New Delhi: Since the first case of COVID-19 (coronavirus) was reported in India on January 30, till today (March 19 at 9 AM) the total number of active cases have risen to 148 and there have been three deaths. Expressing their worry over the outbreak and consequence of it in terms of lives and livelihoods, People’s Health Movement and All India People’s Science Network – a network of Peoples Science Movements of India, have issued a call to the government to act proactively to tackle COVID-19. The charter of demands prepared by the people asks the government to save lives, strengthen public health services, protect livelihoods and safeguard dignity and right to life of the economically poor sections of the society.
While talking to NDTV about the people’s call to action, Richa Chintan, a member of People’s Health Movement said,
There is no doubt that the government of India has reacted swiftly to this epidemic by curtailing international travel, screening those coming from abroad and their contacts, isolating them or placing them in quarantine. This has no doubt helped delay the epidemic. But as the government knows, the worst is yet to come.
She further said that while immediate executive action in the form of isolation of patients and quarantines and a high-pressure campaign for social distance is most welcome, this would not be sufficient if community transmission is established and the pandemic peaks.
According to an official at All India People’s Science Network,
India is particularly vulnerable because of a high degree of past neglect of public health services, and the privatization of healthcare. The country is also vulnerable because a large section of the population is struggling to meet their minimum basic necessities.
Concerned by what this epidemic may bring for the people from economically and socially vulnerable communities, the citizens have demanded the following from the government:
1. The government must expand testing facilities and criteria for COVID-19. Testing should not be limited to only those with symptoms who have travelled to certain countries and those who have come in contact with them. Any clinically suspected person should be able to get tested.
2. The system needs to gear up for addressing community transmission. The government must rapidly prepare public health services for a surge in patients requiring healthcare and hospitalization by strengthening the public hospitals. This would require, at the very least, one hospital with an ICU; potential isolation wards and ventilators; and oxygen supply in every five to ten lakh population.
3. As a long term measure, a Government Centre for Disease Control must be established in every district which is staffed and facilitated to test, identify and provide alerts and advice precautionary measures for pathogenic attacks like the current COVID-19 pandemic.
4. Ensure safe working conditions and adequate protective equipment for healthcare and support staff. These are to be provided not only in hospitals but also for frontline workers supporting home quarantine and isolation. This would require that medical tools such as effective facemasks and sterilizing fluids are prioritized for front-line healthcare workers and patients.
5. Ensure that the distribution of scarce resources in the event of a widespread outbreak should be governed by a clear evaluation of the public health needs, rather than on sales to the highest bidder.
6. Social distancing must necessarily be done by public education and persuasion. The use of coercive measures would be unfair and unhelpful.
7. Active community support and outreach services need to be built up for those in-home quarantines, those whose social security benefits are curtailed due to closure or those having difficulties in accessing essential services.
8. Many children will need access to supplementary nutrition programs, more so, when their parents’ livelihood is compromised. Shutting down such services without providing for alternatives would be unfair.
9. Maintenance of routine economic activity, which primarily means safeguarding of the livelihoods of the majority, should also be acknowledged and acted upon as a public health priority. The working people and poor take a much larger economic hit due to disruption of livelihoods than the salaried section and the affluent, and this should be acknowledged. There has to be active community support and support from employers to those in-home quarantines and those whose livelihoods are compromised by these lockdowns.
10. There must be an immediate increase in public expenditure that leads to widespread demand-side support in the form of increased social security and food security measures such as enhancement of entitlement under the Public Distribution System (PDS), and cash transfers. This is urgently required to address the attack on livelihoods of the majority due to coronavirus.
As per experts, the country is currently in stage two of transmission, where the virus infects people directly in contact with affected patients who returned from abroad. However, if the spread of the virus is not contained soon, the country may enter the state three called as community transmission in which the number of infected people will spike extremely making it impossible to trace the chain of transmission.