Cannot fight the coronavirus pandemic blindfolded
Photo: PTI

As the world grapples with coronavirus pandemic, there is pervasive fear of its serious consequences in terms of human cost and the disruptions it will cause to economic and social life. In two months, the coronavirus has infected over 3 lakh people in 165 countries and killed over 10,500 people globally. The world is progressively moving towards shutdowns, severely affecting economic activities and social life. As a result, markets have crashed globally and no financial expert knows where the markets will go. This is because the real world, not just the financial world, is in serious trouble. The apparent incurability of the virus, its exponential global spread and the disruptions it is likely to cause is indicative of the fact that its impact on real economy is far more debilitating than most experts probably can think.

With frantic and coordinated efforts underway to control its spread and the massive administrative actions being taken globally to flatten the propensity of the virus to spread through community transmission, it is likely that the rising number of coronavirus cases will start declining over a period of time, as is the case in China and South Korea. We may eventually conquer the deadly virus over the longer term, but by that time lot of damage will be done. In the meanwhile, the challenges to contain the spread of the virus persists. How do we tackle this huge pandemic and where will it leave us? We really don’t know yet. But what we do know is that caution and preventive efforts are a must and the medical and healthcare fraternity need substantially increased respect hereon. Their ears and sensors will give us the signals about the success of the health measure being taken now.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on March 18 was quite simple, pragmatic and reassuring. No epidemic can be contained without wholehearted support from the general public and the prime minister was right in saying that public support cannot be built through panic. He was also right in emphasising that casual attitude and carelessness could be disastrous. Underlining the need to co-opt public support in response to the epidemic, his ‘Janata Curfew’ was aimed at making people feel that they are a vital part of the movement to overcome the challenges posed by coronavirus. Though the prime minister announced setting up of an economic response task force to work out possible solutions to the looming economic slowdown, the major disappointment of Modi’s speech was that while he apprised people about the gravity of the problem, he was completely silent about the steps the government would take to tackle the pandemic.

Another disappointment was that he refrained from assuring people about India’s preparedness to handle the coronavirus outbreak. Neither did he announce an economic stimulus package, like the one unveiled by the US, the European Central Bank and the UK last week, to tide over the crisis. In US and UK, the president and prime ministers with their teams of advisers give daily updates to the media on their respective government’s response to tackle the pandemic. In India, the world’s second-most populous country, such updates are rare. Given our inadequate healthcare infrastructure compared with sheer size of our population, it is quite possible that we may be possibly living with a big problem, the extent of which is unknown or yet to be ascertained. According to official figures, there are over 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus in India, in addition to 24 who have recovered and the seven who have died. The confirmed cases are rising by the day.

The message from the WHO head Tedros Ghebreyesus is simple and straight: “Test, test and test. All countries should be able to test all suspected cases. They cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded.” Is India taking this advice seriously? As the world’s second-most populous country, are we testing enough? Till last week, India had tested about 15,000 people in 72 state-run labs, which is one of the lowest testing rate in the world. The reason for this is that India has limited testing facilities. Though testing has now been allowed in private labs, in a densely populated country with more than a billion people, this is little testing. Probably the reason for this is the official assumption that in India the disease has not spread in the community. However, experts disagree. They believe that this is not the time to close our eyes to the reality simply because we have not tested enough. According to Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Washington-based Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, India probably entered stage 3 of coronavirus pandemic two or three weeks ago. His assumption is based on the experience of the rest of the world and on the best scientific modelling projection.

Dr Laxminarayan has further said that if UK can accept that they have underestimated the number infected by a factor of 12, at the very least the situation would be the same in India. Till Sunday, the number of coronavirus cases in UK with a population of 60 million were reported to be over 5,000. Given our size and population density, Dr Laxminarayan estimates that India is bound to have more than 10,000 or more undetected coronavirus case. The US, the third largest country in terms of population, has estimated that 20 to 60 per cent of its people could be infected. Using the US estimates, Dr Laxminarayan believes that in the worst case scenario, 60 per cent of the Indian population could be infected. However, he adds that the vast majority would only be mildly affected, while a small percentage would become seriously ill and an even smaller percentage would lose their lives.

Whether testing below scale is either because of shortage of testing kits or the fear that aggressive testing could overburden India’s under-resourced and uneven public health system, the fact is India’s testing appears to be too little and very limited. While the potential threat of community transmission remains a strong possibility, the problem India faces is that it simply doesn’t have the capacity to implement a South Korea or China-like action plan for testing and quarantining suspected or high-risk cases. This makes focused testing a better option. Equally important are preventive measures. If medical experts are to be believed, India has been late by a couple weeks in responding to the pandemic. This was the case with Italy and Spain as well; both countries are paying a heavy price in terms of corona cases and deaths.

While India deals with the human costs and healthcare challenges over the next few months, the economic challenge may be quite severe and long term. In a falling GDP economy, the scale of disruption across sectors and loss of employment in the informal sector calls for an urgent intervention in terms of stimulus package, sector specific bailouts and direct cash transfers to the poor. So far, the economic response to coronavirus has been led by two state governments – Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. The central government’s response is still awaited, while the pandemic wreaks havoc across the globe.

— The author is an independent senior journalist

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