Air-con units spread the virus

Iraq, where average summer temperatures are 10 degrees hotter than in Egypt, is registering more than 2,000 new infections daily since early July. Although the nation between the Euphrates and the Tigris has been in a long-term lockdown since mid-March, the numbers are rising dramatically.

Here, we are seeing the exact opposite of what was predicted. Instead of annihilating corona, summer is causing the virus to boom. At top temperatures of 51 degrees in the shade, measured in Baghdad in early August, air-conditioning units are on full blast. Doctors say one of the reasons why the infection rate is going up is because people are spending too much time in enclosed spaces, where the risk of infection is greater.

On 19 August, the figure of 3,000 new infections within a 24-hour period was exceeded for the first time. The health ministry in Baghdad called it a new corona record. This now means that Iraq has overtaken its neighbour Iran, where Iraqis originally caught the virus while visiting or receiving medical treatment there. That was when the chains of infection were still traceable.

Nevertheless, the figures from Iran are probably inaccurate. The virus is clearly much more rampant there than officials are admitting. A BBC report cited Iranian government documents stating that by late July, around 42,000 people had died of COVID-19, more than double the official figure.  Amnesty International and the Iranian opposition in exile are also sounding the alarm. The revelations support the claim that the Iranian authorities are deliberately misleading the public in the worst-hit country in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabian hajj scaled back

Saudi Arabia, the motherland of Islam, has in the meantime become a corona hotspot. With 3,548 deaths (as of 17 August), the death toll is far fewer than that of Iraq, which has more than 6,000 corona deaths and a similar-sized population.

But the huge numbers of tourists visiting Islamic pilgrimage sites represents a massive infection risk. That’s why the main hajj pilgrimage to Mecca was pretty much cancelled this year, taking away the significance of the ensuing Eid festival for many Muslims. How can we celebrate if we don’t see any images of pilgrims encircling the Kaaba in Mecca? In recent years, every family in the Muslim world had a member undertaking the hajj.

One of the most important pillars of Islam stipulates that every Muslim must make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in his or her lifetime. Returnees from Saudi Arabia were feted as they told their stories for hours on end and were then referred to as haji (male) or hajiya (female). None of that was possible this year. Corona robbed the Feast of the Sacrifice of its soul and suggested that in fact, the virus does not die in summer.

Scientists have now recognised this and carried out a study on the subject. A team led by environmental scientist Rachel Baker from Princeton University in the U.S. state of New Jersey recently published her report in the specialist journal "Science". According to her findings, variations in climate have little impact on the novel pathogen. Although higher levels of air humidity influence the spread of other coronaviruses and flu, the researchers say that in the case of the novel pathogen SARS-CoV-2, the lack of a “widespread immunity” is decisive.

The progress of the pandemic in warmer countries would also appear to support this theory. “It doesn’t seem that climate is regulating spread right now,” explains Baker. The researchers predict that variations in temperature will only become a decisive factor when large sections of the population are immune to the pathogen and the novel coronavirus settles down to become a seasonal virus. This development can also be observed in the case of the common cold, triggered by other human coronaviruses, which peaks in the winter outside of the tropics, the study claims.

But it will be many weeks before the desired rate of immunity is reached. In any case, no one needs to waste any more time waiting for the heat.

Birgit Svensson

© 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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