The battle against novel coronavirus or COVID-19 is not just a healthcare battle. It is a battle at three levels and developing nations, such as those in South Asia, must realise this before it is too late to recover.
First, it is a battle for medical care, prevention and cure. Second, it is a battle against economic recession, job losses, revenue losses, and a possible economic slump, if not tackled in time. Third, it is a battle at the psychological front, fighting misinformation and disinformation, allaying unfounded fears, combating false content and narratives around the disease and its impact.
None of the South Asian nations is seen to be aware of all of this and are adopting measures accordingly. China, where the virus originated and the most affected nation, is bouncing back, with most of the cases cured. Its stocks and share market are in positive, while those of the rest of the world are sinking.
Singapore and South Korea have taken proactive measures on all of these three fronts and have arrested the spread of the disease with no new cases now and earlier ones being treated.
Italy, France, the US, Germany, Spain and Iran ignored the spread of the deadly infectious disease in the first two weeks and are now battling a full-blown pandemic and lockdown in the entire country or in specific towns and cities.
India and most South Asian nations are making a terrible mistake of not testing enough people, warn health experts ,as they assess how the government is handling the COVID-19 outbreak.
There could be thousands and thousands of people who are infected at the moment -- what is referred to as 'community transmission' -- and we just don't know. The infected but not tested/known people are currently infecting thousands of others. South Korea's success in fighting the virus is being attributed to the amazing numbers of people that they have tested, including through drive-in test centres.
Here are the steps that India and other South Asian nations need to take immediately to make testing widely accessible:
1) Allow the private sector to test. Currently, private labs are banned from conducting these tests in India after the government invoked an 1896 Act, which was designed and enacted to tackle the plague. It is highly redundant in the current context and an ordinance (more comprehensive than just this measure) is needed to go beyond the limits of the Act. The testing (thermal or swab) at airports is at a minimalist level, and so are on ground transport points (Kerala has sealed all entry points to the state and ensuring screening for every passenger).
2) India has also banned the use of many international testing kit that are in use abroad. These tests are still being checked. Many of these testing kit (for example by Roche and others) are being used in the US and Europe. An entire list of such kit used in the top 10 affected nations must be drawn up by the South Asian nations and used in our part of the world. Developed nations and the World Health Organisation may be asked to make the kit available to South Asian nations at low, or no costs, at the earliest.
3) The current practice of people standing in a queue at government hospitals, must stop. While waiting in a queue, people are potentially infecting each other. Tests must be done by collecting nasal swabs from people's homes. This needs a huge number of collectors. Only by including the private sector can India provide this vital service. Essential commodities and services law has been already announced for procurement of sanitizers, gloves, masks and care-services in India and it needs to be executed in letter and spirit to produce large number of these items and make them available at market prices. Low-cost ones should also be given free to sections of the population who cannot afford them.
4) Testing must be made free. The government needs to immediately set aside large amount of funds to ensure this. In the US, the Congress committee has recently enforced on the federal health authority to ensure free testing and care, and this needs to be the norm in South Asia as well. It is good to see that states in India (like Kerala and West Bengal) have earmarked specific funds for Combat COVID mission while the Centre and most other states are yet to spell out specific allocations and a strategy.
5) The government must lift the ban on infected patients being admitted to private hospitals. In fact, the government should insist that private hospitals create isolation wards and take in coronavirus patients. The Kerala government acquired several private hospital wards as precaution, and so has the West Bengal government.
The other aspect of the battle is about ensuring that the economy moves ahead with caution, yet speed. A virtual lockdown of specific functions and cities is bound to affect the economy. Hence, virtual functioning, transactions without gathering and in spite of social distancing, online and digital ways of education and other operations, protected healthcare and emergency services need to be continued and a concerted strategy for the same devised and publicised.
Singapore has ensured financial protection to small businesses, low- income workers and freelancers in their gig economy. Their Prime Minister has come on national television to announce such measures and more are coming soon.
While South Asian nations are waking up to the bitter reality of a looming economic slowdown and even a possible slump ahead, no measures have yet been announced with regard to support for the lower income groups, work from home norms and outcomes, public spending for boosting employment or keeping basic production and sales functions ongoing.
The stock markets are going through a bloodbath, with the Bombay Stock Exchange down by more than 20% (while European and US losses are higher). A close watch on measures taken by various affected nations can bring in possible customised measures in South Asia and in India in particular, as its economy has an impact upon the region in a major way.
The psychological impact is another major area of concern and would be significant if the virus turns a real pandemic in the region. The gomutra-gobar diagnosis is gaining currency in certain circles in India. It is one of the biggest stupidities in these times and needs to be firmly put down. The fear is leading to many sick people running away from being tested and escaping quarantine as well.
There is a lot of unsubstantiated information being shared as well. It is good to see that the Maharashtra Government has ordered a clampdown on the spread of unfounded facts and observations through social media. Only authorised data and information can be shared, or else punitive measures are announced. A counter government campaign on causes, prevention, remedies and quarantine needs to be released in full force, which some states have started in India.
There are also some positives of this scare. Negative polemic around communal issues and violence in India has stopped and people are far more conscious about personal hygiene. Due to scare of the virus, TB and flu reporting has gone up remarkably. Focus on healthcare and respect for healthcare professionals has visibly increased. People have cut down unnecessary travel and conspicuous expenditure. Politics of hate is at least postponed, most local have been deferred, and even the Madhya Pradesh government has delayed its trust vote in Assembly for 10 days due to COVID-19 scare!
The author is the Pro Vice Chancellor of Kolkata-based Adamas University. The views are personal.