be the case. If one considers even Wuhan, which recorded more than half of China’s COVID-19 cases, the majority of the people in the province are still not infected.
  • Thus, if the virus were to resurface, the number of vulnerable people would still be high.
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