By Sambit Dash*
Worldwide spread of a new disease – a pandemic. A very rare event in one’s lifetime. And if you are reading this, you are living through one. What makes the coronavirus pandemic different than earlier ones is the radical connectivity that the world sees today and along with it the mind boggling amount of information we consume. Misinformation too. A huge challenge in India’s ability to face this pandemic will be in handling this misinformation which coupled with a poor scientific temper in society makes for a dangerous cocktail.
Notwithstanding what the UK is thinking regarding their approach to coronavirus pandemic, it has now been accepted that ‘social distancing’ is a method to delay the spread of the virus. Sadly, a large number of people either do not understand or even if they do, do not accept it. I have anecdotes of well-read, seemingly level headed individuals asking what good is it if it does not stop the virus, or what will be achieved if a few practice it.
Perhaps the messaging has to change. Perhaps they have to be told that social distancing is to delay the spread because if the hospitals start getting overwhelmed then it would be equally difficult for them to visit their general physician, say for a bad diarrhea.
The state of Indian healthcare is no secret to anyone who has encountered it. It sounds like a movie when experts describe how China had fever clinics, where WBC count came in half an hour, CT of lungs got done in another half and then depending on clinical condition patients were quarantined in hotels, stadiums converted to wards or sent to hospital. If the people who test positive were to double every 3 odd days in India, it is anyone’s guess where we are going to land.
Then there is information the interpretation of which becomes misinformation. While it has been shown that the elderly, and those with co-morbid conditions are at a higher risk, and the younger if affected recover, it is in no way indicative that the young can afford to not follow the directives of quarantining. Pattern of positive cases in South Korea, where testing (this aspect needs another piece) has been widespread shows that the younger age group sees higher infection as well, who are potential spreaders, laying the case for social distancing more strongly.
While those who understand the science will scoff at the theory that Indians have better immunity and thus will fight this pandemic off, this theory is bought hook, line and sinker by a vast majority, again the well-read and seemingly level-headed ones. I better not embark on international embarrassment of gau-mutra warding off coronavirus and all those conspiracy theories of biowarfare, etc.
A lot of information needs nuanced understanding. Why soap is effective in disrupting the lipid bilayer (cell cover) of the virus, why exponential rise will overwhelm our limited capacity, why heat of Indian summer might do nothing to stop the onslaught, why India cannot test like South Korea or afford new FDA approved test by Roche in the US, why it is safe to eat chicken, etc.
The way forward in addressing these communication craters is more and effective communication. The communication should happen and in high frequency from political and medical leadership. Kerala has shown the way. Leaders like PM Modi, Chief Ministers, ICMR DG Dr Bhargava, Heads of premier institutes like AIIMS, should take it on them, in a strategic fashion, to lead the communication.
The aim of communication in these dire circumstances should be firstly to communicate basics clearly. The phone message was an effective step in that regard which has perhaps gotten a lot more people to wash hands. FSSAI director’s message that non-vegetarian food is safe was a welcome step.
Secondly, it should aim to convey the true picture. India’s healthcare capacity cannot bear, say an Italy like situation and thus the need to enforce stricter social distancing methods. Presenting facts is the best way not to create panic among people. Thirdly, to communicate by doing. While Karnataka has a ban on large public gatherings, the CM attended a large wedding on Sunday. It is only by action of leaders in political and social life that public will take the message seriously.
A lot about this pandemic is unknown. How it will play out in India is unknown. But we can only be prepared. We can be on the side of science. We can make effort to shed the anti-science culture that we are faced with a pandemic. We can try to have a nuanced understanding, simple explanations are always available. We can communicate more effectively and to more number of people. The Indian war on this pandemic will depend a lot on the information consumption that the Indian society is doing.
*The writer is a senior grade lecturer in Department of Biochemistry of Melaka Manipal Medical College.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.