Editorial: MERS — no need to panic

Updated 18 April 2014
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Editorial: MERS — no need to panic

Though there can be no ignoring the misery and heartache of the friends and families of its victims, the number of people in the Kingdom known to have died from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome remains happily low.
According to Ministry of Health officials, there have been a total of 212 identified infections and 72 deaths, the latest of which occurred in Jeddah on Wednesday. These are the figures collected here since the coronavirus (MERS) was first identified in the spring of 2012. Unclear reports also so suggest that the condition has presented itself in five other Arab states: Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Tunisia, as well as France, Italy and the United Kingdom.
Preliminary statistics suggest that the virus, the symptoms of which include a high fever and a persistent cough, proves fatal in around 35 percent of those infected. It is perhaps this outcome that appears to be causing concern among members of the public.
It is quite understandable that people should fear for the health of their loved ones, as well as themselves. But it is important that this condition is viewed in a proper perspective. There are more than 29 million people living in Saudi Arabia with an average life expectancy in excess of 75 years. The current MERS death toll is therefore statistically insignificant. It is also worth examining who has been contracting the deadly virus. Some of them have been health professionals who had the misfortune not to mask up when first encountering infected patients. And since the virus is spread by close contact, unsuspecting relatives who have been caring for family members, have also themselves fallen victim. Thus clear clusters of infection have been identified.
The Haj and Umrah authorities have spent the last two years doing everything they can to ensure that pilgrims are kept safe and healthy during their visit to the Kingdom. And it did work, MERS has not been contracted by pilgrims, who visit the Kingdom in large numbers. And insidiously, as with similar conditions, not everyone who carries MERS is infected. It appears that vectors can inadvertently serve to spread the virus while displaying none of the symptoms themselves and suffering no ill effects.
Later this month, some of the best brains in disease control will be arriving under the World Health Organization banner for top-level meetings in Riyadh to see how the disease can be contained and eradicated. There are certain to be three fronts to their discussions. The first will be how to improve the precautionary processes needed to identify and isolate victims before they themselves can pass MERS on. None of this is rocket science. Basic medical and hygiene precautions will make it harder for the virus to spread through close contact.
The second front is the analysis of the virus and the identification of the best way to defeat and kill it. This could require considerable work by top researchers. The good news here is that the Kingdom is not short of the financial resources to fund intensive research into the virus and its cure. Nor is there any lack of world-class research facilities here, where much of the pathological analysis and detective work could be undertaken. With the right will and coordination, sooner rather than later, the terrible secrets of MERS could be unmasked and defeated.
The third front is no less important. It is critical that the public be convinced that there is no cause for alarm. Infection is such a remote possibility. And if people are afraid of going into public spaces where contagion might lie, then simple face masks will probably cancel virtually all risk. Such masks may look silly but they were common in China and much of the rest of Asia during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) scare of 2003. Indeed, given the enduring pollution in many Chinese cities, they are still common.
The key to public confidence is the provision of full and timely information. Ministry of Health officials appear to have done a very good job so far of keeping ordinary people informed about what is really going on. They should be sure not to let this record slip. If reliable official figures are not forthcoming on a regular basis, the clear danger is that an information vacuum will be filled by rumor. Ill-informed speculation could trigger the spread of alarming but totally inaccurate news, which, thanks to social media, could rapidly go far more viral than MERS itself. Therefore it is imperative that good data is publicized in a clear and understandable format, in which everyone can have complete confidence.


EDITORIAL: Jeddah floods a reminder of why we need the anti-corruption drive

Saudi drivers take a flooded street in Jeddah on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 22 November 2017
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EDITORIAL: Jeddah floods a reminder of why we need the anti-corruption drive

It has happened again. The roads, streets and many underpasses in Jeddah were flooded with rainwater on Tuesday. Many areas were turned into lakes because of the heavy, though forecast, downpour. In some areas, water was knee-deep while in others it was chest-deep. People were stuck in their vehicles and many were seen pushing their vehicles to the side of the roads with great difficulty. In low-lying areas, citizens struggled to remove their belongings from flooded houses.

For the residents of Jeddah, rain has, more often than not, brought trouble and devastation. Whenever the skies open up, thoughts go back to that “Black Wednesday” of November 25, 2009, when more than 100 people lost their lives and property worth billions of riyals was destroyed. An investigation was opened into the disaster and some of the guilty were taken to court and tried; some of the small fry were even jailed. As has been the case in the past, the mighty arm of the law could barely touch those at the top who enjoyed immunity from prosecution.

And so it was business as usual until the rain began to wreak havoc again, reminding us that the laws of nature take their course and that hiding your head in the sand does not chase the clouds away.

Having said that, it must be admitted that, yes, lessons were learned. A disaster management team was set up. The weather forecast department became active in issuing alerts. In fact, Tuesday could have been far worse had it not been for the timely alert from the Presidency of Meteorology and Environment (PME) and a prompt decision by the Ministry of Education to suspend classes, schools and universities in and around Jeddah. That helped in keeping people and vehicles off the streets. At noon on Tuesday, it looked as if the city were under some kind of curfew.

The questions that are on everyone's minds right now are: Why is it that rain renders the city helpless and immobile at this time every year? Why have efforts to create effective rainwater drainage systems not borne fruit despite pumping billions of riyals into new projects such as dams and canals? Why is it that the authorities are found wanting whenever heavy rain occurs? More importantly, what is the solution?

Here is the answer. These floods are a stark reminder of why the current drive against corruption is so essential. It is required in order to instill the fear of law into high-ranking officials and heads of construction companies and civic bodies who have failed in their responsibilities. Those who have cut corners and have pocketed public money, those who have not delivered on the projects and who have provided substandard services must pay for their sins of omission.

This is exactly what is happening. No one is above the law. The guilty, whoever they are, however high up they are, will have to pay — and they are. In this new era of transparency and accountability — initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — word has gone down from top to bottom that no one is immune. If you are guilty you will be punished. Those responsible for the havoc of the floods on Tuesday will have no rest either.