Fear among people is real. Governments have added to it with their knee-jerk reactions and utter panic, which has made many governments run around like headless chicken.
But a dispassionate look at the past and the context might help clear the air. As many as 57 million people (570 lakh) in all, says the World Health Organisation (WHO), died in 2016 due to natural causes, ailments, accident or violence. But even the most pessimistic projection of fatalities caused by COVID-19 does not put the number of likely deaths beyond a couple of lakhs.
It is now known that over 80 per cent of COVID-19 patients display only mild symptoms and can recover at home. That only five percent of the patients develop complications and may require hospitalization and that the elderly, already suffering from various ailments, are more likely to succumb.
What’s more, it is useful to note that seasonal influenza at global level is associated with about 0.5 million (5 lakh) deaths. Until late 2017, the WHO estimated that seasonal influenza globally caused 250,000 to 500,000 deaths. Another estimate put deaths from respiratory causes alone between 290,000 to 650,000.
But draconian measures being taken to deal with the coronavirus can also increase the number of deaths by disrupting livelihoods, food security and access to treatment of non-coronavirus diseases and health problems. Millions of people are already unable to access medicines and emergency medical care (including at childbirth). A mental health crisis including a rise in cases of suicide is also looming over us. Hunger and malnutrition, anxiety and depression can affect people’s immunity, with people deprived of fresh air and sunshine.
If all these reasons give rise to a 10% increase in the global mortality number in 2016, then we are staring at 5.7 million (57 lakh) deaths, way above the death toll that the coronavirus is projected to cause (2 to 6 lakh).
So, is the cure being prescribed worse than the disease?
Landlords are throwing out tenants who are medical professionals, convinced that doctors and nurses would bring back the dreaded virus from the hospital to home. Returning migrant labourers are being ostracized and treated like lepers. While Indians are yet to take to social distancing at temples, mosques or even at grocers (Kerala is an exception), social distances have grown with people reluctant to meet others.
Few Governments have been able to calm people’s nerves and come up with systematic action plans. In most states of India, the pandemic is being treated like a law-and-order issue and police, themselves terrified of catching the infection and angry at having to deal with people on the streets, have taken to thrashing people out on the streets. In Uttar Pradesh, they have promised to deliver FIRs for any violation of lockdown at home!
COVID-19 undoubtedly is a serious threat, but it should not be dealt with at the cost of disrupting life and livelihood, food security and access to non-corona related healthcare.
A balance needs to be stuck. Let us take all possible steps to arrange for necessary equipment, medicine and protective gear. There should be no let-up on this. We need to move ahead in all these areas together with all hands on the deck.
But reports from several parts of the world suggest that Governments have been unable or unwilling to maintain this balance. Predictably because of the disruptions, the poorest and the most vulnerable have suffered the most. Unless policies and economic revival plans are geared by keeping the poor in mind, a greater tragedy could be waiting for us.
(The writer is journalist, author and convenor of Save the Earth Now Campaign (bharatdogra.in)