Last updated on: March 24, 2020 at 9:38 pm IST
The Centre’s decision to increase test laboratories facilities to meet the challenge of massive level coronavirus tests to check how far the virus has spread at the community level is significant. The government is both faced with the problems of shortages of testing kits and supplies as well as the exorbitantly priced tests. Though so far, at the government facilities notified for the coronavirus tests, this is being conducted free of cost, the probability of roping in private players will colour the combat against the disease with the wide socio-economic disparities within the country. It is this divide that needs to be now borne in mind not just enhancing the numbers of tests to reduce the chances of community spread of disease in the second most densely populated country in the world. Some of the related concerns need to be thought about. India’s public health system ranks rather low in the global index and its spending at only 1.2 percent of the GDP on public health, already keeps the poor and ruralites deprived of effective health-care. In this scenario, making the costly tests accessible for larger communities, sanitizing laboratories and the provision of decent quarantine facilities deserve the highest priority. The accounts some of the travelers pushed into horrifyingly dirty and cramped facilities are shocking and cannot be glossed over simply by ensuring that those who can pay can be shifted into luxury hotels than work as make-shift quarantines. The government should instead gear up for basic dignified and hygienic quarantines for all, free of cost, even for the poorest of poor. Given the pattern of disease globally, and given India’s abysmally low level of testing, there is high probability of community transmission. Experts have pointed out that there are chances that asymptomatic or mild cases are being missed and depending on the contagiousness, numbers and exposure, it can lead to many new infections. The challenge at another level is to ensure hygiene of the unaffected people at the community level. This cannot be achieved simply with generating awareness about social distancing, washing hands with soap or using sanitizers and disinfectants. The extent of poverty and illiteracy in the country needs to be taken into account. A vast chunk of the population, more than 20 percent, is poor. About 300 million are declared below poverty line, meaning that their daily spending is below Rs 47 in urban areas and Rs 32 in rural areas. Not only are they unable to afford the basic soap but they usually have no access to clean water so vital for human existence. While in rural areas, the health infrastructure is in shambles, in the urban areas, the poor are huddled in crowded areas and slums in cramped dwellings. They can neither be expected to maintain social distancing nor work from home. Considering that majority of them do not have regular jobs, self-isolation for these communities is impossible without the government aid. A large chunk of them are working, without risk allowance, in hazardous sectors without any proper safety gear, primarily those who clean septic tanks or work as rag-pickers and safai karamcharis without even basic gloves and boots to protect their hands and feet from infections and viruses. The government needs to step in to not just create basic awareness among these communities but also give them the much-needed confidence through provision of hygiene kits. Though a Herculean task, the cleanliness of these vast slums and the hygiene of the people who live in them is imperative. There must also be preparedness to prevent them from being pushed into starvation through free supplies of rations if the contagion spreads. More than 400 million people live in crowded cities in this country. In the absence of even basic hygiene, this disease could spread like wild-fire. Even if the present numbers of coronavirus affected are low, the guard should not be lowered. The present concerns should not keep out of purview the gaping economic disparities and the hazardous conditions in which the poor live. They are equally the citizens of the country. In an infected system of disparities, fighting coronavirus becomes an even bigger challenge.