Covid 19: Some Unanswered Questions in India

Ending all speculations, the national lockdown 2.0 with all previous stringent provisions and more, expecting to bring the deadly microbe under a tight leash in India, commenced on April 15, 2020. This is expected to continue till May 03, 2020, keeping a window of opportunity open, for a case by case review, after April 20, which is today. This is now a known fact. But what is still not known to many are the answers to some critical question, such as, the following three, for example:

  • Will the standalone plan for strict compliance of prescribed social distancing norms for over 40 days and possibly much beyond, a comprehensive strategy to end the Covid 19 warfare in India?
  • As this game plan to save lives also involves livelihood of a large population, will it lead to hunger, involving many families?
  • When will the Covid19 nightmare end in India and how?

In this article, let me deal with these three questions, with illustrations.

Is social distancing’ alone a comprehensive strategy?

Experts believe that ‘social distancing’ is undoubtedly one of the key strategic components in the war against the invisible enemy Covid 19, especially to contain the spread of the virus. However, it’s not considered a standalone or a comprehensive strategy to win Covid19 warfare, for good, as it doesn’t help identify asymptomatic individuals – potential candidates for the continued spread of Coronavirus.

What scientific studies reveal?

Covid19 testing strategy in India is mainly focused on foreign returned and symptomatic individuals, alongside contact tracing. Interestingly, the study on the Covid19 outbreak in China, published by Nature Medicine on April 15, 2020, concluded – 44 per cent of those who tested positive, contracted the disease from an asymptomatic person. This happens, as the viral shedding, that can infect another individual, takes place, at least, 2-3 days before symptoms manifest.

Thus, along with containing the spread, it is equally important to trace the asymptomatic individuals at an early stage, then isolate and quarantine them at appropriate facilities, as necessary. Accordingly, many countries follow intensive testing guidelines from an early stage of disease spread. South Korea, for example, has been successful in this area, during the first wave. The same is being followed in the subsequent waves of outbreaks, till an effective antidote, like a vaccine is available to end the war. Hence, this is considered as a comprehensive strategy in the interim period. It was also well discussed and captured by the Indian media.

Lockdowns delay the peaks by about three months:

Experts indicated, ‘lockdowns merely delay the outbreak’s peak by about three months.’ They have also cautioned: ‘Asian countries risk new waves of Coronavirus infections when they lift lockdowns. The same could happen in the rest of the world.’ The world is now witnessing the second wave of outbreak in many countries.

Two seemingly contradictory messages surface:

Going by the ICMR data, according to media reports, India has conducted around 160,000 tests as on April 8, 2020 with the country’s tally of positive cases stands at 6,237 (at 6 pm on April 9). This indicates, 3.8 percent of the tests yielded positive results for Coronavirus. In comparison, the US with a much lesser population than India, has conducted 2.2 million tests. This is the highest among all countries, and a fifth of all those tests throwing up positive results.

An analysis by Worldometer  Get the data  Created with Datawrapper, of Covid-19 tests per capita of the top ten countries, by the number of tests conducted along with India, reveals something interesting. With a population of around 1.3 billion, India’s Covid-19 tests per 10,000 population has been merely 0.04. This is perhaps one of the lowest, especially considering India’s vast population with high density, poor living conditions of a large number of people, besides other risk factors.

Curiously, even the ICMR acknowledged on April 15 that it is critical to increase testing for Covid-19, as the number of cases in India is “rising exponentially.” However, on April 16, 2020, the Government again defended its testing strategy, as Coronavirus cases in India crossed the 13,000 mark on that day.

Didn’t India get a space to ‘buy time’ in 21-day lockdown period?

It was widely expected that the 21-day national lockdown was announced to buy precious time to prepare the country to roll out a comprehensive strategy. This was expected to include, identification of the asymptomatic individuals or persons with very mild symptoms, through intensive testing. Isolation and quarantine these individuals are of immense importance, thereafter, as the situation will demand.

But, why this hasn’t happened that way, as yet, by garnering requisite wherewithal, from – before, during the 21-day national lockdown period, to date, remains an unanswered question.

Will lockdown 2.0 lead to hunger in many poor families?

Dr. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate and the Harvard University professor  explained the situation in an article, published on April 08, 2020. He wrote: “If a sudden lockdown prevents millions of laborers from earning an income, starvation in some scale cannot be far off.” Even the US, which is considered a quintessential free enterprise economy, has instituted income subsidies through massive federal spending for the unemployed and the poor, Professor Sen wrote.

The current situation was anticipated by global experts, well before it surfaced:

Even before it surfaced so strikingly, Professor Sen cautioned, the more affluent may be concerned only about not getting the disease, while others have to worry also about earning an income, which may be threatened by the disease or by an anti-disease policy, such as a lockdown. For those away from home, such as migrant workers, finding the means of getting back home, could also be a huge emotional concern that needs to be addressed with empathy. The emerging situation in this regard, also increases the risk of disease spread in various different ways.

