Innovation and Disaster Management

“If we find ways to capture and kill large number of locusts without making them toxic with pesticides, then we could make up for food losses by making the locusts available to eat, offsetting the economic damage wreaked by locusts by making use of the locusts themselves. Locusts are commonly eaten in Israel and Africa. We can derive other nutritive uses, like feeding locusts to chickens and using them as bait in fishing….”

Bakr Eid is a time of mass handling and distribution of livestock in Muslim societies. This sort of thing creates a significant risk of animal-to-human disease transmission, particularly of tick-borne diseases like Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (or Congo fever), which are the most prevalent in summer. A Congo fever outbreak could be especially serious during the COVID-19 pandemic, as our ability to handle both crises would be limited.

In circumstances like this, the responsibility for containing hazards like Congo fever will have to fall more upon individual people, like those who are handling animals during Bakr-Eid. After all, it has become more difficult for things to be done in a coordinated manner when social interactions have to be curbed.

Furthermore, whenever a great crisis and disruption like the coronavirus pandemic descends upon people, the best way to respond is with innovation. We don’t just do what comes across as an obvious solution, like, for example, the lockdowns imposed due to coronavirus. We also have to think outside the box in developing workable solutions. Albert Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. In finding solutions to crises, especially crises of an unfamiliar kind, we must utilize our imagination in addition to knowledge.

When it comes to Congo fever (a relatively minor hazard in Pakistan), given that there is no cure or vaccine for the disease, our efforts have to focus on the tick that causes the Congo virus. Ticks are vectors that are very difficult to avoid. They are tiny and can crawl onto their hosts unnoticed, hiding beneath fur, feathers, and clothing. They infest animals most frequently, passing onto or catching the virus from their hosts, and can move from animals to people. Animal handlers try out tick control in a variety of ways, mostly by using tick-repelling or tick-killing chemicals (acaricides), but these can be expensive and have environmental or health side-effects. To prevent ticks from getting onto people, one can be clad in protective clothing, but there may always be a chance that ticks can get inside.

Ticks are like most other arthropods, being very good at getting into things and moving around. Arthropods are small and versatile. That is how they are so dominant in the world and problems they cause to humanity are often insurmountable.

But insects and other arthropods have one great enemy the world over that they are very vulnerable to; Stickiness. Any insect, except probably some of those big and strong beetles, that touches a sticky surface will be trapped and unable to free itself. And there are a lot of sticky substances out there in the world (though exposed sticky surfaces are rare in the environment). It is one of the easiest material properties humans have produced.

We could use stickiness as a weapon against ticks. If we place a sticky coating somewhere that a tick is likely to tread, that tick will be stuck there and will be no longer a problem. It may eventually die or be spotted and gotten rid of. Ticks cannot fly or jump and have to walk onto their hosts. We can apply adhesive coatings to stables and other areas where livestock are kept, but better (though very likely more bothersome) is to coat animals themselves with sticky material. Maybe we can cover the entire animal with it, but as this is likely impractical, we can place the sticky coating on certain parts of the animal where the tick is most likely to pass by, like around the feet, legs and the mouths.

More important is preventing ticks from getting onto people. People who handle animals can wear full clothing and apply sticky coating to areas around openings that ticks can get into. They can just attach some very adhesive substance on the shoes, around the ankles, at the opening of sleeves, and around the neck collar because it is closest to naked skin. It might produce some inconvenience for the person, but it will be worth it to prevent diseases like Congo fever.

There are many ways to make a surface sticky. One can use tape, wrapping something with sticky side out, or we can create a covering of glue. But it can also be extracted from certain animals in large amounts, like snails. The options are endless.

Making people sticky is very feasible, as they will know how to handle it. Less so is getting animals sticky. Doing so may come with a lot of problems. But it is very important to protect our livestock from tick infestation. Human beings can do so in countless ways courtesy of their technological prowess, but effective tick control also exists in nature for wild animals. These are tick predators, particularly birds. Some birds naturally perch on the bodies of animals and pick off parasites. If we try this phenomenon on livestock, which is known as biological pest control, it might prove effective in controlling ticks. Perhaps we can turn any insectivorous bird into a tick-eater. Life stock farmers can groom birds to sit on livestock and eat ticks off them.

