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Monday June 24th, 2024

How are COVID-19 cases in South Asia suddenly on the decline?

Covid-19 lockdown community lunch – Image by Rajesh Balouria courtesy Pixabay

ECONOMYNEXT – New COVID-19 cases in India have plummeted from a peak of 90,000 a day in September to just over 10,000 in February. In Bangladesh, daily cases have dropped to a 10-month low. The number of active cases in Pakistan has decreased by some 20,000 over the last two months. Life is almost back to normal in Kathmandu, Nepal. Bhutan has been called the world’s unlikeliest pandemic success story. What’s going on in South Asia?

India’s numbers in particular have baffled some scientists. Just over six months ago there were very real concerns that the “fragile” healthcare system there would collapse under the weight of the raging pandemic. Fast forward to February 2021 and daily cases have dropped significantly. According to CNN, on February 9, Delhi reported zero virus deaths for the first time in nearly nine months. Contrast that to how dire things were in November last year when nearly 90% of all critical care beds with ventilators in New Delhi were full. The Associated Press (AP) reported that by the second week of February only 16% of these beds were occupied.

Credit: BBC

What has led to this dramatic change? Is there something unique about South Asia that might explain its sharply declining cases and relatively low mortality rates? Is it vaccination? Is it the climate? Is it something in the water?

A number of explanations have been put forward: The country’s (and by extension the region’s) younger population, a partial herd immunity in urban areas, under-reporting of cases and deaths, reduced testing, increased restrictions, and relatively better innate immunity owing to a higher incidence of other infectious diseases.

The Indian government, according to AP, has attributed the dip in that country’s cases to mandatory mask-wearing. But this does not explain how the decline appears uniform even in areas where mask-wearing is not strictly practiced. Under-reporting, meanwhile, does not explain the demonstrably reduced stress on India’s health system. The dip cannot be attributed to vaccination either, which began only in January.

The threshold for herd immunity for COVID-19, experts say, may be 70% or higher, which means a vast majority of the population need to have developed immunity to the virus either by getting infected or through vaccination. A serological survey that tested for antibodies in January found that more than half the population in Delhi had contracted the disease.

“This is a huge increase,” community medicine specialist Dr Hemant Shewade was quoted by CNN as saying. He added that big cities may see “considerably reduced” transmission due to the rise in immunity.

While there may be some herd immunity in urban centes, India’s total numbers are far below the 70% required to achieve national herd immunity. According to AP, only about 270 million, or about 20% of the population, had been infected by the virus before vaccination began.

Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla was quoted by CNN as saying India might not achieve herd immunity for years. “Until you get that real magical 90% herd immunity or vaccine immunity, which will come after three or four years, you really should exercise precautions,” Poonawalla, whose company is the largest manufacturer of COVID-19 vaccines in India, told CNN in January.

Rural areas with lower population densities and therefore reduced transmission rates have reported fewer cases of infection, which may at least partly explain the nationwide decline. Another, perhaps more intriguing, possibility is the idea that the prevalence of infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis could have helped build a stronger initial immune response to the new virus.

Shahid Jameel, a virologist and director of Ashoka University’s Trivedi School of Biosciences told AP on February 16: “If the COVID virus can be controlled in the nose and throat, before it reaches the lungs, it doesn’t become as serious. Innate immunity works at this level, by trying to reduce the viral infection and stop it from getting to the lungs.”

What of the low mortality rates in the region? A study published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases attributed this to cross-reactive immunity, which, Dr. Giridhar R. Babu, a Bengaluru-based epidemiologist who was part of the research team, says plays a significant role in reducing the severity of the disease.

”The presence of cross-reactive T cells presumably from prior coronavirus infections can also attenuate the severity of the disease. Another reason for the low mortality is based on the emerging evidence suggesting asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic patients have high SARS-CoV2 specific cytotoxic T-cell responses, ” Bahu told The Week in December.

Meanwhile, one expert in Sri Lanka does not believe there is anything unique about what’s happening in India or elsewhere in the region except perhaps Bhutan, a country that imposed stringent border controls and ramped up testing. Institute for Health Policy (IHP) Executive Director Dr Ravindra Rannan-Eliya told EconomyNext yesterday that, over the past two months, cases have been on the decline  in many developing and developed countries.

“This is not due to vaccination – although a lot of people think this is the case in the USA. You see exactly the same decline in Canada starting January 7, a country that has had much less vaccination than the US,” he said.

