The alarming spread of corona virus across the world and the death toll crossing more than 10,000 at the global level constitute a tragedy of apocalyptic proportions ever faced by humanity in recorded history. The rapid rise in corona positive cases in India numbering more than three hundred spells public health disaster of unimaginable proportions for the country. Even though Odisha has so far two positive cases and no fatalities, the State Chief Minister Shri Patnaik led the country in declaring it as a disaster as per the National Disaster Management Act. Next day the Government of India declared it as a notified disaster.
Described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a global pandemic, the menace posed by corona virus reminds us the dire warning of Joshua Lederberg, the 1958 nobel prize winner in medicine. He had warned by saying that , "viruses pose the single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on this planet.”
The grave danger posed by corona virus to humanity and human civilisation was best expressed by Shri Patnaik in his statement in the State Assembly when he said, ""Very few times in the history of the world have human beings as a race faced challenges beyond their comprehension. With advances in science, this phenomenon has become a rarity. However, the last 45 days has seen human beings as a race facing one of the biggest challenges of the century''.
It is in this grave context that Shri Patnaik, during Prime Minister of India's video conference with Chief Ministers of our States on 20th March 2020 for coordinated effort to face the danger, made a few suggestions which assume significance for India and the world and merit serious attention and urgent action.
Scale up testing facilities and make them available free of cost
His first suggestion that urgent steps should be taken by the Union Government to scale up testing facilities both in the private and public institutions for detection of COVID-19 infection and such facilities should be accessed by people free of cost is in tune with the WHO Chief''s emphasis on tests and more tests to locate the people contaminated by the virus and isolate them to prevent its further spread. In India testing facilities are available in less than hundred centres. These are highly inadequate in proportion to the population and the easy vulnerability of the people to the deadly virus. It is in such backdrop that the suggestion of Shri Patnaik assumes critical significance.
Shri Patnaik's suggestion is embodied in the suggestions of experts
In South Korea widespread tests were conducted and infected people were spotted and necessary steps were taken to successfully deal with the impending danger. It is suggested that Indian Government may obtain test kits from South Korea and learn from that country's invaluable experience and make necessary arrangements in India to ensure access of people to such test kits free of cost. Such a measure combined with the suggestion of Chief Minister Shri Patnaik would enable India to trace, test, isolate and treat people infected by Corona and defeat the unprecedented viral danger to India and humanity. Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, Director of the Washington-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, in an interview to Shri Karan Thapar also suggested that India needs to sharply scale up its testing and test 10.000 people every day as against meager 11,500 tests done by 17th March 2020.
He also drew the attention of the Government of India that the country has already reached the third stage of corona virus spread and he asserted that the virus has started infecting people through community. He then cautioned that number of victims would be in tens and thousands and maintained that he could comprehend this point in the context of India through his computer modeling and experiences obtained from the seriously affected countries of Europe.
London Economist in its 19th March 2020 issue carried an article on COVID-19 and stated about the low levels of testing in Europe. It stated, "After a dismally slow start to testing, the numbers are finally heading up—although the best estimates come not from public-health agencies, but volunteer trackers using a Google sheet—to an estimated 12,535 tests conducted on March 17th. Given the expected scope of the disease, and the reported obstacles to people with symptoms actually getting tested, much more will be needed".
In juxtaposing Shri Naveen Patnaik's suggestion to Prime Minister on more facilities for testing with the remarks of Dr. Laxminarayan and observations made in the article published in the London Economist we come to comprehend the enormous significance of Shri Patnaik's point of view to save India from the threat of corona virus. Therefore, the Prime Minister of India must immediately act on the suggestion of Shri Patnaik and expand facilities for testing and make them accessible to people without any cost.
Make available protection and critical care equipments
The second significant suggestion of Shri Patnaik was that there must be adequate availability of protection and critical care equipments and masks for health care personnel to deal with the menace of corona virus. This suggestion is evocative of observations made in the above mentioned article in the London Economist wherein it is said that "“The real limiting factors are likely to be the ventilators or the staff” in the event of huge number of corona infected patients reaching out to hospitals for getting treatment of the virus which has no cure or medicine. Even an advanced nation like the USA has not adequate ventilators to enable serious patients to breathe mechanically while they are in the intensive care units. In case of India which has only a few lakhs of beds in intensive care units it would be a formidable problem when hundreds and thousands of patients would rush to hospitals at the peak time of infection. India has hardly a few thousand trained doctors in critical care medicine and the number of specialized nurses and assistants are abysmally low.
Dr. Laxminarayan cautioned the Government of India that corona infected patients in India have gone up manifold because of infection spreading through community and, therefore, advised that the Government should get prepared to provide ICU facilities to four and eight million serious patients who would require equipment, ventilators and a range of critical care medicines which are not adequately available in our country.
Shri Patnaik's suggestion in this regard is in consonance with the advice tendered at the global level and by internationally acclaimed experts whose views are now sought after across the world. In doing so Shri Patnaik has set a global bench mark as much as he has set a global bench mark of governance in dealing with recurrent natural disasters affecting the State of Odisha.
Suggestion for Economic Assistance Package
Shri Patnaik also made significant suggestions for economic empowerment of under privileged sections of society to deal with the adverse financial impact on them caused by lock down and shut down following the alarming spread of corona virus. The slew of measures he suggested the Prime Minister to act upon are giving at least 50 days wages to MGNREGS workers, financial support for the families covered under National Food Security Act, economic package for various sectors and construction workers and additional installments to farmers under PM Kisan scheme. He also made a vital point that the Centre should distribute funds in advance to the States to enable them to effectively handle the gathering crises caused by the corona virus. Such measures when implemented by the Union Government would in fact go a long way in fulfilling the objectives which are at the core of cooperative federalism.
The suggestions for more testing facilities and critical care equipments raise larger issues concerning preparedness of the health sector to deal with a unparalleled public health disaster like the corona danger.
The threat posed by corona virus is the worst ever faced by humanity in peace time and it is the only threat which has baffled the scientists, political leaders and peoples of the world. It has no cure, no vaccine and no medical remedy. It can be only tackled by aggressive social and physical distancing, extensive testing and adopting preventing and non pharmaceutical measures which can be strengthened by implementing the suggestions of Chief Minister Shri Patnaik by the Union Government.
.The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.