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Coronavirus outbreak: How prepared is India?

In the era of social media and rapid spread of even unsubstantiated information, it remains to be seen how spread of virus affects people and societies.

By Swati Saxena
Updated on :
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Newly identified coronavirus belongs to the family of viruses that include common cold and viruses such as SARS and MERS. It first surfaced around December 2019 when WHO was alerted to several cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City, Hubei Province and the virus did not match any other known virus.

Coronavirus causes severe acute respiratory infection and there is no specific cure or vaccine.

In humans, the incubation period ranges from one to fourteen days and it is now believed that person is infectious before the symptoms start. Symptoms include headache and fatigue, runny nose and cough or sore throat and muscle pain. These can sometimes lead to complications such as high fever, trouble breathing, pneumonia and sepsis or death.

The deaths due to the virus have now exceeded 100. There have been 2847 confirmed cases, 5794 suspected cases, 461 are in critical condition and 51 people have recovered and discharged from hospital so far.

Most of the deaths have been of the elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory problems. There have been no deaths outside China. Wuhan has been on a lockdown with only essential vehicles with medical supplies etc. permitted. At the Hubei border, people are only being allowed in after checking their temperatures and two new hospitals are being constructed at record speed.

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There have been 44 confirmed cases outside China – in Thailand (8 cases), USA and Australia (5), Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea (4), France, Japan (3), Vietnam (2) and Nepal, Canada (1).

In India nearly 200 people have been kept under observation in Kerala and Maharashtra but there have been no confirmed cases. A suspected case of coronavirus surfaced in Bihar’s Chapra area where a girl who had recently visited China returned with symptoms. A man in Jaipur was admitted recently. Another suspected case has surfaced in Chandigarh. India has also requested China to permit over 250 Indian students stuck in Wuhan to leave the city and is preparing to evacuate them soon. No one has been suspected of being infected with the virus. Thermal screening is being done at seven designated airports – New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Kochi.

India with its dense population and travel and trade ties with China remains at high risk.

Due to the virus being new and no vaccine available, India is also not completely prepared to tackle the virus should it enter the country. India’s public health infrastructure, patient to doctor ratio and general epidemic control preparedness in terms of information systems, quarantines, controls and surveillance remains poor.

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However, such bio-threats are becoming a scary reality in today’s connected world. Any virus is just one flight away. All countries, especially a densely populated one like India, need epidemic control preparedness. This will mean the training of health workers and the mobilization of community volunteers. Standard case management protocols will also need to be developed. Information dissemination through Internet, radio, TV, mobiles and face to face will also need to done. Especially important is the development of laboratory capacity for rapid testing and special hospitals for quarantine. At the moment Pune’s Virology Institute is doing testing in India.

Moreover, an integrated disease surveillance programme will need to be developed in India. Recently Rapid Response Teams of all states, Airport Health Organizations and Port Health Organizations have been trained on the management of high risk pathogen in the context of the Ebola outbreak. Advisories have been issued for people travelling to or returning from China.

The coronavirus outbreak and the resultant biosecurity measures taken all over the world to prevent its spread and the incredible amount of coordination in terms of resources and information that this requires shows that diseases have social, political and economic dimensions.

Coronavirus is already impacting global stock markets, trade and travel, industrial output and sales. How China handles this crisis and prevents the spread to other countries will impact its global relations and diplomacy. Moreover, in the era of social media and rapid spread of even unsubstantiated information, it remains to be seen how spread of virus affects people and societies.

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Most importantly the fight against the virus will expose the deficiencies of public health systems around the world.

Public health is seldom seen as vital and is usually underfunded in most countries. Hospitals are lacking, doctors are underpaid, health staff is limited and medical supplies are always running short. Yet health is rarely centered in election campaigns and there are almost never any citizen engagements, debates or mobilization around health issues. It is usually when new viruses emerge and become epidemics that conversations around health begin. If we are to prevent further such epidemics, better discourse is needed around public health.in the era of social media and rapid spread of even unsubstantiated information, it remains to be seen how spread of virus affects people and societies.