Updated: March 24, 2020 8:59:11 am
On Sunday, Air India issued a statement saying that members of its crew, who evacuated Indian citizens from coronavirus-hit Italy, Iran and China, were being ostracised by “vigilante” resident welfare associations (RWAs). In some localities, “RWAs even called in the police,” the state-run carrier’s press release said. People are known to overestimate the likelihood of catching an infection — and associated health risks — during public health emergencies. History is replete with instances of people losing their poise during pandemics. There is good reason, therefore, to read the reaction of the neighbours of Air India officials as a natural response to a stressful situation. But the danger is that these anxieties can sometimes lead some people to behave irresponsibly. Last week, for instance, this paper reported that four private hospitals in Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district refused to treat a doctor with a respiratory disease until he produced a certificate confirming that he did not have coronavirus. The delay in treatment aggravated his ailment and he had to be put on ventilator support.
The World Health Organisation’s designated term for the COVID-19 outbreak, “pandemic”, is not a signifier of the lethality of the virus. It only denotes that the pathogen is extremely contagious and has spread across the globe. But as of now, more than 80 per cent of those infected by COVID-19 only experience mild symptoms. According to available evidence, only 5 per cent of the patients turn critical. It isn’t clear what the death rate is — but even the most pessimistic studies reckon that the virus kills less than 3 per cent of the people it infects. This, of course, should not be a reason for complacency. The coronavirus is a new pathogen. And since it has been transmitted to humans from animals, all its mechanisms are not known. It is, however, known that it spreads from person to person via respiratory droplets — as when someone coughs or sneezes. The only way to contain the infection is prevention. The experiences of China, South Korea and Singapore show that social isolation, accompanied by large-scale testing, can check the spread of COVID-19. And elderly and people with other afflictions are more vulnerable to the virus. The need for social isolation can, therefore, not be overstressed.
The genome sequence of the coronavirus was known to the world within a month of the outbreak. Science has come a long way from the time when scientists had to struggle for more than two years to unravel the HIV’s genome sequence. There is much to be optimistic about in the fight against COVID-19. But fear must be tempered with reason and uncertainty with information backed by science.
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