What ‘Learning to live with the Virus’ means, when the pandemic is on the rise?

The Central Government was pretty confident that locking down the nation will help to check the spread of Coronavirus infection. This belief is manifested in NITI Aayog’s study published on April 24

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Representative image
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Harshvardhan

“Learning to live with the Virus” seems to be the new mantra of the Central and Delhi Government as they have failed to contain the spread of COVID-19 pandemic through their ill-planned, ill-conceived and ill-managed lockdown.

The prime minister shared this noble wisdom with his fellow Indians during his last televised address about a month ago. Even before the prime minister shared his wise counsel, there were rumblings about this wisdom. In one of his press conferences in last week of April the Joint Secretary to the Health Ministry had said that that “we need to understand that we have to learn to live with the virus”. Next it was turn of Delhi Chief Minister to say the exact same words. Even one of the captains of IT Industry Narayan Murthy said the exact same words i.e. “We will have to learn to live with the virus”.

At the outset it might seem that these motivational advices given by our political leaders is a practical and necessary appeal to revive economic activity as it has come to a grinding halt following the lockdown. This has put the lives and livelihood of many at risk. But if we dig a bit deeper, this appeal made by the government leaders to adjust with the pandemic is an admission of Government’s failure to control the spread of COVID-19.

The Central Government was pretty confident that locking down the nation will help to check the spread of Coronavirus infection. This belief is manifested in NITI Aayog’s study published on April 24 which said that the lockdown had effectively flattened the curve and the number of new COVID-19 cases will come to an absolute zero by May 16. On the contrary, from that day on, the number of new cases have only increased. On May 16, India had 5,049 new cases, and after exactly a month, Indian is reporting more than 10,000 cases per day, i.e. the numbers have doubled!

In fact the number of COVID-19 cases saw a sharp jump from the last days of second lockdown. On April 30, India reported 34,866 cases. On May 12, when “learning to live with the virus” was announced as a policy, the total number of cases jumped to 74,331 i.e. a jump of 213% in just 12 days! On May 16 - the day on which NITI Aayog predicted 0 new cases, the total number of cases increased to 90,650. On June 16, i.e. after a month from the NITI Aayog’s predicted ‘Victory day’, the numbers stood at 3,43,026, i.e. a jump by 378%! In a way NITI Aayog is the symbol of the government’s monumental failure to understand the whole situation.

So given that the number of infections are increasing on daily basis, what does ‘learning to live with the virus’ means when we are going through gradual relaxation of lockdown which has been fancifully named as Unlock 1?

Does it mean that as economic activities will resume, people will have to continue to follow the rules of physical distancing, wear mask, and maintain a hygienic workplace and lifestyle etc.? But weren’t people going to do it anyway? Even if the predictions of NITI Aayog had materialised, and there were no new cases, the sheer panic which has ensued in the wake of the pandemic would have compelled people to follow the above-mentioned rules.

PM’s advice that the nation should “learn to live with the Virus”, must also be analysed in the context health infrastructure in India. If anything, the pandemic has exposed the state of healthcare in India to its bones.

According to a recent study, India had a total of 25,778 government hospitals, with 7,13,986 beds i.e. 0.55 bed/1000 persons, 35, 966 ICU units and 17,850 ventilator units. There are 0.8 doctors per 1,000 persons and 1.7 nurse per 1,000 persons.

The story of healthcare infrastructure in rural India is nothing but the story of scarcity. There are shortages of doctors, pharmacists, lab technicians, nursing staff, and medicines at all levels. Currently the shortage at primary healthcare centres in terms of human resources is around 22%, while at the level of community healthcare centres its is around 30%. Apart from shortage of health infrastructure, there is also a massive shortage of protective equipment for healthcare staff.

This shortage and abysmal condition of public healthcare in India makes perfect sense as the amount allocated to healthcare is just 2.2 % of the 2020-21 Union budget.

The private sector which is costly and thus out of the reach of the poor lower middle classes has a greater number of hospitals (43,487), number of beds (11,85,242) and doctors. Recently few private hospitals have also started charging their patients to cover ‘additional’ expenditure involved in treating patients by wearing PPE, gloves and masks, screening of patients with infrared thermometers, use of disinfectants and sanitizers etc. Few hospitals have brought out their rate lists and health packages which costs anywhere between 25,000-75,000 per day.

Considering the fact that number of cases are increasing alarmingly and if lockdown is and the current state of Healthcare is not capable of handling the situation, it was expected that a significant portion of the 20 lakh crore economic relief package which was announced by Prime Minister and then presented by Finance Minister will be devoted to improving the already strained healthcare in India. Instead, the government allotted a meagre amount of Rs. 15,000 crore to healthcare which is less than 0.75% of the total economic package. The government has virtually abandoned public healthcare system in midst of pandemic!

Also, the government hospitals in certain hotspots like Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad are overflowing with patients. As priority will be given to cases suspected of COVID-19, the non-COVID-19 regular patients, most of whom come from poor sections are going to suffer.

In this overall scenario, the question which should and must be asked is; ‘how can we learn to live with the Virus’- as leaders of our government want us to- if there are not enough hospitals, doctors, and quarantine facilities? How can people go about their daily lives if people don’t have assurance of having access to adequate and affordable healthcare? Does it not amount to putting ourselves and our dear ones at risk?

(The author is a JNU PhD scholar)

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