The mystery around the present rulers’ approach to the Covid-19 pandemic deepens by the day. Many people here in Assam are clueless about it, thanks to the opacity of the government’s approach and the destructive power of the virus. Some have immured themselves in their homes in terror and others are gadding about with masks only dangling from their necks.
As I had suggested in March, the government’s assumption of the role of sole source of information and protective responses has practically helped spread confusion. The police are being used routinely to thrash those found disobeying rules of lockdowns and unlocks. Common people locked up in quarantine centres often complain of grim conditions there which leave the authorities unruffled.
The Assam Health Minister holds daily press conferences where he announces current trends of infection, recovery and death toll. He recently revealed that Guwahati has now reached the stage of community transmission and things are likely to get much worse. But the situation could be predicted given the momentum of inter-state travel following lifting of lockdown-1. Measures recommended by WHO had been set aside and in all probability the nostrum of “herd immunity” quietly adopted as the most practical remedy for the time being.
The state government received flak for failing to provide for essential necessities of residents prior to the recent strict lockdown in Guwahati following reports of community transmission on a spiral. It has now anticipated relaxation of rules for two days with the announcement that 200 grocery shops will remain open to allow people to stock up food items. Now Guwahati has a population between 15 and 20 lakhs.
If 200 shops are to meet their needs, each grocery shop will have to serve 7,500 to 10,000 customers during the 20 to 24 hours they may remain open. Even if each shop can build up requisite stocks, it will be physically impossible for them to cater to such a huge number of customers with their usual two to three salesmen and the limited space without chaos taking over.
Besides even some local TV channels have underlined the plight of daily wage-earners, thela-wallas and rickshaw-wallas who have no income now and cannot afford to to buy up necessaries for a week or so. It so happens that with such a huge surge of people pushing and jostling in crowds, such measures as social distancing and minimising contact are rendered meaningless. And this is always followed by reports of soaring infection indirectly putting the people to blame.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has definitely shown how sincere and effective measures can bring the situation under some degree of control, though there is still a long way to go. Kerala has also shown a sane and business-like approach. But the attitude of central authorities leaves most people perplexed. Consider the handling of Baba Ramdev’s scandalous claim to have found a sovereign remedy for Covid-19 in his drug Coronil. First he (or rather his spokesman Balakrishna) tells the press that his company Patanjali had conducted clinical trials and all 69 patients in one group recovered in three weeks, and another 100 were completely cured in a week. The scale of the trial and the time-line left much to be desired.
As is well known now, many patients actually recover on their own without medication during such periods and only a few reach the critical stage. The catch is that no one quite knows who might succumb. The internationally accepted protocols for clinical trials of new medicines calls for trials on many times more patients and in different circumstances and age groups. Placebo effects on controlled groups of such volunteers are also carefully accounted for and safety concerns are pre-eminent. The drug also has to be monitored internationally for final acceptability.
The unseemly rush to claim victory over the pandemic caused widespread outrage and the ICMR and Health Ministry forbade the Yoga wizard to advertise his new ware. Baba Ramdev and his business partner Balakrishna now sang a different tune. They now said they never claimed it to be a cure for Corona, but only that it can boost immunity. After a decent interval when other events seized headlines the Ayush Ministry allowed its use for “Corona management” according to press reports.
Sceptics wondered if this result had been achieved through some kind of backdoor political management. Now a triumphant Baba Ramdev is back in the game apparently reiterating his earlier claim that it can indeed save lives of people in critical conditions for the sickness.
Nobody says that this is entirely unlikely to be true. But everyone is concerned it might cause false confidence among people developing symptoms and instigate them to neglect the advice of medical experts. In that case it would amount to a gigantic confidence trick taking advantage of people in panic. The jury is still out, as they say, and these days the jury tends to get nervous.
Press reports say that the Prime Minister will announce to the world on 15 August India’s launching of a native vaccine. The researchers deserve our congratulations and gratitude for their industry and creative talents. But why the deadline of 15 August, the ceremonial occasion when the Prime Minister addresses the nation in celebration of the Independence Day?
It is now a widely held belief that the Prime Minister has a fondness for dramatic moments and portentous announcements. But if that amounts to driving s precipitate rush to a conclusion bypassing vital scientific safeguards and precautions that will be somewhat reckless if not detrimental. One hopes it will be only a proud declaration of the potentiality of the vaccine and not be an incautious promise of its immediate delivery to the public.