Only a multipronged strategy can battle the invisible enemy: Covid-19
As I write this piece in the confinement of my home, the bustling and socially active city of Calcutta remains deserted, with India put under 21 days of lockdown to try and break a heavily mutated coronavirus transmission chain. Clearly, Premier Narendra Modi has pushed the panic button early, with a paltry 0.00006 percent of the country’s 1.35 billion population being affected by COVID-19 so far, which includes new cases, discharged and casualties.
The Indian government’s imposition of national emergency, leading to immediate rationing of essential items and subsequent panic buying, reminded me of the demonetization days of 2016 when Modi withdrew 86 percent of cash from the market at just four hours’ notice, forcing millions to queue up outside banks.
Similarly, inputs from health intelligence units, warning of the hypothetical scenario of a potentially unmanageable surge in infection and fatalities, prompted New Delhi to take the unprecedented step of enforcing a total socio-economic shutdown of the world’s second most populous nation in order to encourage social distancing and isolation. The government hopes this non-pharmaceutical intervention will not only reduce mortality but also de-stress the overburdened public health care system in the absence of a specific remedy. A high population density of over 450 people per square km and a compact domestic living space makes India vulnerable to communicable diseases.
With approximately 900 million citizens or nearly 75 percent of India’s households – of an average family size of five – living in two rooms or less as per census data, the Modi government did not want to leave anything to chance. Adding to the woes, in large parts of India, houses are crammed together in tiny lots in slums and low income clusters, while the country is home to one-third of the global slum population suffering from immune deficiencies.
Undoubtedly, Modi will face a herculean challenge to keep the supply line of day-to-day essential services infrastructure unclogged, and avoid massive pandemonium. Moreover, the state has to ensure that the country’s trade obligations are not dashed.
Undoubtedly, Modi will face a herculean challenge to keep the supply line of day-to-day essential services infrastructure unclogged, and avoid massive pandemonium. Moreover, the state has to ensure that the country’s trade obligations are not dashed. A senior official in China’s State Council Information Office, Li Xiaojun, explained to me how Beijing had walked the extra mile for honoring its global export commitments, including replenishing stocks of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) used for drug manufacturing, by preventing the viral pandemic from disrupting the industrial supply chains. China will also likely beef up export tax rebates and credit insurance to stay afloat in a competitive world, where vacuums are filled up instantly.
As V.M. Katoch, former Secretary in the Department of Health Research of the Indian government and ex-chief of Indian Council of Medical Research told me, there is no alternative to self-reliance in raw materials irrespective of the crisis in China and elsewhere. Meanwhile, amid a rising sense of insecurity, regional cooperation in South Asia has finally kick-started over the looming COVID-19 threat after a brief lull.
Amjad Sial, former Secretary General of South Asian inter-governmental body SAARC, advocates the formulation of a joint strategy under ministerial guidance for a successful outcome. For this poor region, with limited resources and a rickety health care system, meticulous tracking of second, third and even fourth levels of contact to infected persons, focusing on immunotherapy and initiating door-to-door sensitization campaigns can work wonders.
Today, humanity is pitted against a tiny hostile pathogen, invisible and undetectable, with a magical capability to transmogrify. It is therefore imperative to work on its evolution and pathogenicity for developing an effective antidote. Bishwajit Kundu, an expert on protein science and engineering at Indian Institute of Technology’s School of Biological Sciences – whose team found certain similarities in COVID-19 virus and HIV-AIDS genomes – apprised me of the virus’ ingenious accumulation of partly different epitopes after mutation. He clarified that gene mutation is historically common in the general flu or other retroviruses with evidence of cross-species transfer. With an effective antibody yet to be generated, China’s model of using a cocktail of traditional and western medicine – consisting of immunity modulators and anti-malarial compounds – to drastically bring down the death rate from 3 to 0.7 percent is worth emulating.
In fact, alternative medicine homeopathy can be useful in preventing and possibly treating the current epidemic, particularly in the backdrop of its success in community vaccinations against a wide range of contagious viral diseases.
Anil Khurana, acting Director General of Indian government sponsored central homeopathic research council, told me that his organization is assessing the protective efficacy of homeopathic medicine, prescribed as prophylaxis in various health care facilities.
Besides, in some cases, plasma-based therapy using COVID-19 survivor’s blood can make a new patient immune to the virus, says eminent intensive care specialist of Brussels’ Erasme University Hospital, Baron Jean-Louis Vincent told me, apart from suggesting that mechanical ventilators, which can be mass produced at short notice when supply chain breaks down, are reliable and efficient as breathing assistants in infected patients in this hour of crisis.
*Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.