Another renowned economist, Professor Ricardo Hausmann at Harvard University has, reportedly, said, further lockdowns could have dire consequences. Strict social-distancing measures mean that people must stay at home, so many cannot work, particularly those on a daily wage. Developing nations, such as India, do not have much financial flexibility to pay, for these migrants to stay at home for long, he added. Let me hasten to add, India has already announced a financial package for this purpose. But…

Would the announced stimulus package mitigate the economic and social needs?

1.7 trillion rupees (US$ 22.6 billion) stimulus package that India has announced for the poor, is termed modest by the economists, considering the population of the country. India has to weigh the numbers of deaths that will be caused by the loss of livelihoods against those caused by the disease. “For those who have to stay at home, they starve to death,” Professor Hausmann said.

Thus, the question of charting a clear pathway – striking a right balance between life and livelihood, in the face of Coronavirus pandemic in India, also remains an unanswered question.

When will Covid19 nightmare end and how?

It is virtually impossible to win the war against Coronavirus, decisively, only through social distancing as a standalone strategy. Even ‘The Lancet (Infectious Diseases)’ study of March 23, 2020, concluded: “In the absence of any pharmaceutical intervention, the only strategy against COVID-19 is to reduce mixing of susceptible and infectious people through early ascertainment of cases or reduction of contact.”

‘Early assessment of cases or reduction of contact’ will call for a comprehensive strategy-mix of social distancing – intensive testing of asymptomatic individuals – isolation and quarantining those who will test positive. The paper also underscored: “The effectiveness and societal impact of quarantine and social distancing will depend on the credibility of public health authorities, political leaders, and institutions. It is important that policy makers maintain the public’s trust through use of evidence-based interventions and fully transparent, fact-based communication.”

‘If’ and ‘but’ exist:

Interestingly, in the ‘The Lancet’ study, the authors estimated that 7·5 percent of infections are clinically asymptomatic. Whereas, the study published in Nature Medicine on April 15, 2020, concluded that 44 per cent of those who tested positive contracted the disease from an asymptomatic person.  Moreover, The Lancet paper acknowledged that higher asymptomatic proportions will influence the effectiveness of social-distancing interventions. But, the question remains, when will Covid19 nightmare end and how?

Primary ways to end the war:

This issue has been deliberated with scientific reasons in many articles. One such is titled, ‘Herd immunity is the only way the Coronavirus pandemic will end — and it would require a vaccine. Here’s how it works.’ This was published in the ‘Business Insider,’ on April 14, 2020. Like other papers, it also reiterated that individuals could gain immunity to the new Coronavirus, if they develop antibodies. This can happen, primarily in two ways:

  • Herd immunity or after people get infected and recover
  • Vaccination

According to Gavi, herd immunity is the indirect protection from a contagious infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection. Even people who aren’t vaccinated, or in whom the vaccine doesn’t trigger immunity, are protected because people around them who are immune can act as buffers between them and an infected person. Once herd immunity has been established for a while, and the ability of the disease to spread is hindered, the disease can eventually be eliminated, e.g., eradication of smallpox.

However, many scientific papers indicate that pursuing herd immunity through infection by allowing the virus to spread, rather than through a vaccine, would lead to hundreds of thousands more deaths. Moreover, some evidence indicates that a recovered person’s immunity may not be permanent. Hence, developing immunity through vaccination will always be a prudent choice.

Although, how fast an effective vaccine will be available for mass vaccination remains a key question,the good news is, a British scientist who is developing a Coronavirus vaccine, expects it to be ready by September, 2020. Meanwhile, I reckon, a disease specific antiviral drugs will be available to treat the infected persons and prevent death.

Conclusion:

Many of us in India, at various times, behave in a difficult to understand or even a mutually contradictory way. For example, at the call of crisis leadership in the country, in the midst of a Janata Curfew on March 22, 2020, people clapped or got engaged in beating pots and pans from their respective balconies, together at 5 pm. This happened with a huge participation, ‘as a mark of respect for the frontline health workers and medical professionals who were working day and night to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and selflessly treating patients who are affected by it.’ Later on, the same health care professionals and workers were assaulted, abused and even stigmatized, as they try hard to fight the virus. Intriguingly, many of the same people earlier participated in beating pots and pans to show respect for them.

Similarly, ‘citizens across the country lit Diya, Candles and flashed their mobile and torch lights on Sunday following our Prime Minister’s appeal, for a 9-minute blackout to dispel the “darkness” spread by Coronavirus.’ Ironically, in later days, many of these people – from the super rich to poor, acted in contrary to this purpose, for totally different reasons. This happened. But, understanding why it happened in India – right from the call – to its immaculate execution and the contradiction that followed on the ground, is a complex task for many. Perhaps, as complex to understand as, why containing the Coronavirus disease spread, through social distancing alone, is being considered as the only way to win the war against Covid19.

All countries in the world, as the experts say, will reach and pass the peak of the first wave of Coronavirus outbreak at some time. This will possibly not mean the end of the Covid19 war, before a vaccine is available. Thus, long term protection of people against Covid19, in the shortest possible time, is the name of the game. In the midst of these, life moves on – with some critical questions still remaining unanswered. Nonetheless, the resolve to fight and win this war, against an invisible enemy, be it only through social distancing, or with a more comprehensive and scientifically explainable strategy and ultimately a vaccine, continues to linger.

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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