COVID-19 pandemic in India
Prerona Ray Baruah
In December 2019, the novel Coronavirus made its first appearance in China. Within a month, the WHO declared it a global emergency. Until mid-January, the bulk of infections were occuring in China, with a scattering of cases in a few other countries. Soon, the virus spread at an exponential rate and has claimed over 65,000 people worldwide till date.
When most countries were watching the crisis unfold from the sidelines, India was one of the few countries that had already started taking steps in early January to screen people at airports. Strangely, this was not the case in Germany at the time, despite the high number if cases in neighbouring Italy. Germans seemed nonchalant about the matter till quite recently. Till mid-March, there were no screenings or precautions done anywhere and public transport is still ongoing. Complete lockdown hasn’t been implemented there so far. This is probably a major reason why the country has overtaken China in terms of infections in less than a month.
On 16th March 2020, India published the notice for closing borders with European countries from 18th onwards, Indian nationals included. Many Indians immediately booked the next flight out of Europe, seeing the situation there deteriorate so rapidly. Some of them arrived in Ahmedabad among other cities in India. The case study of the system in Ahmedabad and how well the Gujarat government handled the situation is an impressive example.
All passengers were screened with infrared non-contact thermometers by masked airport personnel and were made to fill out health forms. Those coming from high-risk countries like Germany, France etc. were isolated and their immigration was done separately. This group of around 65 people were taken to the civil hospital by car in batches along with a doctor. Upon arrival at the hospital, they were taken to clean, spacious isolation wards occupying a whole floor, each ward having about 20 adequately spaced beds. They were then informed about having to stay for a 24-hour observation period. Naturally, some were unhappy about having to share the space with others. A few of them caused a scene, berating the polite medical staff for hours about wanting individual rooms. In the meantime, water, tea and bread were made available.
Eventually, it was arranged for the whole group to be taken to a hotel. The bus transfer to the hotel was escorted by courteous policemen, who handed out water bottles, juices and biscuit packets to everyone. Clear instructions were given at the hotel on how to properly isolate. No one was supposed to venture outside their rooms and doctors came every few hours to check for symptoms. Packed meals were delivered in front of the rooms by well-trained hotel staff, clad in masks and gloves. By evening, those without symptoms were cleared for 2 weeks of home-quarantine. The same day, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) staff visited the homes of all such passengers to deliver kits containing masks and sanitizers. They put up yellow stickers at the front, informing outsiders of the household being quarantined. This also helps garbage collectors to identify which houses not to collect garbage from. The AMC collects garbage from such households all over the city, for the purpose of which they even gave special bags. The end of quarantine is promptly marked by replacing this sticker with a green one.
The home-quarantine process is meticulously planned and well executed. The local police and doctors, who have information like names and addresses from the health forms, call up quarantined individuals daily to cross-check their whereabouts and symptoms. If caught breaking quarantine, the police sends culprits back to the civil hospital for completion of their quarantine. AMC workers make daily visits to check for symptoms, take signatures as proof of the patient being at home and to disinfect the entire house. This is no mean feat since the team visits up to 35-40 such houses every day, putting their lives at risk. Additionally, a whatsapp group has been created for all quarantined people so that the AMC can keep in touch with them. They also make regular phone calls to ensure availability of food and essentials. Free packed meals for lunch and dinner are delivered at the doorstep so that no family member needs to step out for shopping. Groceries, fruits and vegetables are delivered by minivans for quarantined households. Nowadays, during the lockdown period, this is also being done for residential colonies. Milk delivery is not a problem because of the pre-existing system of placing a bag outside with tokens in it, indicating to the milkman how many packets are needed. There are many positive take-aways from the Gujarat model that can be implemented elsewhere in the country, if not being already done.
The scale of the operations being undertaken across India’s demographic is massive. Be it the screening procedures at the airports and hospitals, quarantine and isolation of suspected cases, following up on them and ensuring if such households have access to essentials. Thanks to the doctors, healthworkers, municipal workers, airport staff and the police for selflessly working with such dedication and courage. Given the magnitude of the problem and its unprecedented nature, the likes of which have never been experienced before, there is no standard operative system that any government can follow. In the early days, there were some problems that nobody knew how to deal with. But as the days progress, the procedures have improved.
Now a standard procedure is being implemented more or less country-wide. The 21-day lockdown has been a major step undertaken by the government, making India one of the very few countries to have done so in the early stages of the pandemic when the number of infected cases was relatively very low. This far-sighted decision, lauded by the WHO, has given local administrations time to develop their capacities and control infections at a manageable rate. Most citizens have risen to the occasion, maintaining ‘social distance’ – a newly coined term that has now become ubiquitous. Things will probably become more difficult and citizens have to brace themselves. There are teams of people working to the point of exhaustion to keep the country safe. In the words of one such health worker on duty, “We’re working so hard to contain the problem, please cooperate.”