Covid-19: What you need to know today
The fast-spreading disease that jumped from animals to humans in China has now infected about 200,000 people and caused nearly 8,300 deaths in 164 nations.
As the total number of Covid-19 cases in India rose to 151 (134 active) on Wednesday, experts once again called for more widespread testing, rumours swirled on WhatsApp, more events were called off and more public places closed, and a research paper published in Nature Medicine (on March 17), debunked the theory that the Sars-Cov-2 virus that causes the disease was man-made. Globally, the number of cases crossed 200,000 on Wednesday, at least doubling in two weeks.
The big question in India is whether community transmission has already happened. This refers to the infection of a person who has not travelled to a country where the infection is raging and has not had contact with an infected person, directly or indirectly. Some experts believe this has already happened in India. As Ramanan Laxminarayan, Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, said: “I believe community transmission began in India two to three weeks ago, around the same time as other countries. India is not an exception in the way the virus behaves. We just haven’t tested a representative sample that India’s population of 1.4 billion warrants”. This means, it is only the lack of widespread testing in India that is keeping the numbers low. It also means the focus has to shift from prevention to mitigation.
There’s already been some talk of expanding the country’s testing capacity, by involving more government and private laboratories, although there has been no formal announcement on this. At some point (and sooner than later), the government has to get its hands around the whole testing problem and figure out a way of testing in scale, rapidly and inexpensively. In an interview on Tuesday, Gagandeep Kang, director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute and a Fellow of the Royal Society said opening up testing to Indian companies, “good at reducing cost” will help develop inexpensive tests. As of Wednesday, there are 72 government laboratories testing. Another 49 are to be added to this by the end of the week, and the government has spoken to 51 private ones about having them conduct tests. The testing protocol, however, remains the same – overseas travel to a Covid-positive country; exposure to someone diagnosed with the disease; or being a health care worker caring for Covid-19 patients. All accompanied by symptoms.
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Social distancing, self-quarantines, and forced quarantines should continue, though, and be more strictly enforced. On Wednesday, there were again reports of several instances of people breaking quarantines.
India has so far not put out best-case and worst-case scenarios in terms of infections and fatalities. The mathematical models to do this exist, as does the expertise, but the number of people who have been tested is still low (11,500 as of March 17) for any of these models to be run.
Already, however, it is clear that Covid-19 is also affecting India’s economy, and the livelihoods of millions. According to the latest data available, around 93 million Indians are engaged so-called casual labour, and paid every day. Of this, only 3% are engaged in public works. Already, governments around the world have announced hundreds of billions of dollars in fiscal stimuli to keep the economy afloat. US President Donald Trump is talking of cheques in the mail. The Indian government knows the benefit of direct cash transfers. The emerging consensus is that it should announce a plan for the economy.
There should also be a plan to combat rumours. On Wednesday, rumours about parts of Delhi being locked down, and wholesale markets being closed, swirled on India’s most popular messaging platform WhatsApp. The platform, owned by Facebook Inc., announced a $1 million grant to Poynter to come up with a global fact-checking network to combat rumours on coronavirus.
One such rumour, which grew into a conspiracy theory, was that the virus was man-made, created in a Chinese laboratory as a possible biological weapon. A paper by Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute (he is the corresponding author; there are several co-authors as well), titled “The proximal origin of Sars-Cov-2” and published on Tuesday in Nature Medicine debunked that to some extent. The researchers compared the genome sequence of this virus with other strains of coronavirus and found that it “originated through natural processes”.
But the mitigation of its impact on the nation’s health and economy will definitely require manual intervention.