Getting it right on Covid: Surging infections is not surprising given the complacence

By: |
September 16, 2020 3:15 AM

Equally worrying is the shortage of oxygen. Maharashtra has decided to retain 80% of the oxygen produced for local use—from 50% earlier—thereby restricting exports to other states.

The secret of Kerala’s early success in containing the pandemic lay in effective contact-tracing when it was able to track 35-40 persons per patient.The secret of Kerala’s early success in containing the pandemic lay in effective contact-tracing when it was able to track 35-40 persons per patient.

While the government has done well to prevent, going by its narrative, around 14-29 lakh infections and 37-78,000 deaths thanks to its lockdowns as well as augmenting the health infrastructure, there is today a severe shortage of both hospital beds and ventilators in major infection areas. While the Union health minister Harsh Vardhan spoke of the number of dedicated isolation beds going up by 36.3 times and dedicated ICU beds by nearly 25 times since March, the facilities in several cities are woefully inadequate. In a hotspot like Pune, for instance, there are no spare ventilators in either government or private hospitals, and very few ICU beds are now vacant. Moreover, 86% of hospital beds are occupied at a time when the city is reporting close to 2,000 new infections every day. In Mumbai, too, only 6% of the total number of ventilators are now available for new patients, and 94% of the ICU beds are occupied; this is worrying because the city has seen a resurge in infections with the caseload jumping 15% in the first 12 days of September. It is now likely several sick people may be turned away from hospitals.

Equally worrying is the shortage of oxygen. Maharashtra has decided to retain 80% of the oxygen produced for local use—from 50% earlier—thereby restricting exports to other states. News reports say both Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka are facing a shortage of oxygen. Given that even in June, the serosurvey had suggested a high national prevalence of 0.73%, the preparedness should have been of a much higher degree. Creating health infrastructure is actually the job of state governments, but if the Centre is taking credit for the hike in capacity, it has to face the flak for the shortages. Besides, giving more funds from PMCares may have made creating extra capacity easier for the states.

In this context, the efforts at both testing and contact-tracing have fallen short of what is needed; the Aarogya Setu app, which was launched in April, could have been used far more effectively and not enough has been done to create awareness about it. The secret of Kerala’s early success in containing the pandemic lay in effective contact-tracing when it was able to track 35-40 persons per patient. After the initial rigour, contact-tracing seems to have lost momentum; some states are barely tracking 14-15 people per infected person, many even less. Perhaps hiring volunteers to do the job would have worked better than deploying existing municipal or government staff since the latter have been overloaded with other responsibilities. This can still be initiated. Also, both the Centre—and states—need to roll out awareness campaigns to push citizens to use the Aarogya Setu app and also enlist the support of telcos to ensure more downloads. The cost of putting a few thousand youngsters to work is minimal, but the efforts can be very rewarding. Rather than remaining complacent about the fatality rate being only 1.7%, we need to create more healthcare facilities; else the infection curve could stay steep.

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