Cacophony Over Coronavirus Lockdown

Currently, the entire India is trying hard to comply with the 21-day lockdown of the country, as communicated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the nation at 8 pm on March 24, 2020. The very next day,  while addressing his parliamentary constituency of Varanasi via video, he said, “the Mahabharata war was won in 18 days but this war against Coronavirus will take 21 days.”

After this announcement most people’s life, as I myself can feel it, has changed as never before in the past. Unlike the West, in India most of us are too much dependent on domestic help, for routine chores of the family. How difficult these are, at least, I never experienced in the past. Will life, in its entirety, ever be the same gain?

In addition, shortages of most of the essential items were felt everywhere, be these vegetables, grocery items or medicines. Leave aside, the non-essential necessities. But, the bottom-line is, the lockdown has to be followed. There isn’t any other effective alternative to protect ourselves, those working for us to make our lives easier and comfortable, our respective neighborhood and thereby our country. In its midst, a cacophony over this decision is palpable, whatever may be the reason. Many are from highly credible sources.

Exploring various facets of the cacophony, this article will dwell on the question that will arise at the moment of truth – on or after April 15, 2020: What happened after 21-day lockdown of the entire nation. I shall try to focus on this question with the most relevant facts.

The Government’s rationale behind 3 weeks lockdown:

As explained by the Prime Minister and later by several Indian experts, the rationale behind the 21-day lockdown will include primarily the following:

  • The incubation period of Covid19 is around 5 to 14 days. This is also the potential transmission period of the microbe. Effective social distancing of all, may contain or even stop its spread.
  • As all viruses can sustain or exist only by replicating, they are completely dependent on a host cell for survival and can’t reproduce outside a cell. Social distancing may help in this area, as well.
  • Since, the world doesn’t have any vaccine for Covid19, as yet, prevention alternatives are limited.

Cacophony includes: Is complete national lockdown the only answer?

Several highly credible voices are asking: Is the complete lockdown of the nation the only answer? For example, Professor Vikram Patel at Harvard Medical School, wondered about the relevance of national lockdown in his article of March 26, 2020. He wrote, without any widespread community transmission of the disease, the Government might have staved off the worst without a sledge-hammer approach of national lockdown, which no country at India’s stage of the epidemic has imposed.

Elaborating the alternative approach, he suggested to intensify case finding approach through testing and contact tracing, quarantining those who are infected, physical distancing by everyone, graded travel restrictions, preparing the health system to cater to those who may need intensive care and protect health care workers. Even locking-down limited populations with community transmission will be prudent. When properly implemented these steps ‘could have stopped the epidemic in its tracks.’ Citing examples, he wrote, many of our Asian neighbors have done it successfully. Even China, the original epicenter of the epidemic, did not lock down the entire country.

According to other reports, as well, the countries, such as, Singapore, Germany, Turkey, Taiwan and China, have so far handled Covid19 much better than other countries in containing the pandemic. They all ‘refrained from imposing a complete, nationwide curfew-like lockdown.’ China did bring only the Hubei province under complete lockdown, but not the whole country. Scientists expect that Covid19 will exist despite lockdown – till an effective vaccine is developed and made available for all.

Are our doctors adequately protected against Covid19?

Today, even the doctors and other health care workers remain extremely vulnerable to the disease.  Even in AIIMS doctors, reportedly, are using masks and sanitizers made by themselves or buying them. There is already a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which doctors are worried about. PPE includes face masks, eye shield, shoe cover, gown and gloves. These can be used for only five or six hours before having to discard them. Even N-95 face masks cannot be used for more than a day or two. And there is an elaborate protocol in place, as well, on how to dispose them. As the report said, doctors fighting Covid19 asked: ‘Not just claps, give us personal protective gear.’

Further, the Huffpost article of March 20, 2020 had emphasized with details: “Staying home can be hard, but it’s not even an option for the health care workers and scientists on the front lines of our global effort to thwart the COVID-19 pandemic. They have to arm themselves to face potentially infected patients and deadly viruses every day.” This gets vindicated by a March 26, 2020 report. It brought to our notice that 900 people have been quarantined after a Delhi Doctor unprotected by PPE tests COVID19 positive.

Another news article reported: “A day after the entire nation flocked to their balconies to clap for the heroes in the medical field, who are working relentlessly to arrest the Coronavirus pandemic, doctors in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh were greeted with humiliation and assault.”

Cacophony expands to religious solutions and explanations:

With the panic on Coronavirus spreading, the cacophony also includes religious solutions to the disease. For example, as reported by Reuters on March 14, 2020, ‘Hindu group offers cow urine in a bid to ward off Coronavirus.’ Another YouTube video also shows: ‘Hindu activists in India drink cow urine to ‘protect’ themselves from Coronavirus.’ According to many there are many takers of such concepts, whether one likes it or not.

Intriguingly, a top film star with 40.7 million twitter followers twitted on March 22, justifying public clapping at 5 pm during ‘Janata curfew’ and attributing a bizarre reason to it: ‘clapping vibrations destroy virus potency,’ which he later deleted against strong adverse comment from the scientific community. However, a number of, apparently responsible people, a few of whom are also known to me, often comment – such things can happen and do happen in a vast country like India. It isn’t a big deal. The cacophony goes on.

Be that as it may, regardless of enthusiastic public clapping and availability of cow-urine based solutions – fighting deadly Covid19 of potentially infected patients – without PPE, I reckon, is quite akin to asking a professional army to fight a tough battle without having adequate battle-gear.

