VK Paul, chairman, Empowered Group I ( medical equipment and management plan to tackle the coronavirus outbreak), and also member (health), Niti Ayog, talked to Rhythma Kaul about the next phase of the pandemic in India
Is India dealing with large-scale community transmission?
The evidence that we have with us currently says that the situation is grim only in a limited geographical location, especially urban areas that are densely populated. There still are huge geographical areas that are not affected much, so we cannot generalize and say the whole country is badly affected. The data shows that of all states, there is high prevalence in the form of large clusters in just about 10 states that too because they have hyper dense population. Health ministry and ICMR are also conducting sero-surveys (blood test to detect antibodies) that will give us a sense of how widespread the disease is. However, the scene is not as bad as it is made out to be.
India saw cases rise even during the lockdown; now that the lockdown is being lifted isn’t there a risk of disease spreading further?
The country entered into lockdown at a very early stage, and in a measured way. What we have gained is for all to see, but we are aware that as a large country with huge population our people continue to be susceptible. What we can do, however, is to not let the virus have the speed of growth it wants to have. Our efforts now will be aimed at retarding its speed of growth.
What is India’s strategy now going to be to contain the disease spread?
The containment measures will now be devised and implemented keeping in mind local conditions. Like I said before, we entered lockdown at a very early stage, and we gained in many ways including successfully changing the trajectory of the spread of the virus. At a certain level we improved also and that is for everyone to see in terms of improved case doubling rate before and during lockdown and other parametres. We are at a position now where the pandemic is moving in a different stage. People are traveling, especially migrant workers, and the virus will also be traveling in a way. In Bihar, for example, we found many people under quarantine were Covid positive. It will be a variable situation that we will be grappling with and our focus should be on keeping it local.
The strategy that we need for Mumbai will be different from what we need for say Benaras. The real challenge is to know where we are lacking at the local level and address those gaps. Another challenge is to ensure we don’t overshoot our testing capacity, and keep increasing it to meet the demand. Then we must also focus on keeping our mortality rate low. That is crucial in our fight against Covid.
When will India see the peak of the infection?
There will be no single peak; rather different peaks in different geographies as things look like at the moment. The national curve is being driven largely by Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad. Earlier, modelers had predicted a free run for the virus but we managed to push the peak and also lowered it. When we are fighting the war we will have many more people getting infected; the game is to test, treat and track. We don’t know when the peak is going to be but we can works towards keeping as low as possible.
How do you see life changing once the lockdown is lifted?
What we expect now is that the fight against Covid-19 becomes a people’s movement. It’s our test to see how best life can be normalized, and yet the infection is contained, for which we need community participation. We are fighting without any weapon as there is no drug or vaccine against the disease currently, so behavior change is the key along with surveillance and medical infrastructure upgrade.