Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The long lashing tail of Covid

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Several question marks hover over the long term damage caused by the aftereffects of Covid infections.

Column in Business Standard, July 11, 2020

Since coming out of Covid hospital after a bad attack of the virus some days ago, I have been swamped by (mostly unsolicited) advice from friends and strangers on how to hasten my convalescence and a long recital of prophylactic measures that are likely to immunise me from a relapse.

For, among the many infuriating question marks that hover over the transmission, spread, treatment, and cure of Covid-19 are several additional vexed queries: How long is the period and process of recovery? Can its aftereffects damage other organs? And do recovered Covid patients develop immunity from a recurrence of the infection ― and if so for how long?

CNN anchor Richard Quest has lately broadcast eloquently on what he calls “living and suffering from the long tail of Covid-19”. Mr Quest tested positive in mid-April; his main symptoms were tiredness and “a dry, raspy, wheezy cough”. Now, worryingly, all these weeks later, the cough has come back, and so has the fatigue. Mr Quest says he has become unaccountably clumsy; he falls over furniture, reaches for a glass or something from a cupboard, and drops it. “It is as if that part of my brain, which subconsciously adjusts hand and movement to obstacles it sees, isn’t working … My digestive system is peculiar, to say the least. It doesn’t matter whether I call them symptoms, traits, or wreckage ― my body doesn’t feel quite right.”

More alarmingly, a report by neurologists in The Guardian this week published evidence that the virus triggered serious, possibly fatal, brain damage in more than 40 Covid patients. “We’re seeing things in the way Covid-19 affects the brain that we haven’t seen before with other viruses,” said Michael Zandi, a senior author on the study of University College London Hospital’s NHS Foundation Trust. The concerns by specialists centre on the unfathomable long-term aftereffects of the virus — ranging from breathlessness, fatigue, numbness, weakness, and memory loss. As in the 1918 flu pandemic, which is said to have left a million people with brain disease, Covid’s effects could take years to become apparent.

“We’ve already seen that some people with Covid-19 may need a long rehabilitation period, both physical and brain rehabilitation … We need to understand more about the impact of this infection on the brain,” says another clinical analyst.

In more telling turns of phrase, Mr Quest compares the infection to “a tornado … when it lands, it swirls through the body, causing chaos, confusion, coughs, wreaking damage to each organ it touches.”

Early Covid symptoms are not necessarily uniform. The Delhi-based dancer and choreographer Geeta Chandran, who has successfully fought the infection ― and emerged as an informal Covid counsellor ― says that the first inkling she had was a loss of smell. Like many others she enthusiastically endorses alternative homegrown prophylactics as immunity-building remedies, among them daily intakes of warm haldi doodh (turmeric milk) as the Ayurvedic equivalent of vitamin supplements. In the hospital where I spent a week, the haldi brew was offered to patients as a nightcap. Although turmeric is well-known for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant properties in traditional medicine, there is no clinical research that it can fight, much less cure, Covid. Likewise for spice-based “kadhas”, or herbal concoctions with Giloy stems, of the heart-shaped moonseed plant (Tinospora cordifolia), which have suddenly achieved popularity, with people growing it in pots and public parks as some sort of magic vine that will ward off the spread of a cruelly unsparing sickness.

When the favoured Ayurveda guru Baba Ramdev’s firm Patanjali recently tried to patent medicines with names such as “Coronil” and “Swasari”, claiming that trials on Covid patients had shown favourable results as a cure, the government promptly restrained him from advertising any such claims.

Double double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” chant the prophesying witches in Macbeth as a portent of a tragedy foretold. Faith healing, with its rattle and roll of pills, potions and elixirs, has its uses at a time of universal distress.

But the harsh reality continues unfolding in the heartless headlines. India recorded its biggest single-day spike this week with 25,530 Covid cases, breaching the 25,000 mark for the first time. The death toll crossed 20,000 with 400 fatalities for the sixth consecutive day. And the bulletin from Covid-19’s international monitor-in-chief, World Health Organization Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, wasn’t too optimistic, either: “In most of the world the virus is not under control. It is getting worse. 11.8 million cases of Covid-19 have now been reported to WHO. More than 544,000 lives have been lost. The pandemic is still accelerating. The total number of cases has doubled in the last six weeks.”


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