Credit: FT.com

Rannan-Eliya, far from being baffled by South Asia’s declining cases, believes the virus “basically won” in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh – an outcome he attributes to inadequate testing, ineffective lockdowns and poor contact-tracing and isolation measures.

“If you extrapolate from an infection rate of 30% in India, what this means is that, at the minimum, 0.5 million Indians died. The actual number is probably more than 1 million. It’s a similar situation in the other three countries. When I looked at the data for Pakistan recently, there is very strong evidence that most deaths were not counted. There were also a large number of unreported deaths outside Islamabad and in the poorer provinces. There is probably also going to be a long term health cost also with tens of millions suffering long COVID,” he said.

The virus spread freely through the population resulting in partial immunity, said Rannan-Eliya. In combination with continued restrictions, he explained, this should now be sufficient to bring case numbers down. However, if remaining restrictions such as school closures are now lifted, cases may well go up again.

“Looking forward, the big concern is whether there are any new variants spreading. Genomic sequencing is very limited in these countries, so it’s possible we don’t know yet. Variants could easily reverse this scenario. The most obvious example of this is Manaus in Brazil which achieved 70-80% herd immunity last year, but has now suffered a huge second wave because of a variant that is immune resistant,” he said.

In Kerala, the southern Indian state that had previously done an exemplary job of containing the virus, as of mid-February contributed to nearly 50% of the country’s active COVID-19 cases. A new, more transmissible variant is suspected to be behind the recent surge. A new variant was in fact discovered in the state earlier this week, but according to Indian media, it may not be the culprit.

“I don’t think that these countries are exactly back to normal. They have continuing low levels of transmission, and as immunity wanes or as restrictions are relaxed or both, they may see further small waves. If they get some dangerous variants, then these future waves might not be small,” said Rannan-Eliya.

With regard to climate and innate immunity boosted by exposure to other diseases, he said: “I think temperature certainly, and possibly previous cold virus infections, may have slowed spread, but the impacts would have been small. Bear in mind that the worst infected countries in the world are largely hot countries – Brazil, India, Peru, South Africa, much of Africa, etc. So it’s not a big factor. South Asia can be largely explained using standard epidemiology and considering the serology survey data.”

Reported by Himal Kotelawala (Colombo/Feb27/2021)

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Sri Lanka central bank appoints two Deputy Governors

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s central bank said Assistant Governors A A M Thassim and J P R Karunaratne were promoted to the post of Deputy Governor.

The full statement is reproduced below:

APPOINTMENT OF NEW DEPUTY GOVERNORS OF THE CENTRAL BANK OF SRI LANKA

In terms of the provisions in the Central Bank of Sri Lanka Act, No. 16 of 2023, Hon. Minister of Finance, as recommended by the Governing Board, has appointed Mr. A A M Thassim, Assistant Governor and Secretary to the Governing Board, and Mr. J P R Karunaratne, Assistant Governor, as Deputy Governors of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka with effect from 20.06.2024 and 24.06.2024, respectively.

Mr. A A M Thassim

Mr. A.A.M. Thassim has over 31 years of service at Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) in different capacities in the areas of Supervision and Regulation of Banking Institutions, International Operations, Communication, Payments and Settlements, Employees Provident Fund, Finance, Risk Management, Deposit Insurance, Security Services and Information Technology.

He has served as the Director of Bank Supervision (DBS), Director of International Operation (DIO) and Director of Communications (DCM) and has contributed towards strengthening the legal framework, governance, implementation the Basel 3 international guidelines for capital and liquidity and adoption of International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) 9 to the banking sector, thereby strengthening the resilience of the Financial Sector.

Further, as the DIO, Mr. Thassim was responsible for the investments and management of foreign reserves of the country and exchange rate management. Mr. Thassim has also gained experience and knowledge in the field of payment systems and was involved in the implementation of the Cheque Imaging and Truncation System. In addition, he has also served on several high-level internal committees including in the areas of monetary policy, financial system stability and international reserves.

Prior to the appointment as the Deputy Governor, Mr. Thassim held the position of Assistant Governor and was in charge of several key departments including the Bank Supervision Department. He also served as the Secretary to the Governing Board, Monetary Policy Board, Audit Committee, Board Risk Oversight Committee, Ethics Committee and Financial Sector Crisis Management Committee.

At present, Mr. Thassim is a board member of the Sri Lanka Export Credit Insurance Corporation and the Vice Chairman of the Institute of Bankers of Sri Lanka (IBSL). Further, he has also served as a board member of the Credit Information Bureau of Sri Lanka and LankaClear (Pvt) Ltd.,

Mr. Thassim is an Associate member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (ACMA) United Kingdom and possesses a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM), University of Sri Jayewardenepura (USJ). He has also completed a programme on Gold Reserves Management from Hass School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, USA.

