Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s assurance that we are better placed than developed countries in combating the swine flu pandemic must be cold comfort to panic-stricken citizens. This, after he first said a third of India would be infected following which he claimed there should be no panic. Such histrionics apart, the pertinent question is how his ministry and state health departments are dealing with the flu outbreak. If the Maharashtra example is anything to go by, official response is adding to the fear and confusion. Pune, where four deaths have taken place so far, has shut down schools and colleges for a week. But will this prevent the spread of the virus? It will not.
There is no doubt that a medical crisis is on our hands with the flu outbreak, coming as it does in the monsoon months when communicable diseases are prevalent. If officialdom is over-reacting, then the media too seem to have gone into overdrive and are reporting on the issue as though it were the Black Death itself. Ill-informed interviews and the all-pervasive ‘breaking news’ logo have created a frightening scenario that has obscured the real facts about the virus and how to combat it. While Mr Azad is finalising guidelines — a bit late in the day — on involving the private sector in testing and treatment, could the ministry not have issued a sober awareness campaign telling people that the flu is curable and preventive measures include good sanitation and a vitamin-rich diet? It should also be made transparent that Tamiflu, the preferred drug for treatment today, has its limitations and could have side-effects, especially for children. Singapore has installed heat sensors in airports that automatically detect any rise in body temperature of passengers while here we have a bored official asking passengers whether they have fever. If the answer is no, they are waved through.
The states should be asked to follow the World Health Organisation’s eminently sensible guidelines that do not prescribe shutting down schools or any other establishment but give step-by-step directions on how to prevent the flu and how to treat it. The developed countries which we have allegedly bested, according to Mr Azad, have not shut shop as the pandemic steps up. Delhi, which has the second highest rate of infection after Pune, has for once reacted maturely, asking only schools that felt a threat to shut down. As a result, there has been considerably less hysteria here. We definitely need more testing centres and screening facilities. But it would help if people alarmed by exaggerated media reports did not swamp an inadequate medical system.