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Could we have handled this better?

As we enter what might (or might not) be the final week of the nationwide lockdown, I thought back to the weeks since Corona took over our lives.

My own view is that, compared to many Western countries, we haven’t done too badly.


But looking back, there have been so many mistakes and so much misinformation that it is worth asking: could we have handled this better?


The delay: Few people remember this but in the early years of this century, Asia faced the SARS pandemic. Though SARS was deadly in China, it didn’t spread much beyond East Asia because China locked down quickly and the use of masks became common in East Asia.


   At that time, India was warned that SARS would spread to our shores. We took basic precautions: checking passengers coming from East Asia to see if they had fever, etc.


   But SARS did not spread to India and we soon abandoned our checks.


   I suspect that gave us a false sense of security. Covid is a cousin of SARS, came from the same source and so, we thought, it couldn’t really do much harm to us. We had brushed off SARS. So we would brush off Covid. That’s why checks at airports were so casual ---- and ineffective.


   A friend of mine flew in from Bangkok in the first week of March. He was stopped at the airport.


   “Aap ko bukhar hai”? The health official asked him.


  “Ji Nahin”, he replied.


  “Achcha chale jayiye,” he was told.


   And that was that.


   It took us another precious week to begin serious checking at airports.


The Complacency: The government also underestimated the deadliness of Covid. When it should have been preparing to fight the virus, it was busy organising Donald Trump’s visit to India. After that, pure cynicism probably set in.


   All through March, the ruling dispensation had been trying to topple Kamal Nath’s government in Madhya Pradesh. Nath tried to avert this imminent collapse by claiming that as Covid was spreading, the state assembly (where a vote on his future would be held) should be adjourned.


   This was politically convenient but not unreasonable. The central government, determined to topple him, told the Governor to refuse any adjournment. But this meant it could not adjourn parliament (despite demands from opposition MPs) because then Nath would have been able to claim that the assembly should also be adjourned.


   Eventually, Nath resigned on 20 March, which was a Friday. When parliament reconvened on Monday 23, it was duly adjourned. That weekend, international flights were finally banned as well.


   The timeline leaves very little to the imagination. Priorities were misplaced.


Foreign Transmission: We believed, correctly, that the virus would only come from abroad. This was true enough but a) we hadn’t checked incoming flights thoroughly (the singer Kanika Kapoor, for instance, was ‘screened’ at Mumbai airport and allowed to enter) and that b) people who had contracted the infection would give it to those they came into contact with.


   Till now, we are committed to deny that there has been any “community transmission” a term which means that a person with no contact with anyone from abroad can be infectious and transmit the disease.


   So, we refuse to test people who have no foreign travel history in their family or friends. There are horror stories about people being refused tests because they had no foreign contact even though they displayed Covid symptoms and asked to be tested.


   It has now been six weeks since flights were banned. It is obvious that if new cases keep being discovered then, at least in some parts of India, there is community transmission.


Jamaat: There is no doubt that the Tablighi Jamaat contributed massively to the spread of Covid in India. The organisation must be condemned. But let’s also admit that the police (under the Home Ministry) and the Delhi government failed in not breaking up the congregation --- especially as the police station was next door and the Delhi police knew that thousands were gathered there.


"If they had announced the lockdown earlier and given people a few days to adjust, thousands of people would not have suffered."

Testing: What, people ask, could the government have done even if had acted earlier, even before the fall of the Kamal Nath government?




   It could have ordered more testing kits.


   Even now, India does not have enough. And our testing ratios are abysmally low.


Lockdown: We can understand why the government was so keen to impose a lockdown in a hurry, having wasted valuable time in playing politics.


   But that does not excuse the manner in which the lockdown was imposed. Most countries give citizens enough time to prepare for a lockdown. We gave them a few hours.


   The rich and the middle class got by but the poor suffered. Even today, you will see heart-breaking footage of poor migrant workers, walking hundreds of miles home, their worldly possessions wrapped in a piece of cloth or a single carrier bag.


   This was unnecessary and thoughtless. If they had announced the lockdown earlier and given people a few days to adjust, thousands of people would not have suffered.


Masks: Many of the other screw-ups are universal and not India-specific. The WHO and the US Surgeon General screwed up badly by telling us that we did not need to wear masks.


   Now, as infections have mounted, they have all reversed themselves and said that we will need to wear masks for the foreseeable future even when the lockdown end.


Sanitizer: Have you noticed how nobody says very much about sanitizers now? At the start of the crisis we were told that hand sanitizers were good for fighting bacteria but useless against viruses. Far better, they said, to use soap which broke the lipid layer that coated each Corona virus.


   Now, nobody talks about that distinction. Were they wrong? Do sanitizers work as well as soap?


   The subject has kind of slipped from public consciousness.


Droplets: The current scare.


   We know that Corona, like many respiratory viruses, spreads when people sneeze. Virus-filled droplets are released into the air. Gravity ensures that these droplets soon fall to the ground. But if you are near an infected person, you might inhale a droplet and get infected. Hence, the six-foot separation rule.


   We know also that if these droplets land on a surface that you later touch, you could be in trouble. At some stage, your fingers, which have touched the surface will find their way to your nose, mouth, eyes, etc. And then they will enter your respiratory system.


   Hence, the need to keep washing your hands and not touching your face.


   But now some scientists are claiming that infected people can sneeze out tiny droplets which remain in the air for hours.


   Is this true?


   Well, yes and no. Other scientists say that the studies that show wide dispersal of droplets do not reflect the real-life situation because the droplets were sprayed out in tests with great force by devices that do not mimic human sneezing.


   Others say that even if such a droplet is still around for hours after being expelled from the body (in the air or on a surface) it is not necessarily infectious.


   While scientists squabble, best to wash your hands and wear masks.


Hydroxychloroquine: One of the strangest aspects of this crisis has been the rise of and fall of hydroxychloroquine, an 80-year-old-drug used to treat malaria, arthritis, etc.


   Donald Trump has touted it as a miracle cure around 40 times, even citing a flawed French study. Indian doctors have been quick to mimic this.


   And there have been foreign policy ramifications. When India refused to sell the drug to America, Trump threatened us with retaliation. We quickly caved in, which led to another uproar.


But the point is: does it work?


   So far there is not one peer-reviewed study that says it does. And there are studies that say it could have dangerous side-effects.


   At present, the balance of opinion is that it is not a prophylactic against Covid and not a cure either.


People & Doctors: In a sense, almost everything that has gone wrong in the handling of this crisis is only to be expected. This is a new virus. So doctors are still figuring out how to fight it. Mistakes are inevitable.


   And the cynicism and the thoughtlessness of politicians?


   Well that’s only to be expected, too.


   Isn’t it?



Posted On: 29 Apr 2020 04:07 PM
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