There is so much that can be done for Congo fever alone, but that is a very small threat compared to Pakistan’s other hazards, particularly what it is dealing with right now. We can be imaginative even in finding solutions to the locust invasions and the coronavirus pandemic. How do we manage locust infestations, for instance? If we do find ways to capture and kill large numbers of locusts without making them toxic with pesticides, then we could make up for food losses by making the locusts available to eat. That is a strategy that we should pursue in our locust response, offsetting the economic damage wreaked by locusts by making use of the locusts themselves. Locusts are commonly eaten in Israel and Africa.

We can derive other nutritive uses, like feeding locusts to chickens. In addition, we should also explore the manufacturing potential of locust body parts, what sort of things we can make from them. Locusts have the exoskeleton that is made of the tough material called chitin. There is a lot we might be able to do with it. Another thing to take note of is resilin. It makes up the tendons of locusts, as well as all insects, and it is the stretchiest substance in the world. It also does not lose its elasticity no matter how many times it is stretched. The technological applications of this are enormous, if we can extract enough of it from locusts. Pakistan can manufacture locust products and sell it on the world market to make profit.

We will have to experiment with many different ways to kill locusts. Fishing boats suspend nets in the ocean to catch schools of fish, and locust swarms are like schools of fish, but in the air, not water. To date, nobody has tried aerial fishing, but given how much technology has advanced now, perhaps it is time to investigate the feasibility of this strategy. There are so many ways we can theoretically go about it. Maybe a net, designed so that airflow keeps it wide open, can be suspended from an airplane. Maybe nets can be suspended between balloons tethered to the ground.

It is probably more feasible to attack locust hordes when they are on the ground. For example, we can design traps to catch locusts that are laid along the crops they eat. This will require a great deal of skill and ingenuity, but we must learn to efficiently make use of what we do have in order to achieve results.

Ingenuity is especially important to manage the coronavirus pandemic. This virus spreads through social interaction, so we have been essentially shutting down many basic human activities. But we cannot keep this up forever. We should find ways to redesign society so that civilization can go on without the virus being able to spread. That includes redesigning people’s personal lives. This pandemic affects or is affected by even the smallest aspects of our lives, like us stepping outside of our homes or even touching our own faces with our hands. As a result, everything about the world has suddenly changed for us. It has become a strange world, with its disruptions reaching into every aspect of our lives. To survive, we will need both innovation and change at both individual and societal levels.

We all need to step back and take a look at our lives, both the personal and public sides of it, and we need to imagine what can be changed about both suppress the virus and allow life to continue to run as much as possible. It will be ingenuity on a grand scale. Again, the resources available to us for instituting these changes will be minimal, and we will have to make do with what we can. Public guidance will be vital, but people must be tasked with choosing how they can create changes to their lives that are tailored to their circumstances. We have focused too long on just shutting down whatever we can. Now, we have to work on changing and redesigning.

For example, one of the important priorities is to allow goods to continue flowing freely. Goods will have to pass between people, but we can easily ensure that this happens without the virus also passing between people. People just carry materials and then they deposit them at their destination, where somebody else comes and picks them up, while being careful with what they touch. Furthermore, the markets that goods are being sold in should be radically restructured. Products should not be sold indoors where people gather in dense numbers. We should create open-air markets where density is so low that people are not prodded into being near one another when they are selecting or purchasing products. A lot of outdoor spaces will have to be repurposed.

One of our most senseless COVID-19 policies is shutting down supply lines for long periods of time and, when they are restored, allowing them to continue operating as they normally did before the pandemic. Things only have to be done in a slightly different way for people to exchange material goods without breathing in each other’s air or picking up the virus from surfaces they touch.

Many things we need to do are simple. That is why we will need plenty of innovation. It can minimize the difficulties we face, as we will be able to find simple solutions to major problems, such as using adhesive coatings in strategic spots to overcome tick infestations. Ingenuous problem-solving approaches of this sort will hopefully lead us to discovering effective ways of managing a wide variety of disaster risks.

Pakistan’s Coronavirus Crisis and Response Strategy

The COVID-19 pandemic is severe and the only way it seems that nations can curb it is by either subjecting the general population to strict lockdown or to extensive testing, monitoring, and treatment, neither of which is easy for Pakistan.

