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FEAR GOES VIRAL

fear-goes-viral



Visitors arriving at Tribhuvan International Airport. Photo: BIKRAM RAI

The COVID-19 epidemic is subsiding in China where it originated, and is now erupting in outbreak clusters across the world. First carried by international travellers (mainly new year holiday makers from China in January-February), it spread through public places. Interestingly, pilgrimage sites like Qom in Iran, a little known evangelical sect in Daegu in Korea, churches in northern Italy, and a synagogue New York were cluster epicentres.

A virus is a strand of genetic material that can infiltrate cell nuclei, splicing itself into the DNA of the host and commanding the organism to be its vehicle for transmission. Being a mutant, the COVID-19 is one step ahead of genetically engineered vaccines, and is so smart it piggy-backs on the mobility of human beings to go around the world.

The virus has figured out that it does not make much sense to make the humans it infects so sick that they cannot travel – defeating the purpose of maximum infection. COVID-19 patients can be carriers even though they do not show any outward signs of being infected. Even if they have a sore throat or a cough, they are not bed-ridden and commute to work or travel on business, spreading the virus along the way.

This mode of transmission is also designed for maximum effect. After leaping the animal-human barrier, it took the easiest path for human-to-human infection by entering the respiratory tract through touch or cough droplets. The virus likes the cold, which is why it spread so quickly during the northern hemisphere winter.

Now that the epidemic has gone global, nationality profiling at airports is absurd. On Monday, police at Nagdhunga stopped buses and asked if there were any Chinese on board.  Removing visa on arrival for travelers from ‘infected countries’ does not make sense anymore – you either go whole hog and stop all outsider travel altogether like Bhutan has done, or you let everyone in after screening.

In fact, for all we know Nepal is already an ‘infected country’ we just have not bothered to diagnose anyone. Nepal’s officials appear to believe in a vaccine called ‘Pashupatinath’, and expect the protector deity to see us through this crisis. Who knows, it may be our lackadaisical attitude towards personal hygiene, sanitation or waste management that has given Nepalis a certain immunity against viral infections.

Scientist Sameer Mani Dixit at the Central for Molecular Dynamics calls this the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ – by allowing germs to thrive we develop an immunity to viral and bacterial infections just like a vaccine would. Dixit says i


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