Coronavirus - The case of India

Jayesh Dhyani | Updated: March 30, 2020, 11:45 IST

Coronavirus - The case of India

A century ago, India’s widely read newspaper, The Times of India had issued an advisory asking people to avoid visiting crowded places like festivals, schools, cinema halls, railway stations, et al, and maintain a healthy and hygienic lifestyle. It was 1918, and the pandemic was a highly contagious infection called Spanish Flu. About 500 million people were infected by the Flu worldwide, and India was the worst affected where around 17 million - 6% of the country’s population - succumbed to death.

Today, we find ourselves in somewhat a same situation. Similar guidelines for social distancing have been issued by the authorities to curb the spread of a similar pandemic. Indeed, the times have changed as we are now an independent nation, and not at the perils of others in the new world order. We have better resources at our disposal this time, but again we don’t have a cure and the virus is taking lives at its own will.

The Covid-19, also widely known as Coronavirus, first appeared in Wuhan, China in December as the world was about to enter a new decade. It soon turned into an outbreak, and the Chinese authorities, which initially were allegedly trying to suppress the entire issue, suddenly found themselves helpless in front of what transformed into an epidemic.

The World Health Organization, on January 11, gave the novel Coronavirus its name, SARS Cov-2, and called for a Public Health Emergency at an international level.

Till then, the virus had already started community transmissions and transnational travels in order to progress towards becoming a pandemic.

As of March 30, 2020, the novel Coronavirus has shown its presence in 195 countries, infecting more than 7 lakh people globally, and accounting for more than 34,000 deaths.

During the initial phase of the outbreak that occurred in China, India was busy with some other national matters like handling Citizenship Act protests, Delhi elections, hosting the US President, and Delhi riots. Despite everything, India did not fail to acknowledge the pandemic and started screening immigrants at eight major international airports of the country. Till now, more than 15 lakh people have gone through screening at airports and borders.

The first case of novel Coronavirus in India was confirmed on 30 January in Kerala almost two months ago. As the situation started deteriorating in China, the Indian Government, as always, came to rescue of its citizens living in foreign land, and sent aerial help to evacuate them. In the three evacuation flights sent in the month of February, more than 770 Indians and a few other nationals were brought back. India provided 15 tonnes of medical assistance to China through Air India flights which included masks, gloves, and other medical equipment.

Meanwhile, the Indian way of greeting by saying Namaste was trending globally. When the world was putting efforts to develop a vaccine for the disease, in India several ways to fight the pandemic like drinking Gaumutra (cow urine), coating oneself in cow dung, Yoga, Homeopathic, and Ayurvedic medicines were being propagated. Not just this, but several acts of racism were also reported in various parts of India where people belonging from North-East were subjected to racial comments and discrimination.

The Government kept telling people to not panic and beware of misinformation . The opposition and experts were vocal about the Government not taking the threat seriously. Their concerns were valid considering the large and poor population, and an overburdened and weak healthcare system.

Further, the share market saw record-breaking downfalls and investors money evaporated. The sports tournaments were cancelled or postponed. The entertainment industry also saw the business going down as several movies got their release dates deferred by months. Temples, and other religious and tourists places were closed – a rarest of rare occasion in India.

The month of February passed and the disease was wreaking havoc in China and had started showing its presence in European nations like Italy, France, Spain, and several Asian and African countries, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively.

China imposed lockdowns provincially since the total deaths count had reached in thousands. However, in India, the level of seriousness was not of that extent. Before Holi, till March 1st, the official number of cases in India was just 3, but the situation started changing quickly since then, and the numbers have only seen an upward trend till now.

As the cases kept appearing in different regions of the country, several restrictions were being imposed by Central and State governments. Finally, a 21 days nationwide lockdown was announced by PM Modi via a TV broadcast where he appealed the citizens to stay at home. He assured the people that Government is making all efforts to fight the situation.

India’s preparedness

Screening at the airports

Undoubtedly, the Indian Government was quick to react and started screening at the airports, but there was not enough testing from the beginning. Only those who showed symptoms or had any foreign travel history were being tested.

What makes India different to other countries is our Indianness. In other parts of the world, people are raging against their governments for not being tested but here in India, we witnessed quite opposite. People are shying away from being tested and many have flown away from the quarantines, thus making the battle against virus more complicated.

If followed obediently, the Government’s direction to practice social distancing through a nationwide lockdown will reap the desired benefits, but it has resulted in the migration of labourers and daily wage workers in masses, thus beating the purpose of a lockdown.

Several labs are researching to develop a vaccine and it is expected that one will be available till the end of this year. Currently, the National Task Force constituted by the Indian Council of Medical Research has prescribed the use of Hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of critical cases of Covid-19.

Various Union Ministries are working together towards the containment of virus and planning panic management. The Ministry of Textiles has been ordered to check the availability of protective and medical materials for making of mask, gloves and gowns. The Department of Pharmaceuticals has been tasked with procurement of medicines in ample amounts.

WHO praised the Indian efforts, citing the previous example of eradicating Small Pox in 1975 and Polio in 2015 by successfully tracing the cases and vaccinating them. Experts say that these previous experiences will prove handy in fighting against the novel Coronavirus but still, considering the situation of the healthcare system, infrastructure, and population, it is easy to predict that India will be lucky if it somehow does not get to bear the full brunt of the pandemic.

Steps taken by the Government

India under lockdown

The Union Health Ministry started with imposing visa restrictions in the beginning of March. The Government mandated screening process for all the foreign nationals, and asked them to provide a certificate of being tested negative for Covid-19.