Lockdown is the more feasible option here and many provincial and local governments have implemented it, Sindh being early at it. But Pakistan does not have any total lockdown policy yet. Prime Minister Imran Khan has rejected the idea. In late March, he said that imposing it on the entire nation will cause economic hardship that the nation cannot afford. With 25 percent of the population below the poverty line (before the virus struck), it could result in more people suffering and dying than from the virus itself. Enforcing total lockdown is also something the authorities might not be very capable of. Imran Khan has therefore suggested self-imposed lock down by people deciding when to go out for the most essential reasons. Working class people continue spending time outside their homes interacting with other people regularly in order to put food on their tables, but otherwise, everybody is advised to take strict precautions.

This is, in theory, a good policy. When a contagion spreads through the population, how each individual responds to it depends a lot upon that individual’s situation, which can be difficult for police enforcing lock down to take into account. Some countries battling the pandemic created a policy of requiring people to submit in documented form their reasons for going out, but this is unreasonable as circumstances may require people to instantly leave home in an emergency.  Leave it to the people themselves to handle the situation, and as long as they have their hearts and minds set on protecting themselves and everybody else, they will mount an effective response to the outbreak tailored to their own personal circumstances.

Try translating this idea into practice, though, and you come up against the cold, messy reality. You cannot ever expect everybody to fully cooperate in the right manner. Sure, they might start doing so when the outbreak becomes severe and everybody becomes afraid, but the point is to prevent or forestall just such a situation by taking measures before the virus spreads widely. Getting people involved in that is notoriously difficult as people often don’t have the urge to take action against a threat before it arrives.

Social distancing and other measures to avoid spreading the virus require a lot of discipline. Our is a nation of more than 200 million people. Most of them live in poverty and endure hard circumstances. Millions are not very much in touch with current affairs. Media itself is not well versed in current affairs. A lot are prone to believing and spreading misinformation. Getting them fully onboard the national response to the pandemic is a tremendous challenge.

In the same speech in which he announced no lockdown, Imran Khan had a go at it by imploring his citizens to keep themselves in isolation when they can. But a lot more is needed. Coronavirus is rapidly turning out to be an unprecedented crisis. Our capacity to cope is limited and what we can do may be very costly. To solve this conundrum and find the best strategy to respond to the emergency, let us take a look at just what this pandemic is all about.

Diseases that infect human beings abound in the world, but their prevalence is limited by many people having strong immunity, as well as by modern medical innovations. COVID-19 is a disease that has just come into existence. This means that nobody in the world at the start of 2020 had complete immunity and there was no specific treatment that could effectively counteract it. As a result, the virus is spreading everywhere very rapidly. Anybody exposed to the virus gets infected and becomes a carrier likely to infect lots of other people. The virus’s explosive spread means that you have lots of people who are infected at the same time and this means that anybody runs a good chance of contracting the virus.

As for people who do, in known cases, which is mostly symptomatic cases, the majority of people come down with only mild illness which may require just bed rest. But in around 20 percent of cases, the infected people have to go to the hospital and receive care. Around 5 percent of infected people end up needing intensive care and there are indications that many of them end up with long-term or lifelong complications. The number of infected people who die from COVID-19 varies regionally from 1 to 4 percent. Chances of survival depend mostly on the level of medical care received. Altogether, this is not a very serious disease as far as diseases go. But the speed of its spread and the huge number of fatalities is a catastrophe in the making for the world.

For Imran Khan, and for every leader of a country where poverty is widespread, a big concern is the economic devastation that could result from taking action to arrest the spread of the virus. So it is important to understand what the consequences of not doing so are and just what the impact of the pandemic will be.

Currently, we don’t have any experience to draw upon. The countries where the outbreak has so far been in full swing, and where it has apparently reached its peak, are all rich and developed. The pandemic seems to be only beginning in the Third World. Two Asian countries with different systems that were affected early, China and South Korea, seem to have taken successful measures to stop the outbreak, but it is impossible for Pakistan to replicate their achievements.

