It was on my last day in New York that corona panic really began. First, came the news that the stock market had experienced its worst single-day crash in history. Then Donald Trump with a posse of officials, medical experts and doctors appeared on television to try and reassure people that everything was under control, and that every effort was being made to contain the spread of the virus. Nobody was reassured. Within hours it became impossible to find hand sanitisers and even toilet paper seemed to become unavailable. Friends said that they were beginning to seriously consider stocking up food supplies and self-quarantining. And, from Europe came the alarming news that Italy was in total lockdown.
On a personal level, I discovered that Swiss had cancelled my flight to India. I would be put on the same flight the following day, they said, but hours later, called to say that this flight had also been cancelled. Luckily for me, they were kind enough to put me on a British Airways flight and so it was that I managed to come home via London before the US government announced that all flights to Europe were being cancelled for a month. The flight that brought me to Mumbai was only half full and a flight attendant handed me a form to fill in duplicate attesting that I was in good health and listing the countries that I had visited in the past month. When I landed at Mumbai airport I noticed that everyone was wearing masks and that there seemed to be grim concern about the contagious nature of this evil new virus.
Opinion | Shah Alam Khan writes: Coronavirus threat is real, but responses to it are bordering on paranoia
So, it disappointed me to arrive home and find that the news channels were more interested in the political transition of Jyotiraditya Scindia than in a contagion that could bring the already wobbly Indian economy crashing down to unimaginable depths. If there ever was a time when politics should take a backseat, it is now. As of the time that I write these words, India seems to be relatively unaffected by this new Chinese disease but, having seen how quickly things changed in the United States, I fear that by the time you read this, there may have been an exponential and dangerous increase in the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Are we prepared?
The Prime Minister has advised us not to panic, but perhaps what we need is to panic enough to acknowledge that we live in a country that is notorious for having the most hopelessly inadequate public health services. Government hospitals remain as bad as they were 30 years ago and prove every time there is an epidemic, as happened in Bihar last year, that they can simply not cope. More than a hundred children died of encephalitis in that hospital in Muzaffarpur last June. For a while, this awful story made national headlines. Famous anchors traipsed through the filthy wards of the hospital holding forth on its abysmal standards. Intrepid reporters discovered human bones lying around in the hospital’s backyard. Shrill prime-time debates were held on what needed to be done to improve the standard of Indian public health facilities and then everything died down and we were back to yelling at each other about politics.
Of course it is the fault of our officials (both elected and unelected) that conditions in our hospitals are so bad that more than 80 per cent of our population is forced to use private facilities. But, it is the fault of all of us that healthcare never becomes a major issue when elections come around. The result is that although India has some of the finest private hospitals in the world, and Indian doctors are so excellent that they are sought out by hospitals in distant lands, there is also the shameful reality that our public health services remain utterly abysmal. In the constituency of the mighty Yogi Adityanath, children die of encephalitis every year. He now tells us that he is so well prepared for the new contagion that he is setting up quarantine wards in every district hospital in Uttar Pradesh. Can we trust that they will be cleaner than the regular wards in district hospitals?
Trust really is at the crux of the matter. Can we trust what the Health Minister and our chief ministers have so far told us about the coronavirus? Can we trust that our hospitals will be able to cope with a pandemic when they have so far shown an inability to cope with local epidemics? Can we trust that the Prime Minister will be able to enforce higher standards of hygiene when most public hospitals have been totally resistant to his otherwise successful Swachh Bharat programme? Can we trust that until this contagion passes he will put healthcare above Hindutva on his list of priorities? Can we trust that he is fully aware that this virus could push the economy into a recession from which it will take a very long time to recover?
Speaking for myself, I admit that even as I ask these questions I know the answer is that it is hard to trust that any of these things will happen. My intention is not to spread gloom in an already gloomy time, but the truth is that public healthcare has been very low on Narendra Modi’s list of priorities.
Opinion | Vikram Patel writes: Response to COVID-19 shows India has the political will to control infectious diseases
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