Battle against COVID-19

It’s not just a health crisis but also an economic and national security emergency waiting to strike

Published - March 08, 2020 12:00 am IST

A security guard wears a mask as a preventive measure against COVID-19, at a special ward of a hospital in Jammu on Saturday, March 7, 2020.

A security guard wears a mask as a preventive measure against COVID-19, at a special ward of a hospital in Jammu on Saturday, March 7, 2020.

The international financial order, governments across the world and societies in affected countries are all grappling with the panic over the global spread of COVID-19. Companies across Europe are sending employees on unpaid leave. In Tokyo, officials are battling the most credible threat to the Olympics since the World War. The U.S. and South Korea have called off their joint military exercise. The Iranian Deputy Health Minister, who assured the country that the virus is not a major threat, tested positive himself the next day.

China has quarantined millions of people in entire provinces, and is supposedly using Artificial Intelligence to surveil body temperature and deliver goods, a move that is both unprecedented and unimaginable in any other country.

International responses to the SARS-Cov-2 spread bring up questions about whether India is ready to face a coming pandemic.

India currently has no national strategy to deal with a pandemic in the way that the U.S., the U.K., Japan and Israel do. Unfortunately, pandemic preparedness is not something that can be created overnight when a crisis is knocking on the doors. It requires years of investment in building up a comprehensive health care system, institutes for vaccine research, infrastructure for manufacturing of vaccines, on-ground supply chain measures, a coordinated effort of the private sector, the armed forces and research institutes and a coordination strategy for the Centre, the States and neighbouring nations. While the need for investment in pandemic preparedness is a debate that should have already taken place, the need of the hour for the government is to recalibrate its strategy.

Currently, organisations such as the National Disaster Management Authority, the National Crisis Management Committee and the Health and Family Welfare Ministry are responsible for dealing with public health emergencies. However, a pandemic represents a global emergency which requires wide-scale international coordination, and we are yet to create an agency which can handle the demands for such coordination.

The government has created a Group of Ministers (GoM) which has released a four-pronged strategy: a risk advisory, travel screening, lab testing and quarantine facilities. The problem with such a strategy is that the government is under the misconception that it can prevent the outbreak from even taking place in India. It is still operating under the NDMA’s Disaster Management Cycle, which sees prevention and mitigation as the first steps before even considering responses.

Though SARS-CoV-2 is not as deadly as SARS or MERS, given its contagious transmissibility, it has already claimed more lives. There is the possibility of the virus mutating into something more deadly in the future.

Given these facts, the government urgently needs to do a few things. First, prepare not just for the prevention of an outbreak but for its inevitable spread. That SARS-CoV-2 will spread in India should not be a question dealt with through ‘ifs’ but by ‘when’. Second, our strategy requires having an integrated approach not just on mitigation but also response. While scientists have started clinical trials, even if a vaccine is discovered immediately, its availability and distribution for the public will take at least 12-18 months.

Therefore, in the meantime, the government needs to consider the virus threat not just as a health emergency but as an economic and national security emergency waiting to strike; in China alone, factory output has plunged and the country’s service sectors have contracted.

Separate strategies will be required for inducing greater cooperation among the government, non-governmental organisations and the private sector, between the Union and the State governments, and intergovernmental research coordination. The government needs to increase immediately the mandate and funding of the NCMC, which has the relevant Ministry actors, to deal with all of these issues more effectively.

The effectiveness of the Kerala government in containing the virus creates false hopes that the rest of India will be able to do so as well. While Kerala’s response is commendable, it is also India’s best State when it comes to healthcare infrastructure. For an epidemic outbreak, a nation’s security depends on the strength of its weakest link. In the absence of reliable health infrastructure, the government needs to include the armed forces in all of its preparedness plans. COVID-19 is a wake-up call for our policy makers that health needs to be understood in broader terms as a security issue as well. For a country with borders as porous as ours, where large parts of the urban population live in slums, and with an average population density of 21,000 people per square kilometre, quick transmissions are inevitable. Most Indians are covered, or not, by an overstretched and underprepared healthcare apparatus; the COVID-19 threat is an existential one waiting to fly in through airports, swim through ports, or ride across the country on our trains and wreck havoc.

The government would therefore do well to remember Louis Pasteur’s advice: “Gentlemen, it is the microbes who will have the last word,” and plan for the inevitable, instead of deluding itself that immigration checks can prevent the disease from entering.

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