We do know fairly well the impact the pandemic can have on people. If a lot of people end up getting infected with the coronavirus, and if they do so in a short period of time so that healthcare systems are overwhelmed, there will be a lot of deaths. Obviously no one wants that.  If 4 percent is the highest death rate (case fatality rate, technically speaking) that this pandemic can wreak here, almost everybody in Pakistan getting infected means that close to ten million people may die before this contagion runs its course. That would be a super-devastating calamity, comparable to calamities suffered by some of the countries worst-affected by World War 2. This scenario is extremely unlikely, but if a good-sized chunk of our population gets infected, which could very well happen, fatalities will run into hundreds of thousands or a few million. No disaster in Pakistan’s 73 years of existence comes close to matching this death toll.

One thing perhaps worth mentioning is that most of these deaths will be of people who are elderly or living with severe health complications, which limits the economic impact of their demise.

Disaster management is not just about saving people from deaths, of course. One issue to keep sight of is people ending up with long-lasting or permanent damage. I wouldn’t use the word “disability” here at all, but doctors have observed that some recovered COVID-19 patients have ended up with what will likely be permanent health complications, including damage to the respiratory system. We could conceivably end up with millions of people in this state. The economic cost of paying their medical bills throughout their lives is there.

We might think that it is okay to be infected with COVID-19, be ill for some time, and then get back to normal. However, the sheer scale of the coronavirus outbreak means that you have lots and lots of people who are ill at the same time, which means that they will not be working and they will be receiving costly medical care. The statistics tell us that 20 percent of people infected and symptomatic will be severely ill.  Laborers who skirt isolation to do essential work will be among the worst affected. The economic consequences of this alone could be devastating.

Not taking measures against the spread of the virus could wreck Pakistan’s economy more than drastic lockdown measures will. Combine that with the human tragedy of scores of people being dead and disabled, the reasons for taking the most stringent emergency measures to arrest the spread of COVID-19 in Pakistan are compelling.

But so are the reasons that counter it. The economic circumstances of millions of Pakistanis are dire and with this pandemic, matters have only gotten worse, with rising food prices and a persistent locust outbreak decimating crops. This will make our response to the coronavirus much, much harder. Pakistan is truly trapped in a dilemma right now.

To find a way out, we first need to understand the basic nature of the pandemic. This coronavirus outbreak is a disaster that relies upon speed. Firstly, the chance of survival for people infected with COVID-19 is reasonably high if they receive adequate medical care, but so many people are getting infected at once that healthcare systems are unable to cope, forcing doctors in many countries to choose who gets to live and who dies.

Secondly, the faster the infection spreads, the more widely the infection can spread. When a lot of people are infected at the same time, it is more likely that they will spread it far and wide. If the virus spread slowly, some people would get infected and then recover and likely acquire immunity, and become non-contagious. The number of infected people at any given time would be low and there would be many immune people. But what is happening all over the world, unfortunately, is that the coronavirus contagion is pouring in much faster than it is draining out and, as a result, the bucket that is the human population is filling up.

Lastly, the enormous and pervasive disruption brought on by the pandemic is something that governments and societies need a lot of time to prepare for. It is best if they have time to prepare before the virus arrives on their doorstep, but once it does, the quicker the virus spreads, the faster the scope of crisis grows, and the less governments and people are able to respond effectively, such as by boosting medical facilities.

That is why governments are so eager to make it as hard as possible for the virus to spread. The whole point of “flattening the curve” is to slow the spread. And as we have just learned, slowing the spread also means containment of spread.

To better understand how this happens, say you are a person who is afraid of contracting the virus. If 30 percent of the people around you are infected and all of the remaining 70 percent are capable of contracting the virus at any moment (are susceptible, in other words), you are in great danger. If only 10 percent of the people around you are infected and another 20 percent are immune because they already had the virus before, you can breathe easier. Even if this goes on for a long time, the more infected people there are, the more immune people there are, and the harder it is for the number of infected people to increase, while the number of immune people continues to increase. This will work out perfectly provided everybody who recovered from the virus has total immunity and can never pass the virus to others again, though, unfortunately, there are doubts about this. Still, if we can manage to reduce the breakneck speed with which SARS-CoV-2 is spreading through human populations, the benefits will be numerous and immense.

