For those looking at this as an alarmist heading, let’s begin by considering some known facts.
So far (evening of March 11, 2020) confirmed cases of COVID-19 aka Novel Coronavirus caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 i.e. SARS-CoV-2 Virus in India is 61 with dozens across the country under observation.
COVID-19 infections grow exponentially. Thus while on 23rd January Hubei province in China had 444 confirmed cases, by the 30th it had 4,903 and a week later it had 22,112 cases. It wasn’t any different in Italy with 62 confirmed case on 22nd February, 888 by 29th and 4636 by March 6.
On that day i.e. March 6, when this Mumbai Mirror report came out, Kasturba Hospital in Chinchpokhli, one of the frontline hospitals in the financial capital of India, had an isolation facility with only 20 beds. The situation is no different in other hospitals across the country.
A couple who had travelled to Dubai landed in Mumbai and travelled to Pune, giving the virus to their driver, daughter and another passenger who had travelled with them, all of whom tested positive. Six tourists who came in contact with this couple, have been admitted to the same Kasturba hospital. Authorities are searching for 40 others who travelled with them and could be carrying the virus.
As per this Indian Express article, APIs - also called bulk drugs, a key ingredient in the manufacture of medicines of which 70-80% are imported by India – have almost run out in Himachal Pradesh, “the largest pharma hub of Asia” with 300 drug companies that make 35% pharmaceutical products in all of Asia and 60% of India. The reason is that the Hubei province of China, the epicentre of coronavirus, is the hub of its API manufacturing industry.
According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an agency of the European Union, of the first 87,000 cases of the virus reported globally, about 3,000 died making the fatality rate at about 3.45%, one of the highest ever in the history of diseases in the world.
Stick the above facts together along with the extremely poor medical facility that all of us know exist in India, coupled with superstition where people on social media are seen suggesting cow urine as a cure for the virus, and you’ll realise that what you’re staring at is a looming catastrophe of unprecedented proportions in India.
Yesterday, Italy became the first country in the world to put itself in self-quarantine, locking down all of its 60 million people. This has come to pass despite its early confidence as it had successfully, and quickly, tracked its first cases. A Guardian article’s headline says it all: “From confidence to quarantine: how coronavirus swept Italy”.
There’s much more common between India and Italy than their flag colours, love of fatty foods, family traditions and crowded places. And perhaps it is time the Indian government followed suit and put the entire nation into a preventive quarantine, allowing only the most important travel between and inside cities.
Because the truth, if you’ve not figured out already and want to hear it loud, is that it is already too late for India.
The truth is, both the central govt. and state governments across the country have had reliable data from the Chinese experience where it began perhaps in November. By February we had it spread all over the world. By end-February, we had enough data to suggest that it had perhaps already spread across India. That was the time to press the panic button. None of the state governments, baring Kerala which has an experience of dealing with Nipah outbreak earlier, did.
Through not a single case has been confirmed in Mumbai, the reason I gave most of the examples above from the City of Mumbai, is because this city is one of the most densely populated regions of the world. Every day when I travel in trains here, literally hundreds of faces come agonisingly close to mine. In such social clusters, the question of a virus like COVID-19 spreading is not a matter of whether, but of when.
The reason why it hasn’t spread so much in India yet, I believe is a matter of good luck and the alacrity of the Chinese government which shut down its affected regions after its initial denial. Mumbai as a business hub sees a lot of traffic to and from different parts of China. The Chinese lockdown prevented the virus from coming into Mumbai from China earlier. But as the couple from Dubai showed, COVID-19 landed in Mumbai – as it did in other parts of the country – via other routes.
Also because it is coming from international shores, COVID-19 will affect the well-heeled first. The catastrophe begins when it percolates to the masses of India. Imagine one person, like the infected Ola driver who took the couple from Mumbai to Pune, travelling on a Mumbai suburban local train. He can give it to hundreds in one day, who could give it to thousands and so on… soon, it could become a catastrophe beyond possible repair.
We are already seeing the effects of a Coronavirus on the globally crashing economy. What is more dangerous is its effects on governments. By the time the dust has settled on this virus, the world would have seen some major political upheaval in at least a few countries.
The conservative Iranian government that took the virus lightly initially and let it spread, is facing a crisis of not just its existence but also of the country. This Atlantic article makes some rough calculations to guesstimate (since Iran seems to be hiding real figures) that there are at least 2 million cases of the virus in the country. The speaker of their parliament said that out of 290 parliamentarians, 23 had tested positive for COVID-19 with two having died from it making the percentage of those carrying the virus at 7.9%. If we scale this percentage to the whole of Iran, it would mean 6.4 million people are already infected in Iran. If the fatality rate is 2%, that still means 1,20,000 deaths in Iran.
Let’s take another round of facts. So far there is no known cure, vaccine or even foods that can help. Though the mortality rate stated to be 2% but touching 3.5%, might seem less, it is still more than most diseases we know and for those diseases there are known cures and treatments. And even if we miraculously make a cure or a vaccine soon (the best virologists and scientists of the world are on the job right now), it would still be at least a year or 18 months before those are ready. By then millions could die.
There is a theory that perhaps like other similar viruses like flu, COVID-19 would die in the heat. Even if it is true, it won’t die out from the planet. It just means that it will wait for the weather to change again. Come winter and the virus will strike again. Most viral diseases that have wiped populations in the past have been more devastating the second time around.
COVID-19 is thus a problem that is here to stay at least for a few years, till we find a cure or a vaccine. And what it will do to reshape the world, would be unparalleled.
As for the Indian context, as I said before, it is already too late. And even if it isn’t, it is the best time to err on the side of caution. The central government, already at the receiving end for many of its decisions, could do well to begin by putting the country under ‘reasonable-restrictions’ when it comes to the movement of people, beginning right now. It might be criticised in the short run like the Chinese government was for its unprecedented lockdown and inability to control the virus, but in the long run, like the Chinese government again, it would come to be praised for its measures, even by its critics.
So if I were to make a prediction, I’d look at Italy. Today i.e. 11th March, India with 61 confirmed cases, is where Italy was on 22nd February with 62. Going by how it went there, we’ll have nearly 1,000 known cases by 18th March and by 25th march, at least 5,000 cases when a panicky government, like Italy’s government yesterday, would be forced to put the country under lockdown.
The truth though is that we will have many more cases because Italy’s population is only 6 crore. We are at 125 crores.
In the end let me end with another fact, which might be devastating for some: COVID-19 does not care for class, caste, religion, political affiliation or ideology. All it knows is how to spread, infect the host and if possible, kill it.
If ever there was a time for all of humanity, all of Indians to unite beyond their differences, this is it. It is not time to stay quiet. It is time for the government of India to press the calculated, structured and experts-planned panic button.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)