Tuesday, November 24, 2020

COVID-19 challenge

The number of COVID-19 positive cases in the country as on Friday has risen to 223, including 32 foreign nationals. According to reports, at least 50 fresh cases were reported on Friday, making it the largest single-day jump since the outbreak began weeks ago. At least four deaths have been linked to the virus. On Friday evening the Health Ministry urged people to follow Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for a “janata” curfew on Sunday, saying “a day’s cooperation will help break the chain of transmission”. On Thursday in a televised address, the Prime Minister had called for a “janata” (public) curfew from 7 am to 9 pm. Compared to other parts of the world, the 223 tested positive for coronavirus in India since beginning of March is low. However, this low-statistic is not an evidence of better preparedness of the country in the fight against coronavirus. It is still too premature to jump to a self-congratulatory mode on basis of the evidently lower figures as compared to many developed countries without taking into account the fact that many of these countries are well beyond their third or four weeks of outbreak of the COVID-19, unlike India where the first case was detected about three weeks ago. The global trend has revealed that the figures usually jump after the third and fourth week in view of the fact that the contagion takes about 14 days to incubate before the first symptoms are experienced. Keeping the possibility of these figures suddenly jumping in multiples in a country which has the second-largest population in the world there is need for some honest introspection which will pin-point the multiple loop-holes and lacunae in the preparedness. To begin with, the number of tests are disproportionate to the number of people who may be at risk right now. The testing criteria for Covid-19, limited mostly to keeping under surveillance only those with a history of travelling abroad recently, are too restrictive. With a little over 50 laboratories for a population of 1.3 billion, there is no way the country can combat the disease if the numbers begin to suddenly and rapidly rise. Some reports have also pointed out to shortages of testing kits, which are expensive but even a country like South Korea, where things first went out of hand, was able to reverse the trend by going in for mass testing free of cost to keep the contagion to the minimal. The restrictive pattern of tests shows that government is almost in denial mode about community level transmission, despite four reported case of death due to coronavirus. This denial does not take into account the cases of those who have somehow evaded tests or fled quarantines, risking the many lives that may have got on touch with them. While under-testing is the major problem, the inability to gear up the medical facilities to cope up with the challenge virtually does not exist. While health-care in India remains uneven, even the tertiary institutions which have the facilities for Covid-19 tests are already over-crowded and add to the threat of spreading the contagion rather than preventing it. The quarantine facilities are even shabbier, jail like, and a store-house of infections, revealing some of the reasons why people are fleeing these facilities. Other than that there is very little awareness in the public domain. Whatever little that exists is being overshadowed by perpetuation of myths by some over-zealous right-wing groups promoting cow urine and cow dung or even by the government itself through its Ayush ministry. A major challenge in a country like India is also the impossibility of adhering to the World Health Organisation guidelines on preventing contagion. Crowded slums breathe in every city besides the rural poor who have no access to basic hygiene or awareness about it. A teeming section of the country is largely so poor that they do not even have access to clean water, leave alone soaps for washing and do not have the luxury of daily survival without social contact. Rather than burying its head ostrich like in the sand, the government needs to look at all these challenges, which are gigantic and require the government to be on its toes. But, first of all it must wake up to the reality.