The fear of Covid-19: A layman’s perspective

[ Marli Kamki ]
In addition to various health scares that our country is currently facing, Covid-19 (novel coronavirus) is finally making the public health authorities (at least at the union health ministry level) seriously rethink in terms of tackling this viral outbreak which has now taken the shape of a global pandemic.
As the number of those who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus reaches 30 in the country, people have started to hit the panic button, with many sharing their concerns through social media and numerous public platforms. Only few weeks ago, many were sharing online memes related to the coronavirus, and, like many others, I, too, had my share of fun from those memes with hilarious takes on the outbreak and the country of its origin, China.
However, as the threat looms closer, the memes are not funny anymore, and like many other netizens, I, too, am concerned. This concern increases multifold when one looks at the state of affairs in one’s own backyard, especially when it narrows down to the kind of preparedness our health officials have in place to tackle any possible outbreak in the state.
During the course of my (recently completed) media internship, I had the opportunity to interact with numerous officials from the health & family welfare department, including those posted in the districts. Despite the best efforts being made by those in the state capital to present a rosy picture vis-à-vis the preparedness to tackle any possible outbreak and creating public awareness, it has failed to convince me. More than the scare, they seemed to be concerned about the panic that the people might be in if there is too much media space or discussion regarding the global outbreak. However, in today’s age, when information is only one click away, people are already discussing it, despite the unwillingness of those in authority.
Till date, no cure has been found for the disease, and scientists across the globe are working 24×7 to find one. So, the only way to contain Covid-19’s further spread is by creating awareness on the preventive measures, in addition to properly training the officials and the health workers regarding the do’s and don’ts with regard to the modus operandi to be followed in case of a Covid-19 outbreak in the state.
Barring a few awareness programmes – which I would say were more of a formality – done via radio, local cable channels and other means (maybe twice or thrice), not much has actually been done on the ground. Whatever the case may be, people are getting to know about Covid-19 (including fake news) through social media and the television. The growing concern among the people over the last many days is testimony to this.
The health & family welfare department is yet to even come out with an official public health advisory. Instead, the forest department has written to all the districts, advising banning consumption of wild meat and birds and creating awareness regarding the same as consumption of wild meat and birds has been linked to the spread of Covid-19.
There are reports from many districts across the state that the people are not even equipped with adequate personal protection equipment (PPE) to protect themselves and their patients from being infected and infecting others with the coronavirus. The shortage of PPE, which includes gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, aprons, etc, will make the doctors, nurses and other frontline workers dangerously ill-equipped to not just care for Covid-19 patients but also to check the coronavirus if it takes the shape of an epidemic.
This is just one part of the problem. Leave alone the masses, not even the doctors, paramedics, nurses and other health workers like the ASHAs have been made aware of the response module to be adopted by them. One wonders if even a state-level coordination meeting on the novel coronavirus has been conducted.
Many in the semi-urban and the rural areas know the coronavirus as defined in the saas-bahu style of news presentation by various Hindi news channels. For the sake of TRPs or whatever reasons, many such news channels have even shown unverified claims and videos. One wouldn’t be surprised if people actually started taking ‘gau mutra’ to cure themselves. People are definitely panic-stricken and confused, and so, apparently, are the doctors.
“We have been asked to keep isolation wards ready in the hospitals to house suspected cases for observation and quarantining,” says a doctor working with the state government. “But we don’t know what to do further in case any such cases are actually detected as no instructions regarding the same are given.”
The surveillance units in the districts, which are responsible for monitoring and keeping a check on any outbreak in their respective districts, seem to have been left at their own mercy. Many such units are understaffed, which brings another important question to the fore. Have district surveillance officers been appointed in the recently-created districts?
Every day, there are reports of new Covid-19 cases in numerous countries. As I write this, there are already news reports coming in from neighbouring Bhutan of their first positive case. The threat is real and imminent. In a resource-crunched and landlocked state like ours, where surface as well as other modes of communication is still in the process of evolution, any such outbreak could prove to be fatal. The state should be prepared to tackle any epidemic/outbreak at all times, not just the current one.
It is also learnt that in many districts surveillance reports take days to reach the surveillance officers. We lack the facilities; we don’t have the required doctors and trained medical staffs; but despite all this, if a little seriousness is shown in surveillance and preparedness, much can be achieved in such testing times. And till more is said and more is actually done, netizens like us will continue living in fear.