The Ministry for Chemicals and Fertilizers assured that there will be no shortage of Active Pharmaceuticals Ingredients (API) in the coming three months.

Centre updated the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 , and brought surgical masks, ordinary masks, and sanitizers under essential commodities list. This will help in limiting the black-marketing of these essential items in necessary times. Also, by this act, the State Governments will be empowered to control the production, distribution, and price management of such items.

The Government has shown activeness in bringing back the citizens who were left stranded and helpless in foreign countries, especially in China, Italy and Iran.

There have been cases of people fleeing away from quarantines. For such people, the authorities have taken a strict stance by arresting and filing cases against them.

The railways and airways already have been locked until 31st March. On 22 March, the PM called for complete countrywide lockdown till April 14.

At first, the Government had listed 41 testing centre across the country and barred the private hospitals from the activity. However, this restriction is now lifted and about 35 private lab chains, which have around 15000 collecting centres across India, have been authorized to conduct tests.

A stimulus package worth INR 1.7 lakh crore has been placed by FM Nirmala Sithraraman. She announced that ration - 10 kg of wheat and rice, and 5kg pulses each per person - will be provided to more than 80 crore people, under the public distribution system. Also, INR 500 and 1000 will be given through Direct Benefit Transfer to widows and registered labourers holding Jan Dhan accounts respectively. Free LPG gas cylinders will be provided to women for three months under Ujjwala Yojana.

A day before, while addressing the 21 days lockdown, the PM had also allocated INR 15000 crore funds to 75 million farmers under PM Kisan Scheme. This will see every farmer get an amount of Rs 2000 in three instalments.

Also, the Reserve Bank of India on 27 March, announced some measures aimed to mitigate the ill effects of the pandemic, therefore, reducing the repo rate by 75 base points; from earlier 5.15% to 4.4%, and allowing the banks to pause loan EMIs for three months.

At the international front, PM Modi initiated the talks with SAARC nation through video conferencing. He also urged Saudi King Salman to hold the G20 summit in the same fashion which later paved the way for a united front to tackle the spread of Covid-19.

What the State Governments are doing?

Migrants leaving for their home state.

Kerala was the first state to report a case of Covid-19 in India, and since then it has been proactive in dealing with the virus. Together with Maharashtra, it is leading the race among the most affected states. It is the only state which mandated a 28 days quarantine period which is commendable because some experts claim that the virus’s incubation period may extend from 14 to 24 days in some people. Kerala Government ran a campaign ‘Break the Chain’ to educate the people about social distancing and personal hygiene.

It is also being praised for its outstanding step of announcing 20,000 crore relief package to revive the state’s economy. Further, they have provisioned free ration and financial aid to its people.

The Delhi government have sealed the borders and was the first state to shut down schools, colleges, cinema halls, and malls. Alike Kerala, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh Governments have also promised to provide the essentials to the general public. The UP CM Yogi Adityanath has formed an 18 member committee to closely monitor the situation and have sent medical teams to different locations of the Indo-Nepal border.

Arunachal Pradesh has formed rapid action teams in order to combat the coronavirus cases.

Mizoram and other North-East states have already sealed their respective international borders.

Almost all of the states have already enforced the lockdowns. Some, like Punjab, have even imposed Section 144 of the CrPC.

Recently Telangana’s CM KC Rao was heard giving warning to the state public that their negligence and constant breaching of guidelines may force him to direct ‘shoot at sight’ orders.

The Government has started several welfare schemes and is motivating civil society to donate towards the PM National Relief Fund and PM Cares fund.

What should the government do?

Testing! One word answer. According to the official figures only 35 thousand people have been tested till now out of which 980 have tested positive, and 29 died. India has been blamed for testing at a shockingly slow rate. The authorities are testing people who have travelled abroad and the ones who have come in direct contact of an infected person. The Government will have to go on rampant testing in order to ensure that we are not sitting over a time-bomb that might explode anytime soon.

While the nation is in a lockdown, Government must upgrade the medical infrastructure considerably. Several steps like turning train coaches into hospital wards and creating more beds have been taken in this regard. It is not about neutralising the virus, but getting ready for the worst and lowering the virus’ peak effect. 

If we start to see a rapid surge in the cases, do we have enough beds and ventilators? According to an analysis by www.howindialives.com, if the cases keep soaring at the current pace, Indian hospitals will run out of beds in as early as May and that will be quite a situation. We need to develop new isolation wards, ICU beds, and ventilators in the count of thousands, at least, as soon as possible.

Also, panic management has to be at its best. The Government needs to control rumours and misinformation. Constant messaging to the general public about safety measures is the need of the hour. People fearing a further lockdown will utilise every opportunity to go and harbour as much goods as they can. Therefore, ensuring the availability of ration in the every households must be Government’s top priority.

An economic stimulus package is a must. Many experts believe that the current 1.7L package will not do the needful, and therefore a similar package in the tunes of 3-5 lakh crore should be provided.

The timing and the procedure followed the Government while imposing the lockdown has raised many questions. Proper planning and preparation were needed before announcing the lockdown as it has rendered many homeless. Many had to walk hundreds of kilometers just to get home to their state.

The Government, backed by the people of India, has to put its best to flatten the Corona curve, at least till the vaccine arrives. The people must act responsibly because we don’t wish to witness the same devastation that this virus has already caused elsewhere in the world.

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