Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pep talk on the COVID-19 crisis was many things at different levels, but fundamentally a warning to the people on how things could get much worse, particularly if the necessary precautions are not taken at the individual level. The Janata Curfew announced for Sunday is a step towards preparing the nation for the situation that might emerge if the virus spreads from primary carriers to community transmission. The government has, from the very beginning of the problem, upgraded its response in a phased manner. This is why the number of cases and deaths remains low, thus far, particularly in comparison with countries like Italy, Iran, even the US, where the necessary steps were not taken in time.
India, however, remains greatly under threat if only because of the size of its population and its relatively poor health infrastructure, which could get easily overwhelmed if there is a surge in the number of cases. Unfortunately, the awareness level among even the supposedly educated classes – who are the carriers at the present – is so poor, and their actions so irresponsible, that there is absolutely no room for complacency. Experts also point out that the virus caught on very quickly in Italy because of the closely-knit multi-generational families, like India’s joint families, with the younger lot transmitting the disease to their parents and grand-parents. The Prime Minister has emphasised the need for the elderly and children under ten to be isolated from contact with others. This advice should be taken seriously and the well- meaning young generation would do well to steer clear of their elders.
One of the reasons that the virus did not sneak up on India was also because, for a variety of reasons, Indians do not have the level of interface with China as do many other affected countries. The government was quick to withdraw as many of its citizens as possible from virus hit countries, which may have prevented them from catching the disease.
The only thing that can now take the problem to the much feared next level is irresponsible behaviour by the citizens. Owing to India’s varied culture and social stratification, there are natural firewalls that probably have prevented the virus from spreading. It is possible that the higher temperatures could give it a shorter shelf life. If, however, people take to social distancing in a big way, the minimum level of transmission required for its spread could be averted. In statistical terms, this means each carrier needs to infect at least 2.5 persons. It is imperative, therefore, for everybody to simply stay clear of each other. Shaheen Bagh warriors please take note.