He is also an Alumni of Harvard University, USA having successfully completed the executive programme on Leaders in Development conducted by the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Mr. J P R Karunaratne

Mr. J P R Karunaratne has over 33 years of service at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in different capacities in the areas of supervision and regulation of Banks and Non-Bank financial institutions, Currency management, public debt, Secretariat, Finance, policy review and monitoring. He has served as the Director of Supervision of Non-Bank Financial Institutions (DSNBFI) and the Superintendent of Currency (SC) and has contributed towards strengthening the legal and regulatory framework in the Non-Bank Financial Institutions sector and has played a prominent role in the consolidation of the Non-Bank Financial Institutions sector. Prior to the appointment as a Deputy Governor, Mr. J P R Karunaratne held the position of Assistant Governor and was in-charge of the Department of Supervision of Non-Bank Financial Institutions, Finance Department and the Facilities Management Department.

As an Assistant Governor Mr. Karunaratne has previously overseen several other departments namely, Macroprudential Surveillance, Resolution and Enforcement, Foreign Exchange, Currency, Regional Development, Legal and Compliance, Risk Management, Center for Banking Studies, Security Services and Staff Services Management.

He has also served as the Secretary to the Monetary Board, Secretary to the Board Risk Oversight Committee, Monetary Board Advisory Audit Committee and the Ethics Committee. Further, He was on release to the Ministry of Defence, where he served as a Financial Advisor. He was also appointed as the Chief Operating Officer for the Secretariat of Committee of Chartered Accountants appointed by the Supreme Court in 2009.

He has served as the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Accounting and Auditing Standards Monitoring Board and has been a Council Member of the Certified Management Accountants (CMA) of Sri Lanka. Mr. Karunaratne was awarded the CMA Sri Lanka Business Excellence Award at the CMA Sri Lanka National Management Accounting Conference 2023 in recognition of his service to the profession. He has also received “Long Service Award” of the IBSL in 2019 in recognition of his long career and contribution as a resource person at IBSL.

He was the Project Team Leader of the South East Asian Central Banks (SEACEN) Malaysia, research project on “Implementation of Basel III Challenges and Opportunities in SEACEN Countries” and SEACEN published the research in 2013. He serves as a member of several internal and external committees at present.

Mr. Karunaratne holds a Master of Commerce Degree in Finance from the University of New South Wales, Australia and a Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Statistics and a Bachelor of Science (Physical Science) Degree with a First class from the University of Colombo. He is a Fellow Member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), UK and a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA). Further, he is an Associate Member of the CMA Sri Lanka.

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Sri Lanka opposition questions claims that IMF housing tax is only for kulaks

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s opposition has questioned claims made by government spokesmen that a tax on housing proposed in an International Monetary Fund deal is only limited to rich people but if as promised by President one house is exempt, it is welcome, legislator Harsha de Silva said.

Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe made a promise in parliament that the first house of a citizen will be excluded from the property tax.

Related Sri Lanka to exempt one house from imputed rent wealth tax: President

But opposition legislator Harsha de Silva pointed out that the IMF program documents clearly says taxes will be levied on owner occupied houses on ‘imputed taxes’, not second houses.

Under current inland revenue laws, actual rent income from a second house is already captured as part of taxable income.

The IMF document mentions a threshold value from which taxes will be exempt but not that a whole owner-occupied primary residence will be exempt.

“The tax is imposed on the income of individuals (rather than real property itself) and thus raises central government revenue in accordance with the constitution,” IMF staff said in their report.

“A similar tax was previously included in the Inland Revenue Act. No. 10 of 2006.

“Under this regime, primary residences were exempt and the assessed values for rating purposes were used to determine the base.

“Given the broad exemption and the use of outdated and downward biased annual values, the tax generated hardly any revenue.”

Meanwhile Sri Lanka has promised to impose the housing tax from April 01, 2025.

“…[W]e will introduce an imputed rental income tax on owner-occupied and vacant residential properties before the beginning of the tax year on April 1st, 2025,” the memorandum of economic policies agreed with the IMF said.

“An exemption threshold and a graduated tax rate schedule would make this tax highly progressive.

“The full revenue yield from this tax is estimated at 0.4 percent and would materialize in 2026 (with a partial yield of 0.15 percent in 2025).

“This yield would still fall short by 1 percent of GDP relative to the expected yield of 1.2 percent of GDP from the property tax envisaged for 2025 onwards.”