Everyone agrees we cannot let this virus freely sweep through our country. But with our current options, the more we are to slow the spread of the virus, the more we have to slow the economic activity that provides people with their livelihoods. We have to try to find the perfect balance in-between flattening the curve and keeping the supply chains running. Imran Khan has said that the agricultural sector is open and he also wants to keep the construction business open so livelihoods can be sustained. That might be a bad idea, because the best strategy during this pandemic should be to only keep those sectors open which are needed for responding to the crisis. It has worked perfectly well in South Korea, where they put manufacturers into overdrive instead of society into lockdown. Constructing buildings is too long-term an endeavor. But agriculture is vital because people need to eat during the pandemic. Also, farming is a type of work which does not require lots of people to be near each other. Manufacturing sector is required for making medical and related equipment.

Pakistan is a nation with limited means, where poverty is widespread. We have nowhere near the ability that America, China, and Italy have for shutting down. The developed nations, where the outbreaks have emerged first, have plenty of resources to get through a period of reduced production. But if we don’t keep producing, not only will most of our 200 million people suffer very badly, but our ability to manage the pandemic will be compromised.

There is one strategy to protect both human well-being and the economy in the face of the pandemic which is well within our means. Not everyone is equally vulnerable to the coronavirus. Only a minority are at high risk of dying or becoming critically ill if infected. They are the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. We need to carefully examine all the statistics for known COVID-19 infections in the world to get a clear picture of just what kind of people are at high risk, what makes people vulnerable. Then, instead of the “keep everybody isolated” idea that many countries are trying, we can only keep those people isolated who are very vulnerable. The infection is likely to spread very widely among the sea of young, healthy people if we are to go with Imran Khan’s “keep society running” idea, but it will lead to Pakistan gaining herd immunity that will safeguard against future spread of the virus while casualties will be minimal.

This strategy will serve the goal of maintaining economic productivity so that Pakistanis don’t sink into destitution. It is the young, healthy adults who are the backbone of the economy and elderly people, as a rule, contribute little muscle power to productivity (their power is confined to intellectual mostly). Also, like most developing countries, Pakistan’s population is skewed towards youth. That means there are a lot of young people who can continue working, and only a small number of old people who will have to stay home. But what about the category of people with underlying conditions? People suffering chronic ailments are usually the minority in any society, so keeping them indoors is also manageable. However, poor health conditions are widespread in Pakistan, which could make this task harder.

Yet, this is going to have to be our strategy, if Pakistan is to make it through the worst pandemic in a hundred years. It has enormous potential. Those who are in the prime of their life and in fit condition should minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure by equipping themselves with personal protection (dressing up differently) as they keep the lifelines of the nation running, while the most vulnerable should be locked down and receive utmost protection. Manufacturing sector will have to be regulated towards manufacturing goods required during pandemic life style.

The practice of dropping supplies at door steps should be implemented with the elderly and the chronically sick.  They should be isolated and locked down, and government should help create infrastructure for their protection.

We can not have any hope of containing the epidemic in just a few months, like China seems to have done, so the outbreak in the nation will probably last a long time, possibly even two years, unless medical breakthrough comes first. That is a long time for any human being to be confined, but in that period, we can develop ways to enable the isolated segment of our nation to live fuller lives while still staying safe. Even  the elderly and those suffering ailments who live life locked in their homes can contribute during health emergency by making masks at home for distribution to the nation.  The know-how and equipment can be supplied to them.

Ultimately, defeating the coronavirus threat will require the will of the people. It can’t just be done by the authorities controlling everything. The masses of Pakistan will respond to Imran Khan’s call to do what they can to keep the virus and the disease at bay, if their options are properly explained to them. It will require methodical social management and effective public communication to inspire cooperation and enable efficient collective action.  For this to happen, the authorities must follow a singular scientific approach, based on the advice of professionals and experts.

To conclude, our advice is: isolate and lock-down the vulnerable and gainfully provide for them. Equip the young and sturdy with personal protection against virus and let them continue with their work. Carefully nurture sectors of economy needed during pandemic outbreak. Manufacturing and agriculture sector, not construction, should be encouraged to be of use during pandemic economy. When we have managed to successfully get our nation through the pandemic by keeping everyone safe, we will be better able to recover and build back Pakistan better than it was before.