The government of India remains chary of testing for Covid 19. The most obvious reason is that the more you test, the more covid 19 positive patients will be found causing panic and alarm across the country. Thus, being an ostrich helps in these difficult times. Strangely, this bizarre strategy seems to be working as well. For some reason that no one is sure of, we are not seeing too many sick patients at the hospitals either. While, the lockdown has certainly helped stymie the wildfire spread of the disease, it does seem that the virus is passing India by or for some unknown reason is not as virulent as in many other parts of the world.
Many pundits have been holding forth on this strange phenomenon. Some believe that the virus in India has mutated and become less virulent, some others believe that India’s universal BCG vaccination program running for decades is helping protect the population and some think it is the Indian summer, which has made the virus somnolent. There is no evidence or science behind any of this so far. Whatever, the reason, we must be thankful for this.
While the fear of the virus keeps most people indoors, what is very worrisome is the stigma that infected people seem to be carrying in our country. We have had incidents where Max Healthcare ambulances have not been allowed in residential areas when they have gone to pick-up suspect covid 19 patients. Family members of doctors who have unfortunately tested positive have been ostracised by their communities and nurses had to face the brunt of their neighbours ire as they have continued to do their duties in hospitals. This should make all of us hang our heads in shame. As someone who works in a healthcare organisation and who is obliged to go to work everyday to help keep our hospitals running, I shudder to think the burden I and my family would have to carry if I was to test positive for the virus. This is something unique to our country. No where in the world are healthcare workers held responsible for catching the virus, while serving others.
The other thing, which is deeply disturbing is the way hospitals and healthcare facilities are being portrayed as infection hotspots. Media reports everyday highlight hospitals being shut down because a few patients or HCW’s tested covid positive. Hospitals by definition are places where the sick need to go to. Some HCW’s working there in-spite of all possible precautions are likely to catch the virus from their patients. Alternately, they may also end up bringing the virus into the hospital from the communities they live in. (Max Healthcare has decided to test all patients and healthcare workers employed in their hospitals for Covid 19 as a precautionary measure) This is something to be expected, however shutting down entire hospitals because a few doctors or nurses test positive is not only short-sighted but positively detrimental to patient care. If we were to keep shutting down hospitals, who will be left to treat the patients? The ideal situation would be to contact trace individuals who might have come in contact with the infected personnel, isolate, test and treat them. The hospitals need to activate their deep cleaning and decontamination protocols and get back to work as usual. Screaming media headlines highlighting such incidents and baying for blood do great disservice to themselves as well as the cause. They also end up demoralising the healthcare workers, the most valuable resource during a pandemic.
In India no one wants to be quarantined even if this means they continue to spread the disease. We have very low levels of civic responsibility and the quarantine facilities available are nightmarish. Many people who are asymptomatic and need to be tested as they live in a hotspot or might have inadvertently contacted a Covid 19 positive patient believe that they are being targeted for some strange reason and are willing to go to any length to escape being quarantined. All this has led to a most unusual and rather depressing situation, where we see mobs attacking medical teams who are trying to enforce testing or simply escorting suspects to quarantine facilities. Beating up or stoning medical parties is inhuman, afterall they are just doing their duty and actually trying to help those who might be sick. We must condemn this completely irresponsible behaviour in the harshest of terms and ensure these people are suitably punished. This is madness of a very different kind altogether.
Finally, we need to start looking ahead. Covid 19 is not going away in a hurry. We need to learn to live with the virus. The hospitals will have to adjust to a new normal, which involves a far greater degree of surveillance and testing of potential covid 19 patients. Patient treatment protocols will have to be redefined, patients will have to get used to healthcare workers in heavy protective equipments looking after them and hospitals will insist on having minimum attendants and visitors. Similarly, our work places too will have to undergo significant changes and all of us will have to learn to work remotely and while in office maintain appropriate physical distance from each other. We will see a lot of masks (I understand designer masks are already available) and hand sanitizers in our offices.
This is just the way it is going to be till we find a vaccine or a cure for nCoronaVirus. Let us get on with it.
The views expressed are personal