In a country riven by fractures, the coronavirus disease has introduced a new one. In the absence of a cure or a vaccine, masks and social distancing (even isolation) are the only ways to stay safe. And four months and a bit into the pandemic in India, it is clear that there are people who can afford this — they work remotely; their children learn remotely; they even socialise remotely — and those who can’t. I say “they” and “their” but it should be “we” and “our” — if you are reading this column, chances are you probably belong to the minority that has seamlessly (but perhaps not entirely painlessly) been pulled a decade or two into the future. This is the how-will-life-be-in-2030 school assignment (due in December 2019) in all its masked reality.
In the first phase of their response to the virus, everyone rushed to lock down. This was the right decision, and backed by science. Countries that didn’t do this — Sweden is an example — have paid the price. In Sweden’s case, for instance, its number of deaths per million of population is much higher than that in many other countries (including the US), and the latest numbers suggest that its economy will contract significantly, indicating that its approach, once touted around the world, was flawed.
In the second phase, as the infection curves began to flatten, or as countries became confident that their health care systems were primed to handle the pandemic (despite the number of cases continuing to rise), everyone rushed to open up. India is one example of the second — a country that opened up despite the number of cases continuing to rise (and quite sharply at that); in the first seven days of July, the country added 157,122 cases, 21.2% of its total case tally.
This, too, was necessary. The economic costs of lockdowns were beginning to hurt. It was also clear that countries could open up, provided they ensured everyone wore masks, practised social distancing and hand-hygiene — and if they continued to test aggressively. India has continued to open up without doing enough tests (although it has increased testing significantly), and this column has repeatedly called for it to test more, something that experts say is possible. Many of them who spoke to Hindustan Times said that India could conduct a million tests a day if it put its mind to it.
Science and data, this column has repeatedly pointed out, should drive our response to the coronavirus disease. If this isn’t always the case, blame it on the uncomfortable relationship between the two on one side, and politicians on the other. The President of the United States appears in public without a mask, and many of his followers, who know no better, emulate his example.
Science now tells us that the Sars-CoV-2 virus which causes the coronavirus disease can be airborne, especially in closed spaces. The World Health Organization finally accepted earlier this week that the virus may be transmitted over air; the New York Times quoted Dr Benedetto Allegranzi, the head of WHO’s committee on infection prevention and control, as saying that this was a possibility in “crowded, closed, poorly ventilated settings”.
This is very different from what we knew previously — that the virus was largely transmitted by coughing or sneezing, exhalations and expectorations. It means the virus can stay for hours in the air in closed environments.
This knowledge (which perhaps explains why the virus is highly infective) should form the basis of the third phase of our response to the coronavirus disease — yes it’s that significant. It calls for a review of what can be allowed to open, and what can’t (schools, for instance). It means offices that have just reopened, or are considering reopening, should have the right kind of air filtration and circulation systems, and also ensure that workers are socially distanced and masked. Yes, masked. Wearing them in the workplace may be the safest and surest way of getting back to work.