Is world’s 2nd-most populous nation prepared to battle coronavirus?

By Alejandro R. Otero

New Delhi, Mar 25 (efe-epa).- India, a country of nearly 1.3 billion inhabitants, a large number of them living in crowded neighborhoods, went into a 21-day lockdown starting Wednesday to check the spread of the dreaded coronavirus. But is the world’s second-most populous country prepared against the pandemic?

On Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the world’s largest complete lockdown, forcing curfew-like situations on the people for the next three weeks to break the cycle of infection of COVID-19.

The announcement came after an increase in the number of positive cases in recent days, reaching over 500 infections and 11 deaths, despite already having shut down schools, suspended sporting events and passenger transport and closed its borders.

“We estimate that in worst situation there could be between 20,000 and 50,000 patients in India,” K. Aggarwal, member of Indian Medical Association (IMA), told EFE.

He said the government claimed it “is ready to do everything necessary to stop the expansion of coronavirus”.

However, Aggarwal underlined that currently there may be more cases than what the official figures indicate as “many people may be asymptomatic and don’t know they are infected”.

Most coronavirus tests have been conducted on people back from abroad while there have been cases of local contagions.

Last weekend, the Indian authorities decided to start testing all people with pronounced symptoms.

Health Ministry spokesperson Manisha Verma confirmed to EFE that the government was “increasing the laboratories authorized to increase the capacity to test coronavirus.”

The World Health Organization has recommended all countries to scale up emergency response mechanisms in four key areas – “detect, protect, treat and reduce transmission”, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia, Poonam Khetrapal Singh, told EFE.

“India’s measures have been proportionate to the need and the transmission scenario of COVID-19. India is further augmenting its capacity and is increasing the scope of testing,” Singh said.

Although, Singh believed that “the country’s containment plan for COVID-19 is in line with WHO recommended actions”, she acknowledged that the country’s health system could face some challenges.

“A system for triage and referral of health care facility would be important to avoid overcrowding at any health facility,” said Singh, stressing on the importance of training healthcare personnel.

However, this optimism is not shared by infectious disease expert Jacob John Thekkekara, an Emeritus Medical Scientist of Indian Council of Medical Research.

Thekkekara believes the healthcare system will pose the biggest challenge.

“We have not learned from other countries to create a public health infrastructure, we don’t have it because India does not believe we need it. It may be because we are overconfident we can treat every trouble,” Thekkekara told EFE.

“It is a belief system that we are equal to any health problem so we don’t need public health infrastructure,” which has led the private sector to enjoy significant clout in healthcare, according to the expert.

To address these shortcomings, Modi announced Tuesday an emergency financial package of 150 billion rupees (nearly$2 billion) to boost India’s healthcare.

The funds would be used to procure personal protection equipment for medical professionals, increasing isolation wards and ICU beds, and for the training of medical and paramedical manpower.

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