New Delhi: The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) which was first detected in China’s Wuhan on December 30, 2019 has shaken the world to the core. Even developed nations like Italy and the United States are scrambling to contain the spread of the virus. Whereas, India, a country with a population of 1.3 billion people, has 5,734 confirmed cases of coronavirus (as of April 9, 8 AM). Is it because India is not testing enough, as alleged by experts or how quick the government has been in imposing lockdown and initiate testing? In an exclusive interview, NDTV speaks to Dr David Nabarro, special COVID-19 envoy to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Appreciating India’s quick reaction and response to COVID-19 and stressing on following lockdown with utmost sincerity, Dr Nabarro said,
I would like to thank all the people of India for really taking this seriously. We are actually involved in an epic struggle right across the world in tackling and beating back this virus. It’s an enemy. It’s a very silent enemy and it comes into our communities and affects us without us seeing it when it first arrives. What I am delighted about is that India has reacted quickly and is dealing with it in a very integrated way. Please stick together and India has a chance of really getting on top of this virus and getting ahead of it. Other countries were slow when they started – that wasn’t any blame to them, it’s just a fact. They thought ‘this is not a big problem, there are just a few cases. We could wait a bit before we impose strong measures’. But in India, strong measures were imposed quickly. The struggle (lockdown) is worthwhile because otherwise it will build up and completely overwhelm your hospitals. Just look at what’s happening in the US now. Imagine that was happening in India at this time. It would be disastrous so I am really asking everybody in India to just continue to work together. Fight this common enemy; it’s a struggle like none of us have ever known in our times before.
Further stressing on fighting the virus by taking immediate precautionary and preventive measures unlike other developed countries, Dr Nabarro said,
The outbreaks that have built up in different parts of the region are enormous but they built up because virus was moving around in communities and action was not taken to isolate people with symptoms. Acting quickly and resolution is the key. And you can protect healthcare workers all the more if you are quick as it’s happening in India.
When it comes to fighting the virus and taking preventive measures, there is a long-standing debate and confusion over whether or not facemasks should be used by everyone. The Ministry of Health and Family Affairs has time and again said that only individuals who either have respiratory problems or are around someone suffering from the disease or taking care of an infected person should wear a facemask. Whereas, on March 31, the office of the government’s Principal Scientific Advisor issued a detailed manual to prepare homemade masks using easily available items like old vests, t-shirts and handkerchiefs, stressing they are ‘70 per cent effective’ in curbing the spread of the coronavirus. It also stated,
Analyses show that if 50 per cent of the population were to wear masks, only 50 per cent of the population would be infected by the virus. Once 80 per cent of the population wears a mask, the outbreak can be stopped immediately.
To put a rest to all the doubts and queries, NDTV questioned Dr Nabarro about facemasks and he informed,
When there are plenty of masks to go around or if we can make masks in our communities, then it does seem to be a good idea for more and more people to wear masks because that does reduce risk.
Along with using a mask, Dr Nabarro emphasised on coughing etiquette – coughing into the crook of your elbow, proper disposal of cloth used while coughing or sneezing, washing one’s hands regularly, social distancing and self-isolation in case of any symptom related to the coronavirus. He added,
It’s these personal actions that will protect us, our communities, our state and the country. If you have got the capacity to wear a mask, perhaps developing something at home, just anything that can reduce the risk when you are in contact with other people’s respiratory secretions, this is a good practice. We all got to get ready in our communities to defend ourselves against this virus.
Further sharing his views on the nationwide lockdown in India which was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24, how it can prove to be fruitful, Dr Nabarro said,
Remember this virus is transmitted when people get up close to each other. Till the lockdown is underway, build up stronger capacity in communities for detecting people. You won’t be able to test everybody, so we have to do it on the basis of whether or not you are sick. Once we are strong in our communities, once we have protected our health workers then a gradual release of lockdown can be considered by the government because everybody knows lockdown is terrible for so many people in society. Poor people get poorer; they suffer because of indignities when they are stigmatised by other people. Nobody wants long lockdown but you have to put it in place to get community services ready, to get everybody prepared for the war.
Elaborating more on the 21 days lockdown enforced to contain the spread of the virus and under what conditions it should be lifted, Dr Nabarro listed out five main points. Explaining them, he said,
Firstly, once the lockdown is in place, the number of contacts (how many individuals an infected person has been in contact with) should be much less than it would have been previously. If the contact has reduced, it’s a good sign.
Apart from this, the WHO envoy asked to check the status of hospitals and communities. If we have been able to prepare healthcare workers, provide them protective equipment or at least manufacture it locally in communities, and whether or not our communities are ready.
India has got fabulous ways to get the message across to various communities, right down to the panchayat level, said Dr Nabarro.
He also noted that a country needs to know about hotspots and then take a decision on releasing the lockdown in other areas and continue with it in the hotspots. But, he asked to be careful as some areas might have got the virus without us knowing about it.
Lastly, be ready to reimpose a lockdown if you have to. Nobody wants that because they cause so much distress, and agitation, but this virus is a terrible, unseen enemy and can cause widespread death. We have seen it in the US, Spain, UK and Italy, said Dr Nabarro.
Dr Nabarro hoped that coronavirus will cause less destruction in India and other environments where the weather is warm, BCG immunization will help and there are also coexisting infectious diseases that can strengthen and sharpen the immune system so that COVID-19 is defeated inside our bodies. With that, he noted,
You can’t win a war on hope and like all medical people, I am hoping that this virus proves to be much less lethal and dangerous in India than it has been anywhere else. But we still have to do the preparation, reactions, distancing of people through lockdown and communities need to be ready just in case we are wrong.
While signing off, the WHO addressed the allegations against the WHO of supporting China and not questioning them on the glaring loopholes in the information regarding the origins of the virus. He said,
When history will be written, everybody will ask questions whether things were done well enough, if things were hidden, and opinions were disregarded. I am not going to do that now. Right now, all our energy, and all our connections must be focused on defeating this enemy which has caused such damage in so many parts of the world and such sufferings. We are fighting a war and you don’t fight wars by shouting out, slagging off your generals all the time.