As fears about Coronavirus is spreading fast, India is battle-ready to identify, isolate and prevent the spread of this epidemic. Like the Chinese health bureaucracy, in India too there is a remarkable time lag before diseases get identified and before they get notified if at all there are. India’s medical bureaucracy is often loath to report bad news. We see that happening in case of Dengue and Chikungunya outbreaks in most Indian cities where news only emerges after a few people die and several seriously take ill. The risk from communicable diseases increases manifold when other factors-environmental, socio-economic and demographic are considered. The Nipah virus outbreak of 2018 in Kerala has several lessons for today’s emergency. This epidemic showed how the Indian infectious disease management infrastructure could be severely challenged. After its discovery in a small Malaysian village in 1999, the virus emerged in Kerala in May 2018 claiming 17 lives. The seriousness of the public health threat was underscored by the lack of a vaccine or even targeted treatment. This allowed the virus to spread unchecked initially.
No wonder India ranks high globally in the burden of communicable diseases, a burden which causes approximately 10 per cent of deaths in the country. The issue is serious considering the phase of rapid urbanisation, the country is going through raising challenges to an already beleaguered and cash-crunched healthcare system. Barring a few states, India’s medical system is not in the best of shape. But the Indian public health machinery has shown that it can fight well when it wants to. As China struggles to curtail the deadly new virus that has killed 81 people and spread to four continents, there are flashing warning lights for India. Vaccinations are among the most efficient and effective instruments for preventing diseases, operating primarily by providing acquired immunity and thereby preventing the easy spread of infectious diseases among large populations. However, developing vaccines, especially for new and mutated strains of diseases can take a very long time. Coupled with the time and the resources needed for mass production and delivery, vaccines cannot be seen as the only solution during fast-spreading epidemics.
The Coronavirus epidemic was a major crisis in China even before the news came out on 10 January and alerted the Chinese leadership. The illness by then was no longer localised. In fact, it had even travelled abroad. China’s rigid bureaucracy discourages local officials from raising bad news with central bosses. China’s health sector is so heavily compartmentalised that officials in the public health division, the disease control department, in hospital administration and drug procurement seldom speak to each other. This makes it harder to manage or even see a crisis in the making. Those systemic flaws appear to have played a role in the pace at which Chinese officials responded to the outbreak and the country’s inability to address the health risks from its so-called wet markets which are stuffed with livestock living and dead, domesticated and wild. The real bad news is the Coronavirus which comes from a family of viruses that affect the respiratory tract, seems to be far deadlier than before. In 2002, when the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus hit China, it took more than 90 days to mutate and take its new deadly form. But the Coronavirus seems to have achieved the capability of transmitting among humans within the first month. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has clarified that the disease only spreads from animals to humans and is not communicable between human beings. However, now questions are being raised as some among those affected claim not to have been near any animals in the recent past.
That is why the panic within the public health machinery in China is palpable even as human resources are being mobilised and sent to the epicentre in Wuhan, the capital of central China’s Hubei province by the thousands. For over a month from 8 December 2019 to 17 January 2020, all the confirmed cases in China were from the sole city of Wuhan. Yet meanwhile, there were already confirmed cases in Japan and Thailand. Many on the Chinese social media commented on the implausibility of the data and suggested that the authorities must be concealing the actual numbers with some sardonically calling the outbreak a “patriotic virus” due to its appearance of infecting people overseas rather than people in China. Several Hong Kong media correspondents were detained by the police for over an hour when they were interviewing in Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital on 14 January. Reports said that the police brought the correspondents to a police station where the police checked their travel documents and belongings and then asked them to delete video footage taken in the hospital before releasing them.
Authorities in Wuhan and Hubei provinces have been criticised for downplaying the severity of the outbreak and responding slower than they should. Caixin blamed Wuhan for not rolling out the first level of “public health emergency response mechanism” until 24 January which came even later than several other provinces and cities outside of the centre of the outbreak. On 19 January, four days before the city’s lockdown, a “Wanjiayan,” literally meaning “banquet of tens of thousands of families,” was held in Wuhan with over 40,000 families turning out at the banquet tables. Experts said that the authorities “lack basic common sense” for allowing such a banquet to be held. China continues to reel under the deadly Coronavirus (nCov) outbreak as the sharply rising death toll reached 106 causing a global alarm. The virus, which has spread across the country, has infected over 2,700 people mostly in Wuhan and other Chinese cities. Meanwhile, the Indian and the Chinese officials discussed plans to evacuate over 250 Indians from Wuhan city and Hubei province in view of the virus outbreak. Indian diplomats held a meeting with officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China regarding the evacuation of the Indians from China.
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