Science must be the only guiding principle in relaxing a lockdown
These days, I spend a lot of time trying to think of how Sir Fazle Hasan Abed would have responded to this crisis. Having been privileged to serve in two boards under his chairmanship, I have always been mesmerized by his ability to formulate clear, razor-sharp strategies articulated in a few sentences.
My guess is that he would say something like this with a mischievous smile:
(1) There is no alternative to lockdowns to reduce transmission of the disease. So, under our watch, we shall ensure that no one dies of hunger.
(2) The only way to relax the lockdown is through mass testing. So, we are working with the government to set up several laboratories throughout the country.
My two cents are about the latter of these propositions. By now, most people are aware of the exponential curve that tracks epidemics. It is only through mass testing of random populations that we can get an idea where the disease situation of a country lies on the curve.
Apart from random testing, testing of people showing symptoms of the disease can lead to accurate decisions about isolation or release back into the community. However, these two approaches require many more tests than the government is doing at the moment. There is a general distrust of rapid antibody test kits because of their unreliability.
Moreover, there are only a handful of laboratories carrying out the more sophisticated PCR tests. For reasons stated earlier, it is vital that testing is ramped up to from merely 2,000 a day to, say, 100,000 a day. In this regard, the private sector can have a hugely supportive role. Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are comfortable with testing in sterile environments.
They are used to operating sophisticated laboratory equipment, and there is no doubt that these institutions could be taught to use PCR techniques in a matter of hours or in the worst case, a few days. On a related point, given the surging global demand for PCR kits, minimum order import quantities have become very large.
A single laboratory cannot meet these minimum order quantities (MOQs). So, orders from several laboratories have to be pooled into a single consignment. This means that without a large number of laboratories, even the government shall find it difficult to satisfy these MOQs.
We are all aware that a prolonged lockdown is unsustainable. However, financial distress cannot be the impetus to relaxing a lockdown. Prematurely opening up the economy would invariably lead to mass transmission of the disease forcing us back into lockdown. After all, the sick, dying, and dead do not make good workers.
Science must be the only guiding principle in relaxing a lockdown, and hence there is no alternative to mass testing. The government cannot do it all. We in the private sector are ready to offer a helping hand. We appeal to the government to accept our support.
Kaiser Kabir is the CEO of Renata Limited.