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With 19 nations, including some of India’s neighbours, recording coronavirus cases, questions are being raised about the country’s preparedness to deal with the disease. Mint takes a look at the plague outbreak in Surat to draw lessons on how to tackle an epidemic.

What happened in Surat in 1994?

A pneumonic plague broke out in Surat in August 1994. Preceding that was a bubonic plague in Maharashtra’s Beed district. Compared with its bubonic form, pneumonic plague spreads rapidly, and the plague in Surat caused widespread panic. The outbreak of the disease led to more than 200,000 people fleeing the city, making it one of the largest post-Independence migrations in the country. The pneumonic plague quickly spread to five states and the national capital Delhi. There were more than 1,000 suspected cases and the disease killed over 50 people across the country.

Graphic: Sarvesh Kumar Sharma/Mint
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Graphic: Sarvesh Kumar Sharma/Mint

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How did the govt deal with the disease?

Initially, varying statements from various authorities led to panic, prompting large-scale purchase of surgical masks and the medicine tetracycline. After the confusion, the government recouped and stemmed the spread by identifying cases and giving antibiotics. It also fumigated cargo, cleared ports of rats and spread insecticides over vast areas. With blame pinned on the Surat Municipal Corporation, the government shook up the body in 1995 appointing S.R. Rao as its new commissioner. He orchestrated the cleaning of the city by introducing punitive steps, and transformed it into the second cleanest city in India.

What is the situation with the current coronavirus?

The new strain of coronavirus that originated in China’s Wuhan has killed more than 100 people in that country and infected over 4,000 globally. It has now spread to 18 countries, including the US, France, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. In India, no cases of coronavirus infections have been confirmed so far, although some suspected ones have been reported.

What has been the Centre’s response?

The Centre is conducting screenings at airports and border areas. It has activated four labs of the Indian Council of Medical Research in Alleppey, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mumbai, besides the National Institute of Virology in Pune, for testing of samples. Guidelines have been released on clinical management of severe acute respiratory illness, surveillance on human infections and their prevention at healthcare facilities. It has also released a list of dos and don’ts for reducing the risk of coronavirus infections.

What are the lessons from the 1994 plague?

The 1994 plague is a classic case of how lack of coordination among government bodies can lead to panic and enable the spread of diseases. The Centre, state and local bodies need to coordinate better to identify potential cases. An epidemic will test India’s public health infrastructure too, as most states, especially in the north, lack adequate healthcare facilities. In 2018, a Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala was tackled successfully only because the Centre and the state government coordinated in quarantining infected patients.

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