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Nation in Peril, Government in Denial. Almost!

Even today there are just 75 Virus Research and Diagnostic Labs functional for a population of 130 crore for COVID-testing.
COVID-19 in India

First, a disclaimer. This piece is not for bashing the government or Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The COVID-19 virus knows no boundaries or politics or religion. This is in national interest, in the interest of every Indian, Modi supporters or critics.

The first corona positive case in India was officially identified in Kerala and reported on January 30 by Press Information Bureau, Government of India. World Health Organisation identified it on January 7, while China reported its first death on January 11 (cases were in China from December 2019).

Luckily, corona came to India late, and we were considering it as a Chinese virus and a local issue of them, and learnt no lessons when it spread to even Europe aggressively. We had some 50 plus days since then till it appeared in India, and we took no real widespread precautions and preventive measures in this period. We were rather flaring up hatred and violence in Delhi in late February.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, may have a mortality rate of 2% to 3% – far higher than the ordinary flu. But that figure is itself contingent on the healthcare system being able to devote resources and attention to a large number of patients, which is lacking in India.

Indian government's responses to this fast emerging catastrophe have been muted and delayed. At the time, when we should have gone for a full-fledged COVID-19 testing, we were only placing international travel restrictions. When we should have been upgrading the infrastructure for treatment, we were just in the diagnosis phase. When other nations announced aid package in billions in Canada, Singapore, Korea, Spain et al, we were at the stage of public admission of the corona attack being an epidemic.

Even today there are just 75 VRDLs (Virus Research and Diagnostic Labs) functional for a population of 130 crore for COVID-testing. Just a week ago, the Indian Council of Medical Research/Ministry of Health had raised a purchase order of one million nCoV probes (testing component). Some 10 days after recording the first death in India, the government has released guidelines for private labs.

ICMR has said that each lab has the capacity to test 90 samples per day, which means India has capacity to test only 6,750 samples daily with 75 labs. On Saturday, March 21, the labs have tested 1,210 samples, and this is despite a surge in positive cases among those tested in the last few days.

We are still under-utilising even the limited infrastructure we have. And the stupid logic by most labs of not testing those who did not have any recent foreign travel history is incomprehensible since world-over it is seen that the epidemic moves from stage 2 to 3 by spreading into the community through transmission from those who might have brought the virus from abroad.

The Prime Minister has announced the formation of an Economic Response Task Force to tackle the impact of corona, the virus and its scare. But the Task Force Chairperson Nirmala Sitharaman clarified to the press that the task force is yet to be constituted and meet the first time.

Localised aggressive community-based testing has recently started in Kerala and they have sealed all entry points to the state by road or by air, and are testing aggressively at the borders. This is yet to be seen across the nation.

The Delhi government has tied up with OYO Hotels for additional quarantine space needs, and declared enhanced ration for seven lakh families, food in night shelters, enhanced monthly pension for eight lakh people et al, while Kerala government declared a detailed Rs.20,000 crore package for mitigating the health and economic crisis of COVID-19. No comprehensive announcement from the Centre yet, both of mass testing of suspects and on economic package for the marginalised.

Even while developed nations with far better public healthcare are grappling with the situation to contain it, it was obvious that India, with 130 crore people and a far inferior public health infrastructure, will have an almost unsurmountable crisis. Even doctors and nurses do not have adequate protection. Hence, the task force, its agenda, and crisis management plan should have been in place immediately when the epidemic broke in China and expanded into Europe.

Even Opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, on February 12, just as the first case was reported in India, tweeted, "The Corona virus is an extremely serious threat to our people and our economy. My sense is that the government is not taking this threat seriously." No point in doing whataboutery on the poor state of public health infrastructure since the Congress days, today, as the crisis is in our face and we need to act now.

The Prime Minister has called for one-day self-imposed Janata Curfew on Sunday, March 22. Welcome step. But experts do not agree that one-day isolation will break the chain of the spread of the virus. The entire theory of virus having 12 hours life and one day is good to kill it is not scientifically proven. In fact, the virus takes minimum two weeks to incubate in a person's body, and affects the breathing track and lungs the most over these two weeks. So, without a fortnight long clampdown, the virus may not be effectively countered.

Further, the PM has asked to applaud the health-workers by clapping and banging utensils. Good spirit again and something done by people voluntarily in Spain and Italy recently. But several Indian medical professionals have taken to Twitter to demand protective gear, testing kits, and resources.

Take the question of personal protective equipment or PPE as it is known. These are the full-body suits needed to ensure that medical professionals do not themselves end up contracting the virus as they seek to treat patients. If they do get the virus, the blow is a double-whammy – the doctors, nurses and other staff would themselves have to either be treated or go into isolation, thereby putting an even bigger burden on an already overwhelmed health care system.

The healthcare personnel in India face a dire situation in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic with a shortage of quality personal protective equipment looming as Indian manufacturers say they don’t know what to produce in the absence of health ministry specifications for them.

The government has now to an extent woken up to the task but it seems to be overwhelmed by the demands of the situation. It does not have the economic will-power to declare an enforced national lockdown. It does not have the resources to medically tackle the gravity of the situation. It has now engaged private labs and hospitals but only since mid-March, which was already late. It has not yet decided on the economic package or support for the daily wage-workers and economically challenged sections who cannot withstand no work no pay scenario for more than a couple of days. There is no clarity on how to tackle the overall impact on the economy with the stock market going down, core sectors already on decline, and GDP which plummeted to less than 5% growth, worst in a decade, even before the epidemic hit the Indian coasts.

There will be drastic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the informal sector workers as a result of this social distancing and economic shutdown. Several unions and organisations working with these groups have demanded Rs.10,000 per month as minimum guaranteed income for the next quarter for these sections and have written to Nirmala Sitharaman on this. We are yet to see any action on this from the side of the government.

Several doctors believe we are already into the Stage 3, and many experts have applied statistical modelling from Italy/Spain experiences in Indian context noting that spiralling into stage 3 full scale or into stage 4 of the epidemic can see more than 3 crore of positive cases and up to 5 million deaths! Unimaginable!

Finally, the situation is worsened by blind faith based statements and actions of the foot soldiers and even leaders of the ruling party. BJP national leader Kailash Vijayvargiya says corona cannot hit India since Hindus have 33 crore gods and goddesses. UP CM Adityanath gives a go-ahead to a massive Ram Navami gathering in Ayodhya in spite of the virus, and now chastened and limited it to a Ayodhya centric gathering, which also should be banned. Sanatan Dharm Sansad organises gomutra drinking with gobar cakes to prevent corona. Educated BJP supporters are carrying forward a social media campaign on how the sound of the bells, utensils and claps will weaken and kill viruses on Sunday. And there are many more. Unless the government sticks to science and medical care and creates a proactive awareness against such obscurantism there will not be a national will to combat COVID scientifically which is the urgent need of the hour before it moves to stage 3 (which it might have) and stage 4 (which has afflicted China, Italy and Spain).

The author is a columnist, and is currentl Pro Vice Chancellor of Kolkata-based Adamas University. The views are personal.

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