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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | A scientific temper is our best hope against a health disaster

This is necessary to gauge the true scale of the infection and contain its spread within the country

The new strain of coronavirus is indiscriminate with cruel efficiency. It does not spare the rich, the poor, the religious, the atheist, those from this country or that, the meat eater or the vegan. Yes, older people are more vulnerable. As are those who travel are more likely to get exposed, but the “travel" need not be across the ocean; a bus commute from home to work might do.

Working from home is good advice for jobs that can be performed from home. Being a virus carrier is not a crime, and staying at home if you pose a risk to others is prudent. But staying at home is not an option for everyone. The domestic help is as likely to be a victim as a carrier from any of the multiple homes where she or he works. The bus driver, the clerk stocking a warehouse, the nurse tending to patients, the postal worker, the hair-stylist, the sewage cleaner or the waiter at a café are more vulnerable, for they don’t have the option of working from home. Those who are paid daily or are on temporary contracts risk declines in income.

Governments are wise in banning cross-border travel and preventing large gatherings of people. But allowing domestic travel, or exempting their own citizens from travel bans, reduces the effectiveness of these measures. Smart companies have anticipated administrative steps and acted before the governments. Indian authorities have begun to respond, but there seems to be a lack of urgency, bordering on unnerving complacency, and their messaging is contradictory. Indians take solace in the fact that the number of infected patients in the country is low, but that may be because few Indians have been tested. Italian and American figures were also low once.

Outrageous assertions have been made linking India’s current low figure with diets or other cultural practices. India needs data. Early detection through testing will reveal the extent of the problem, isolating and quarantining those who show signs of being infected will help slow the spread, and treating them early will return them to good health. Where the virus originated is not relevant.

India is lucky not to be the epicentre. While praising how China handled the outbreak, Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist often credited with coining the term Brics for the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, said, “Thank God this didn’t start somewhere in India, because there’s absolutely no way that the quality of Indian governance could move to react in the way that the Chinese have done; that’s the good side of the Chinese model." Had China been a democracy, with a government accountable to its voters, with an independent judiciary and media, it would not have been able to contain reports of the outbreak, which would have allowed a far quicker response, and O’Neill was wrong in disregarding that Chinese failure. But he had a point on India’s governance. His remarks enraged nationalists, though, who spoke of low penetration and spread, measures taken at airports and ports, and the easy availability of cheap medicines. But unless India tests more people and finds out the spread, such assertions offer only palliative value. Talk of cheap medicines is meaningless when there is no known cure, and when there are serious questions about the quality of some of these medicines.

The government must stop sending confusing signals. It has correctly tested some airport arrivals, and state governments have ordered malls and cinemas to close, but the virus won’t infect only the better off. It will also affect the devout in mosques, temples, or churches. Stopping crowding is the key, as Shruti Rajagopalan pointed out in this newspaper this week. Like all curbs on civil rights, restrictions should be time-bound, specific, proportionate to the threat, and with judicial oversight. A government that often invokes Section 144 to prevent “unlawful assembly" should be able to stop religious processions, political rallies and weddings. Yet, grand events with thousands of invitees continue to be held, and the Delhi administration exempted weddings from proscribed large gatherings. The Ram Navami Mela at Ayodhya is going ahead, too.

In India, the problems begin with rules and get magnified with the myriad exceptions that bureaucrats create to lessen the inconvenience they and the class to which they are beholden would face, and to assert authority over those who are dependent on their signatures and permits.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken sensibly about relying on doctors, nurses and technology, and urged a collective approach, including with India’s neighbours. But a few of his party legislators seem in a parallel universe, extolling bovine excretions to build immunity, suggesting that yoga can be effective in combating the virus, or arguing against meat, even as some citizens extol the properties of Indian spices. Some of these idiosyncrasies are harmless and irrelevant, like a union minister invoking “Go Corona" with the Chinese consul-general, but others are grotesque and even harmful, if people think they are sufficient. At a time when every effort should be made to promote a scientific temper, India cannot afford to live in a mythical past.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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