Presidential Undertaking

“Whatever the President said the IMF agreement says owner occupied house,” De Silva told in parliament.

“It is not the second house that is mentioned in the agreement.

“But there is one thing. I am happy as Samagi Jana Balawegaya, that we have been able to save the middle class in society from a massive tax that was to be imposed.”

In Sri Lanka there is a belief that the most productive citizens are fair game for excessive or expropriationary taxation, just like kulaks were targeted in the Soviet Union for actual expropriation, critics say.

Wealth taxes have had disastrous effects on some US cities like Baltimore, leading to falling populations and dilapidated houses.

Sri Lanka is currently facing a brain drain due to high income tax after on top of depreciation from severe monetary debasement from a flexible exchange rate, which is neither a hard peg nor a clean float.

Sri Lanka has imposed a wide range of taxes on the people to maintain a bloated state, after inflationists engaged in extreme macro-economic policy (tax and rate cuts) glorified in Saltwater-Cambridge doctrine to boost growth, throwing classical economic principles and monetary stability to the winds and driving the country into external default.

The IMF itself gave technical assistance the central bank to calculate potential output inviting the agency to cut rates to close the perceived econometric ‘output gap’.

In the run up to the default, rate cuts triggered multiple external crises, leading to output shocks as stabilization programs were implemented.

Macro-economic Policy

Macro-economic policy as known now was devised by Cambridge academic J M Keynes in the wake of the Great Depression triggered by the Federal Reserve after it invented open market operations and policy rates in the 1920s and also popularized by Harvard academic Alvin Hansen among others.

Macro-economic policy started to de-stabilize countries in peacetime in the interwar years and after World War II it led to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system.

The Great Depression was also a peacetime collapse of what was later known as the roaring 20s’ monetary bubble.

“They have blithely ignored the warnings of economists,” classical economist Ludwig von Mises wrote of European nations which got into trouble from rate cuts and Keynesian stimulus, which brought currency depreciation and protectionism in its wake from the 1930s.

“They have erected trade barriers, they have fostered credit expansion and an easy money policy, they have taken recourse to price control, to minimum wage rates, and to subsidies.

“They have transformed taxation into confiscation and expropriation; they have proclaimed heedless spending as the best method to increase wealth and welfare.

“But when the inevitable consequences of such policies, long before predicted by the economists, became more and more obvious, public opinion did not place the blame on these cherished policies…”

Who….?

In Sri Lanka however there is some understanding of the role played by macro-economists in the most recent crisis.

There are rumblings of unhappiness about ‘central bank independence’ given to an agency to create 5 to 7 percent inflation and currency debasement under a flexible exchange rate and its constitutional status relating to parliamentary control of public finances.

Sri Lanka’s central bank’s current flexible inflation targeting (inflation targeting without a floating rate) regime as well as its 1980s money supply targeting without floating rate has busted the national currency for decades and made it impossible to run budgets, made it difficult for people build houses which are now to be taxed, and also for millions to live and work in the country of their birth.

Fiscal metrics deteriorate each time rate cuts drive the country into currency crises and new taxes are brought in stabilization programs, ousting reformist governments and leading to policy reversals.

Sri Lanka’s citizens have suffered for decades from the privilege given to a few macroeconomists to print money to cut rates with inflationary open market operations and trigger forex shortages.

Related How Sri Lanka’s elections are decided by macro-economists and the IMF: Bellwether

Critics have pointed out that since 1954 in particular, central bank rates cuts which drive the country into external crises and the stabilization programs that follow, have been the main determinant of elections in the country and election of fringe political parties. (Colombo/June13/2024)

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India supports Sri Lanka Coast Guard to boost maritime security

ECONOMYNEXT – India has given 1.2 million US dollars’ worth spare parts to Sri Lanka’s Coast Guard to be used in a vessel also gifted to the Indian Ocean Island on an earlier occasion, the Indian High Commission in Colombo said.

“Handing over of the large consignment of spares symbolizes India’s commitment to support capability building towards addressing the shared challenges of Maritime Security in the region,” the Indian High Commission said

The spare parts were brought to Sri Lanka on the Indian Coast Guard Ship Sachet, an offshore patrol vessel that was on a two-day visit to the island.

The spares were formally handed over to the Sri Lanka Coast Guard Ship Suraksha which was gifted to Sri Lanka in October 2017 by India.

India has gifted spare parts for the ship in June 2021 and April 2022 and also provided assistance in refilling of Halon cylinders in January 2024. (Colombo/June23/2024)

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