Nous Indica

Test, trace, vaccinate

A national testing drive is the best possible way out of this medical meltdown

Test, trace, vaccinate

BLUNDER: Why did we not stock up oxygen and have more beds for the second wave? PTI

Rajesh Ramachandran

Whether we call ourselves a failed society or a failed state, the bottomline is that we keep failing. Telltale marks of pyres on Ghaziabad footpaths or pictures of melting furnaces of electric crematoria in Gujarat or the long queue of ambulances first outside hospitals and later at crematoria gates or the fudged numbers of mortality all around — there has been no respite from the dance of death. Not getting infected or not dying is only a matter of chance and not science because our pre-modern politicians, Election Commission of India (ECI) and the governments have long since abandoned reason.

The government needs to make weekly testing mandatory and isolate the infected 20-30 per cent, allowing the rest to carry on with their livelihoods.

From superstitious Sangh Parivar activists to scientific-tempered Marxists, everybody was revelling in election euphoria from Kerala to West Bengal when the virus was stinging with all its might, creating the second surge. It was only when the healthcare system in Delhi collapsed and hospital managements threw up their hands in despair, revealing the fate of patients without oxygen, did the politicians relent. Despite newspapers reporting a new Bengal mutant, which could be the mostly deadly of all virus variants that have caused the worst caseload in the world so far, the ECI refused to club the remaining phases of the West Bengal Assembly election together. Why? Why did we not stock up oxygen, increase the container facilities and manufacture more cylinders? Why did we not hire more people and have more beds for the second wave? When there was hoarding of drugs like remdesivir in September, why did we not foresee a worse scarcity in the next wave? We are not vishwaguru, we are not even a decent third world country because we cannot assure uninterrupted supply of oxygen to gasping patients — a leak somewhere in the pipeline could kill a dozen or two, as happened in Nashik.

Mercifully, we have been spared a second lockdown during the second wave; otherwise the country would have been shut down, causing an economic catastrophe compounding the medical meltdown. Imagine a curfew that stops caregivers from going out to buy or beg for oxygen cylinders and medicines. This is a failure of gargantuan proportions and no one — politician, bureaucrat, religious orders or the society at large — can escape responsibility. In times of competitive religiosity and whataboutery of identity politics, one Tablighi Jamaat congregation can only be surpassed in its foolishness by the maha-arrogance of the massive Kumbh Mela. Of the 800-odd pilgrims who crossed the Indo-Pak border during Baisakhi in a jatha, over 200 have tested positive. The power of religion and religion-based politics is, surely, more lethal than that of the deadly pandemic.

We are at a crossroads — our healthcare infrastructure has collapsed, our capacities have been overwhelmed and patients are dying without oxygen. Something drastic needs to be done. A national testing drive is the best possible way out of this situation, wherein any person who interacts with others should get himself or herself tested every week so that infected people could be effectively quarantined. Asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people going out and meeting people at religious places, political rallies, protests, weddings, social gatherings, marketplaces and even workplaces have spread the disease to those who obviously have lower immunities, wrecking our already weak medical care facilities.

In this situation, the primary way out is to keep the infected but asymptomatic people at home. And this can be achieved only by universal testing. Anyone who has to step into a shopping mall, wedding hall, a restaurant, a grocery shop or a barber shop ought to be tested, and so should all those who are manning these outlets. Once every person who is stepping out of the house to engage in a group activity gets tested, we could have a controlled environment of uninfected people creating safe public platforms of interaction. The testing centres should be linked to the Aarogya Setu application, allowing them to upload the test result directly on to the app, which in turn can provide a safety passport for uninfected people in public places. For instance, a shopping mall should allow only those employees and shoppers who have the Covid-negative certificate on their Aarogya Setu app, thereby creating an absolutely safe shopping experience for all. This practice can be replicated for hotels, restaurants, airlines and every other economic activity. An Uber driver and a passenger could be equally sure of their safety if both need an Aarogya Setu verification to book a trip.

The only other mechanism that our rulers know to keep the infected out of the public places is to lock up the entire population. Maharashtra has enforced a strict lockdown — almost like the previous one — on Thursday. The Delhi lockdown for six days that began early this week was prompted by a staggering test positivity rate of 30 per cent, as against the national daily test positivity rate of nearly 17 per cent. If we extrapolate the numbers to assess the total infection rate of Delhi, we can assume that about 30 per cent of Delhi’s residents are infected — an alarming situation. Yet, a lot of asymptomatic people could still be out in the streets. Despite the strict lockdown, people have to fetch medicines, groceries, vegetables, milk and other essentials. So, even a complete lockdown for the 100 per cent population will not stop infected people from stepping out for essentials.

Maharashtra has kept its government offices open with 15 per cent staff and local trains on limited routes. All this could be counterproductive if those who are going to office or are working strenuously to keep the wheels of life rolling are infected. So, instead of shutting down 85-100 per cent of the population, the government needs to make weekly testing mandatory and isolate the infected 20-30 per cent, allowing the rest to carry on with their livelihoods. Testing and vaccination are the only solution — not locking up the nation and throwing the keys away.

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