Level of India’s preparedness just before national lockdown:

To ascertain this, leaving aside other critical areas, such as, quarantine and isolation facilities, let me cite a few examples related to PPE and testing kits. A news that came just a day before the national lockdown, reported a Government official commenting on a textile material used for masks and other PPEs: “Currently, demand is for 8 lakh bodysuits and N95 masks of the material. Orders for these have been placed.”

However, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT), reportedly, banned the export of textile material for masks and coveralls, under the Foreign Trade (Development) and Regulation Act, just recently. Interestingly, as Reuters reported on March 28, 2020, ‘India needs at least 38 million masks and 6.2 million pieces of personal protective equipment as it confronts the spread of Coronavirus.”

Further, when testing is the only acid test to diagnose Covide19 infection – as on March 19, 2020, India, reportedly, had tested 14,175 people in 72 state-run labs, which is regarded as one of the lowest testing rates in the world. This is because: India has limited testing facilities. Thus, only those people who have been in touch with an infected person or those who have travelled to high-risk countries, or health workers managing patients with severe respiratory disease and developing Covid-19 symptoms are eligible for testing. Whereas, according to W.H.O, “All countries should be able to test all suspected cases, they cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded”.

However, after declaration of the national lockdown, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on March 25, 2020, reportedly, invited quotations from manufacturers for supply of 1 million kits to test patients suspected of suffering from COVID-19. After getting a glimpse of the cacophony over the national lockdown for Coronavirus supported by a few examples, let us see what steps the W.H.O advises for all countries to follow in this pandemic. 

The steps W.H.O recommends following:

On March 16, 2020, the Director General (DG) of the World Health Organization (W.H.O) said: “We have a simple message to all countries – test, test, test.” On that day, observing that more cases and deaths have been reported in the rest of the world than in China, as compared to the past week, the DG elaborated the following:

  • Although, there has been a rapid escalation in social distancing measures, like closing schools and cancelling sporting events and other gatherings, but, not an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing – which is the backbone of the response.
  • Social distancing measures can help reduce transmission and enable health systems to cope with. Handwashing and coughing into your elbow can also reduce the risk for yourself and others. But on their own, they are not enough to extinguish this pandemic. It’s the combination that makes the difference. Thus, all countries must take a comprehensive approach.
  • The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate. You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case.
  • If they test positive, isolate them and find out who they have been in close contact with up to 2 days before they developed symptoms, and test those people too. Every day, more tests are being produced to meet the global demand.

Curiously, even three months after the massive outbreak of the Coronavirus epidemic in China, India doesn’t seem to have procured enough PPEs for the doctors and testing kits to diagnose the disease. Besides, lack of advance preparation to create adequate quarantine and isolation facilities in the country make the situation even more complex to effectively deal with.

Other challenges and frugal options:

With eight doctors per 10,000 people in India, compared to 41 in Italy and 71 in Korea and one state-run hospital for more than 55,000 people, the general population has developed a much avoidable habit, over a period of time. It is quite likely, even in the event of getting flu-like symptoms, the majority may not go to doctors. Instead, may try home remedies or go to a retail chemist for drugs. Some may even resort to self-medication, until a full-blown disease surfaces, complicating the situation further.

Hence, only two options are left. One – for each individual to take care of personal hygiene and physical distancing, and second – for the Government to announce a national lockdown, through its second sudden and late evening order, effective midnight of the same day. This took almost everybody by surprise and possibly creating a widespread panic – not so much about the disease – at least initially, but more for regular availability of essential daily necessities – food and for many people – medicines, besides means for daily living of scores of families. This was further fueled by the gross lack of empathy by the law enforcers.

Conclusion:

As reported, if Covid19 continues to spread at its current pace, India could face between around 100,000 and 1.3 million confirmed cases of the disease caused by the new Coronavirus by mid-May, according to a team of scientists based mainly in the United States. It’s important to note that with just 6.8 tests per million, one of the lowest rates in the world, India has been criticized for not testing enough.

Moreover, besides panic and economic fallout of the disease, the long-term impact that Covid19 may have on the mental health of different people, for various reasons, will also need to be ascertained. As Professor Vikram Patel of Harvard Medical School said in his above article, ‘the deliverable is not how many people clanged pots and pans’ or how many obediently followed the Prime Minister’s advice of staying indoors. “The deliverable is how many people got tested, how many doctors have protective gear, how many ventilators the government managed to manufacture or buy overnight.” Another deliverable is isolation centers, temporary hospitals in indoor stadia and quarantine facilities that are fit for human beings, he added.

On November 24, 2020 – when 21-day national lockdown commenced, the total number of confirmed cases in the country were reported as 564. Just at the beginning of the 5th day of the lockdown on March 29, 2020, as I write this piece, as many as 1032 people have been tested positive for Covid19 with 28 deaths. Against the above backdrop, some critical points that surfaced while exploring the cacophony over the national lockdown, can possibly be wished away only at one’s own peril.

Nevertheless, under the prevailing circumstances, there was no other alternative for the Government, but to announce immediate national lockdown, which all should abide by, religiously. However, whether Coronavirus will be won in India with 21-day of national lockdown – just three days more of what the Mahabharata war took, as the Prime Minister expects, will start revealing from April 15, 20120 – as the moment of truth arrives.

By: Tapan J. Ray  

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

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