Two years ago, on January 31, I was at a party to celebrate the 60th birthday of my sister-in-law. My brother and their two daughters had pulled out all the stops to make it a memorable event. We chattered late into the evening over food and drink, until someone mentioned the “Chinese virus” that was rapidly infecting people, and killing many. It was quickly postulated that China, while actually trying to destroy us, Indians, had inadvertently infected their own people. Ha-ha.
Two years ago, on Republic Day, the Brazilian president Bolsonaro was the guest of honour at a ceremony of pomp and grandeur; five women motorcyclists and their team wowed the crowds; there were many other acts of glory, as there always are, on Republic Day.
A month later, I was sitting in my clinic wearing my facial fig leaf, soaking my hands in an alcohol-based sanitiser and sermonising to my perplexed patients about the danger of the new virus. I cancelled holidays and neighbourly home-visits; except for a few defiant forays outward, I limited myself to home and clinic. Two years on, I am still wearing the fig leaf and following precautionary measures while praying hard that this third wave too will end. I do not need to dwell upon the course of events in the two intervening years, except to emphasise the absolute need to record every detail of those years, for posterity. So that we, and generations after us, can look again at the scourge and the devastation, applaud triumphs, accept failures and rethink the future. Forgive me then, for turning back the pages while looking and planning ahead.
Two years on, we are still hurting. Children are confused and depressed with the monotony of online classes, doctors and nurses are physically and mentally exhausted, the poorer sections of our society are struggling with joblessness and severe privation, the wealthy are bored and listless, celebrities cannot believe that their antics on screen are not at all a priority; and the VVIPs of the country are disappointed that they have to put off their jet-setting for mega events and world conferences which come to nought.
As with every crisis, there are lessons here for everyone. Let us consider what they might be — for us as citizens; for the medical profession; for the government.
Does every citizen carry a responsibility? You bet. During the first phase of the pandemic, we made many mistakes — some small, others gargantuan. We did not properly heed the fundamental measures that we were repeatedly told to follow. Even leaders roamed mask-free. Had we all followed the basic precautionary steps diligently, it is certain that more than half the 4,00,000 plus deaths in our country could have been avoided. The basic preventive measures of masking, distancing and hygiene are still the most effective measures in fighting the virus.
Medical professionals worked away, trying hard to cope with the strange situation in which, for some terrible months, only Covid-affected patients dared to go to hospitals, for the risk of going to hospital seemed greater than not going. The number of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who lost their lives in the process is difficult to come to terms with.
The government did what it is good at — posturing. Enough has been said about this, the hasty knee-jerk reactions, the confusing signals and the catastrophe that followed. Sadly, those affected the most were those without adequate resources. We had to witness worthless spectacles like lighting lamps, beating thalis, showering flowers, playing music — Nero-like, as lives burned away for lack of the most essential commodity, oxygen.
After my retirement as a surgeon some years ago, I work in an independent clinic in my small rural town. Most of my work now boils down to general practice which I have learnt to enjoy. With no advice or guidelines coming my way, I took the only option — of educating myself about the new killer. Online medical information helped me understand the pathology and course of the disease; discussions with colleagues helped me set up my own protocol while using the guidelines issued by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences as a reference point. I found that a timely antibiotic, anti-histamines, Ivermectin, immunity boosting vitamins and minerals and at times other anti-inflammatory drugs like colchicine and diethylcarbamazine were immensely useful in treating mild to moderately severe cases. It was indeed possible to prevent a serious outcome in all but a few patients who required hospital care.
It is urgent and imperative that the medical community comes together to plan an effective strategy to cope with future crises such as this. What it means is that we need hospitals/wards/medical personnel who can be at the fore with immediate effect. For this, the government must take the necessary steps after conferring with medical experts. We have to stress the absolute necessity for such critical medical management at short notice. This is the time for us to come together, so our voice is heard.
For every citizen of India like you and me, this is a good day to reflect: “Reflection” involves “looking at oneself” in the mirror with an unflinching gaze. Like what you see? Well, then. Be who you are and carry on. It is aptly termed “streaming along”. Go unquestioningly with the flow and society will lull you into it. But if you can look in the mirror and ask yourself a few bold questions, you might find answers.
India is at a critical juncture: A small percentage of us live in comfort and ease while the rest struggle to live in modest dignity and several millions strive to satisfy their basic needs of food and shelter. Moreover, climate change will soon dictate its own terms, we cannot afford to be unprepared. My own, hopeful Republic Day chant for avoiding future catastrophes is: Plan. Prepare. Prevent.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 27, 2022 under the title ‘Plan, prepare, prevent’. The writer is a surgeon and author of, most recently, A Luxury Called Health (Speaking Tiger)
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