Good 30 years back, I was a teenager, high on adrenaline when I first heard about operation desert shield/storm in 1990-91. I distinctly remember when I picked up a newspaper at my home on the morning of 3rd august 1990, the headline said: “Iraq attacks Kuwait”. The article went on about the unrest in the “gulf” due to oil, Iraqi govt financially impoverished by a long war at home and with Iran, demanded 10 billion US dollars from Kuwait due to its perceived losses in Rumailla fields. When compensation did not come through, Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August, it was an easy win for Iraq, as in part one was expecting this movie, and also because the military might of Iraq was far superior.
To us in India, it did not mean much, as it never affected our lives directly, or even indirectly. Gulf was literally always on the war from the time oil was found there. Decades of Iran-Iraq war and many small scale wars between Saudi, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon were at best a nightmare in history books for Indian students. A tough list of events and dates to memorize!
However it all changed one night for me, there used to be a program on the national tv channel DD titled “The world this week”. We did not have any private news channels then. This program telecasted only on Friday nights as a weekly round-up of news and events across the world. I vividly remember seeing missile being fired and bombs being dropped, as real video clippings thanks to CNN footage obtained by The world this week. This was new, for the first time actual live videos of a real war were being sent across the world and sold for profit! Such visuals started coming almost daily as a part of the news on DD, updates of gulf war became a norm, even many times a day, different news related to war was being telecasted courtesy CNN.
This soon became an international obsession, the whole world was getting almost an hourly update of the war. The war had become a show! This brought television as a powerful tool and through it delivered what appealed to the human psyche the most, human misery and death.
This was repeated in India by the owners of NDTV channel (erstwhile producers of the world this week) during their live coverage of Kargil war in 1999 between India and Pakistan, Barkha Dutt as a reporter on the ground became a national celebrity almost instantaneously after this transmission. To us Indians what was started during the Gulf war, got an encore in Kargil war.
Fast forward almost two decades, and another human tragedy the Swine flu hit us hard. This was the first pandemic where from a very early stage we had a fair level of media attention and the 15-18 months period of rising and subsequent fall of number and severity of cases was documented. Pandemic started from North America, possibly from Mexico, and spread across the world. Initial mortality of H1N1 was in the range of 8-10%, and with initial mutations, rapidly came down to 3-5% range for the early half of this pandemic period. Later half of this pandemic was like any other flu season, with mortality going below 0.5%. There were even allegations that WHO along with many big pharma companies “created” a “false pandemic”. However, this was a known enemy, we had faced it many times, there were ready medicines, and vaccine also came about, the previous flu vaccines could give partial immunity and many individuals had innate immunity. Overall swine flu officially infected 491,382(lab confirmed) cases, though the estimated number was anywhere between 700million to 1.4 billion, which is almost one-fifth of humans. Death officially was pegged as 18,449(lab confirmed) though estimated deaths were anywhere between 1.5-6millions. Though public frenzy was there, it was not over the top, and public health care systems handled the scenario well(at least in the hindsight).
Fast forward another 10 years, and hell has broken loose! This time the enemy was unknown, and the origin place being China, everybody suspected the source of virus(including yours truly). There are countless conspiracy theories, about the origin, propagation, severity, and even pathophysiology of this infection. The rapidity with which this disease spread caught everybody by surprise. The media attention to this pandemic has been truly unparalleled. In the history of humankind, no other “event” has received this much attention. The world literally stopped due to “lockdown”. WHOs role in this pandemic has been far from satisfactory. Initial false reassurance that there is no human to human transmission and later overly scary nonscientific updates confused the medical and administrative faculty worldwide, and continue to do so.
The role of media has been far from satisfactory, the initial sensationalization of the whole epidemic, keeping a public count and updates being given almost hourly has caught the maximum public frenzy ever! From the point of view of the media, this is the biggest show ever! What was practiced during swine flu, got an encore here, and the art of selling fears, perfected? Even I bought it, initially and fear pulverized me.
We doctors, particularly we, the heart surgeons have always been at war with germs. There is no other branch where the obsession with cleanliness and sterility is more than in cardiac surgery. After all if even one of our patients gets infected, it’s either an infection of the heart or in chest bone, both can potentially be lethal in their own right. So we are constantly at war with bugs. Washing hands repeatedly, not touching objects unnecessarily, wearing masks for prolonged duration are all typical tenants of training in cardiac surgery. I realized soon in this Pandemic that we cardiac surgeons are perfectly suited to fight this disease. Alas, my confidence did not last long, as very soon the news from the UK came, where a junior cardiac surgeon, posted on COVID duty died due to the same disease. One more senior cardiac surgeon died in south India, taking away all my early confidence about remaining on top of this disease.
With time, however, it has dawned on me that it’s like many other pandemics in that sense. Early mortality was in the range of 8-10%, it’s steadily coming down. Trick is to delay the inevitable, and keep telling the virus “not today” and hopefully later when it has attenuated more, the virus will spare us the complications and learn to live with us. That’s why we have to learn to live with COVID (#livewithcovid). I feel if we stay very cautious and follow all the principles of avoiding infection, and with a dash of luck, we will not get it. It’s more of hope than a plan, but then humans have fought wars with much fewer chances and won many times in the past. On this note, I would also appeal to all readers that we humans were threatened by a small virus and were reminded by mother nature once more, that we are tenants only on this planet, let’s not try to be the owners of mother earth. At least let’s try to live on earth as responsible tenants and respect nature more.
As for media personnel, I understand you all also are human beings and it’s natural for you also to be scared of this disease. Let’s tone down the rhetoric for now, and put a slow end to this “show”. There were many a medical crisis in the past and there will be many in the future, let’s not make it commercial. As you well know, operation desert storm did bring some results and stability in the gulf, but the 2003 Iraq war turned out to be based on a false premise of weapons of mass destruction, when there were none.