New Delhi: Now into its second week and having claimed its 17th victim, swine flu is proving far less infectious than that other malady: the hysteria over swine flu, which seems to have afflicted the country at large.
Even as the media has tracked each successive death, as masks have broken out like rashes in cities, and as people have started avoiding enclosed spaces, medical observers suggest the hype may be outrunning the ailment.
Mumbai mood: Disposable masks were spotted across the city--(clockwise from top) in local trains, at drug stores and outside schools. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
In Mumbai, following Pune’s lead, schools and colleges were ordered closed for a week, and movie theatres for three days; promptly, the share prices of PVR Ltd and Adlabs Films Ltd fell 6.4% and 0.2%, respectively. The Union government has bought an additional 30 million doses of Tamiflu, the antiviral drug; its tightly controlled earlier stock of 10 million doses has nearly been expended.
“They’ve had more than 400 deaths in the US, but do you see this kind of thing? No, they’re going about it practically, methodically,” says V. Ramasubramanian, a senior consultant in infectious diseases at Apollo Hospitals in Chennai. “We have to face the fact that it may last another four months or another four years. We have to face the fact that it may kill—but it will kill less than 0.5% of the infected population.”
Click here to view slideshow
The panic has already forced changes in both personal lifestyles and corporate agendas. From Pune, Nisha Sinh, a 29-year-old stylist, moved with her husband and 18-month-old baby Veer to Mumbai, to remain there till “things blow over”.
“With his lowered immunity, we didn’t want to leave him exposed,” Sinh says of her son. “Veer needed some vaccinations, but I called the doctor to see if we could postpone the shots. I didn’t want him to pick up anything at the clinic either.” In her apartment complex, Sinh adds, “birthday parties have been cancelled or postponed. There is a child in our building who has asthma, and her parents haven’t sent her down in the last month in the fear that she may pick up something”.
Perhaps inevitably, in reaction to the panic and to a lack of coherent guidelines, alternative remedies have begun to appear attractive. At least 1,300 people have visited the Go-Vigyan Anusandhan Kendra in Nagpur over the last four days, for instance, after it wheeled out its stock Ayurvedic supplement to “boost the immune system”: Panchagavya, made of ghee, curd, milk, cow urine and cow dung.
“The last time we saw this kind of response to Panchagavya was when there was the fear of chikungunya a few years ago,” says Suresh Dawale, secretary of the kendra, which has as its mission the establishment of “eco-friendly cow-centred economics”. In its liquid form, Panchagavya should be taken as four drops in the nose, twice a day, he says. “The virus enters through the nose, after all, so Panchagavya guards against that.”
Circulating text messages, meanwhile, recommend homeopathic drugs called Gelsemium 200 and Influenzinum 200, or drops of “Nilgiri Oil” applied to handkerchiefs and face masks. “The homeopathic remedies can boost the immune system and be preventive,” says J.V. Raman, a homeopathy practitioner in New Delhi. “But if the actual ailment does arise, these would be cures, too.” Raman admits that he has not seen the drugs at work for swine flu, simply because “I haven’t come across any cases of swine flu”.
This recourse to alternative medicine does not yet worry Ramasubramanian. “Right now, there is a shortage of screening kits and a shortage of medicine, so people will resort to these things, and you can’t blame them,” he says. “Even if they go to a regular clinic, the government won’t be able to handle them. Anyway, 99.5% of people will get better, so they don’t need to go to a clinic at all.”
Personal wariness and government regulations, particularly in Mumbai, have cramped companies’ plans over the next few days. Kaminey, the much-awaited film scheduled to release on 1,200 screens across the world on Friday, will now be deprived of its 100-odd screens on opening day in Mumbai, which Siddharth Roy Kapur, chief executive of UTV Motion Pictures Plc., admits is “a substantial amount for us”.
Another possible victim is Big Bazaar’s Maha Bachat sale, a five-day orgy of buying that began on 12 August and is expected to generate 25% of its monthly sales. “We have a national presence of 116 stores, so there could be a dent if certain cities don’t fire,” says Rajan Malhotra, president of strategy and convergence for Big Bazaar. “But in those cases, we would look at other options, such as postponing the sale or extending the duration. We are keeping all our options open.”
In Bangalore, technology firms have promoted one low-tech, but effective measure among their employees: gallons of hand sanitizer. Wipro Ltd has advised against unnecessary travel; Tata Consultancy Services Ltd’s employees in high-risk locations such as Mexico City have been asked to work from home; Infosys Technologies Ltd has urged workers not to come to work if they show symptoms.
“We have reduced all inbound and outbound travel to our Pune development centre and limited it to essential business travel,” one Infosys spokesperson said. Cisco Systems Inc., which employs 5,000 people in India, has issued no travel restrictions thus far. “It hasn’t reached a panic stage, but we are monitoring it,” says Varghese Thomas, head of public relations at Cisco.
But the show, thinks Shreesh Misra, will go on. “I believe people will still continue to come to malls,” says Misra, head (malls) at Pantaloon Retail (India) Ltd. “They are taking necessary precautions, some come in wearing masks, but they are still coming in. So in that sense, we expect footfalls to be the same, if not incremental over the long weekend.” Optimism, unlike Tamiflu, is not yet in short supply.
Radhieka Pandeya in New Delhi, Khushboo Narayan and Gouri Shah in Mumbai, Poornima Mohandas in Bangalore, and Bloomberg contributed to this story.