Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Why we could all be sitting on a covid powder keg with its fuse lit

Some days ago, a close friend’s live-in domestic help began coughing. The next day, my friend’s wife developed a fever. It was obviously time to get tested. Now, to get a test done, you need a prescription. Their general physician wrote a prescription after prolonged pleading. The doctor confessed that he had been told by the authorities to go easy on prescriptions. The reason given was that the testing infrastructure was under pressure, and the “well-off" could misuse the facilities and flood hospitals, depriving the deserving poor of medical care. In fact, the doctor thought that he may have already issued too many prescriptions and could get into trouble, because the government was watching. This is not unique to the city where my friend lives. I have spoken to people in several cities and the story is much the same, except in Bangalore.

A private laboratory sent a man over to my friend’s home to collect the samples, and mailed the results two days later—the tests were positive. Within hours, the health department pasted a notice outside their home stating that the house was under quarantine. Meanwhile, my friend’s daughter, who was studying abroad, had arrived. The family wanted her tested, but now the labs said that they would have to wait four days. Four days later, all the labs told them that they could no longer give a time-frame for when the test could be conducted. They had also stopped sending their people to homes to collect samples. Those who wanted tests done would have to visit the labs. This, obviously, is not possible for any member of this household, or other families living in the same building, since it is under quarantine. The government has also made no attempt at contact tracing.

What should be clear now is that state governments do not want people to be tested. Doctors and labs have been sent the message. After all, if you don’t test, you can’t have any cases, can you?

For instance, Delhi conducted 12% less tests in the week of 2-8 June than in that of 26 May-1 June. This, while the number of confirmed cases rose 34%, and deaths rose 67%. And about one in three people being tested currently is turning out to be corona-positive. Obviously, unless you are very sick, you are not allowed to test. And in many cases, you are already too sick to be saved.

On 11 June, Hindustan Times quoted Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal saying that the city will need 150,000 beds by the end of July, up from around 11,000 currently available (state, central and private hospitals). On the same day, The Times of India carried a report that 70% of Delhi government hospital beds (total 4,360) were empty. There is a big contradiction here. Because, every day, we see accounts of people who went from hospital to hospital—including government ones—trying to get a sick family member admitted, and failed, and watched them die.

And I am not talking about only Delhi. This is mostly because hospitals will not admit unless the patient tests positive, and sorry, we can’t do the test now, come back tomorrow, the test result will take two days to come, and we’ll think of admission after that. What is going on?

What’s going on is that states are in competition to flatten the number-of-cases curve. So they have raised the drawbridge right at the first stage: testing. Clamp down on prescriptions, so you have a lower number of tests, so patients cannot be admitted, and if some of them die, so be it, or you manage it at the death certificate level—the man may have died of covid, but if he was not tested, the certificate cannot mention covid as cause of death. Meanwhile, bodies are stacking up in hospital morgues, and crematoriums and graveyards cannot cope with the rush.

In the last three months, India has moved from brute force (shut the nation down at four hours notice) to confusion (what do we do with migrants?) to acceptance (we’ll have to live with covid) to denial (let’s pretend that the epidemic is ebbing).

But the rising fatality rate in some states—the number of deaths as a proportion of the number of confirmed cases—gives the game away. We are now doing about 145,000 tests per day, but if the news reports about companies producing test kits at a breakneck pace are true, we should be capable of testing three times that figure. But many state governments are slowing down on tests. Politicians and top bureaucrats, of course, can get tested and find a hospital bed whenever they want.

Which makes me believe that we could be sitting on a powder keg with its fuse already lit. Just try to imagine the number of people with mild or latent symptoms who will find it very hard to get tested if they want to, and may be moving around in your immediate neighbourhood right now. And most of them are the “well-off". What about the rest of India who may never be able to convince a doctor to write a test prescription?

Meanwhile, my friend’s family is wondering how, when they think they have recovered fully, they can get a test done to confirm that they are now well. They are not allowed to step out of their quarantined homes, and the city’s labs are not sending anyone over to collect samples. And thus the Kafka-esque scenario is complete.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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