Exactly a year ago I was part of a group of doctors, scientists, and technologists asking for governments across the world to lock down their countries to stop the spread of Covid-19. On March 23 last year I wrote an article for this column where I requested the Indian government to follow the example of China and lock India down completely.
Thanks to this decisive step taken by PM Modi early in the pandemic, we had time to prepare for the worst. It’s hard for you to remember what fighting a battle without any weapons looks like. I remember doctors wrapping themselves in trash-bin liners and bicycle helmets when PPE was in short supply. I remember having sleepless nights counting all the ventilators and calculating that an extra 30,000 patients would overwhelm ICUs across the country.
Fortunately, India has been blessed with good fortune, a proactive government and dynamic entrepreneurs. Today we’re exporting surplus PPE, facemasks, ventilators and vaccines.
From the experience of Western doctors, we learnt that oxygen and steroids are more useful than ventilators. We learnt that Covid positive patients with mild symptoms don’t need to be hospitalised. Most importantly, we learnt that if 70% of the public wears a face mask properly and consistently, the virus will stop spreading.
But knowing something is not the same as doing something about it. We are all fed up with Covid. Pandemic fatigue is a psychological condition in which people are feeling demotivated about practices that protect themselves and others.
While 99% of the public are aware of the benefits of masking, only 44% of people wear a mask outdoors because our hot climate makes face masks very uncomfortable. Australia and New Zealand (population density 3.3 and 18 people per sq km) successfully controlled Covid-19 through lockdowns and social distancing. This is simply not possible in India, when Gandhinagar sub-district of Delhi has a population density of 89,185 persons per sq km, and Dharavi slum has a population density of 2 lakh persons per sq km.
Governments in developed countries spent trillions of dollars to support their people and most of their jobs can be done remotely. In India, only the privileged can work or study remotely. Most Indians have to work with their hands and stand on their own two feet. If they’re faced with the choice of possibly dying from virus or definitely dying from starvation, the choice is simple.
Based on last year’s numbers, we expect institutional positivity for Covid-19 test in Bengaluru to touch about 24% in the next few weeks. When this happens, we can expect about 500 Covid patients in our Bengaluru hospital alone. That peak would continue for two months and tens of thousands of people will flood hospitals across the country. The government will be under tremendous pressure to do something, and they may choose to lock down.
I beg everyone who’s reading this not to choose that option. The first lockdown came at tremendous cost to society and the economy, but it bought us time to prepare our infrastructure and plan our strategy. When the lockdown was lifted, the cases increased exponentially, and then dropped after a few months.
A second lockdown will not make us any more prepared and the virus will still be waiting for us when we open up. We don’t need to hide from the virus. When doctors first learnt about Covid-19, they were totally unprepared to treat an unknown disease. We’ve since treated lakhs of Covid patients and are a lot wiser and more confident this time around.
We are grateful to government under the leadership of PM Modi for gifting healthcare workers with vaccines, and this gives us the confidence to fight this battle. Hospitals will no longer be flooded since the government legalised online consultation and asymptomatic positive patients can be treated at home.
Fortunately, the pandemic is spreading in familiar patterns and not overwhelming the entire country’s health system at the same time. Kerala and Maharashtra are peaking now. Karnataka and Delhi will follow after a few weeks.
Fortunately, Karnataka is one of the best prepared states to face Covid because of the government’s investment in a huge number of medical, nursing and paramedical colleges. When less privileged states reach their peak at different points of time, states like Karnataka will be able to support them.
Despite dire predictions from the foreign press, we’re not helpless against the virus. India has emerged as the world’s largest vaccine maker and we survived the first wave with a low case fatality rate.
There’s a good chance that we can stop the pandemic within the next six months if we take up mass vaccination on a war footing and vaccinate people between the ages of 20 to 45, who’re the real super-spreaders. Industry leaders from across the country stand united with the government and are prepared to vaccinate half the country. We urge our state governments not to hide from this foreign virus and to trust the strength of our people instead to overcome this challenge.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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