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Coronavirus: After My Experience At The Airport, I Think The Worst Is Yet To Come

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On March 18, 2020, I arrived back from San Francisco in a 22-hour flight, with more than 150 Indians, and went through the screening process at the Delhi airport. I was shocked to see how a number of people, likely infected with COVID-19, were let go. Screening officials checked for three things:

            1. Self-declaration of 3 symptoms: Fever, Cough, or any Respiratory Distress.
            2. Travel history
            3. Thermal screening (To check for fever).

If a person had declared any symptom or had a travel history to a country with an outbreak, or was found to have a high temperature, they were held for further investigation. Otherwise, they were let go.

80% of the people infected develop only mild symptoms such as cough, fever and sore throat. Fever is easy to detect with thermal screening but fever doesn’t happen to all, and when it happens, it also varies from person-to-person. Therefore, thermal screening finds only a small portion of infected people.

Coughs and a sore throat require a deeper check-up, which the screening officials were not doing. They relied on self-declarations. Here’s the problem with that. I had counted 30+ people in flight who had a cough, including me. However, at the end of the screening, I saw only a handful of people being held for further investigation. This meant that a vast majority of people chose to probably be dishonest with their declarations.

These people, who were able to pass the screening, could have been exposed to Coronavirus, and therefore, they would become carriers and spread the virus.

The problem with self-declaration is that people do not self declare for whatever reasons. The person closest to me, who was coughing frequently, chose not to declare too because he had a connecting flight to Ahmedabad and he wanted to skip queues. When I tried to reason with him, he was dismissive of the threat from COVID-19. Screening officials should not rely on self-declarations. They should do deeper investigations.

In India, the health system is not prepared for what’s about to come. Representative image.

It was also important to enforce self-quarantine for all 150 passengers. In a 22-hour flight, with people sharing a dense space and flight attendants being a significant source of mixing, even if 1 person was infected with Coronavirus, it is likely that they must have infected other people. To what extent? that depends on the number of sick people to start with.

Then, 3 factors could determine the spread of Coronavirus: in-flight mobility of people, hand and mouth hygiene, and how contagious a person is, which varies as symptoms get more severe. Worst case scenario is all 150 passengers were exposed to the virus. If this was the case, then all 150 will develop symptoms in the 14 days. If they are not quarantined then they start spreading it in the community as they come in contact with other people. The screening officials completely failed to even advise a 14-day quarantine to people who passed the screening. I had a mild cough and I was told that I could go. No one recommended a home quarantine or a test or social distancing. I was told to call the government helpline if I develop any symptoms and that’s it.

At the Delhi airport, no one had hand sanitisers or masks available for incoming travellers. No one advised people to keep a distance from each other. We were all cramped in the queue. This seems to be a common problem, where people on Saturday had to wait for 11 hours at the airport. All these factors add to the risk of spread in the country.

In India, the health system is not prepared for what’s about to come. Coronavirus is like a supercharged UV light and people are like flies, ignorant and under an illusion thinking that the Coronavirus can be dealt with easily. It is only when it is too late, when they are too close, they will pop, burst!

The fatality rate of the Coronavirus is about 3.4% on average. 15% of people will need some kind of hospitalisation because of being in critical conditions. It spreads exponentially and the coming weeks have the potential to devastate the lives of people. A lot of people could get infected instantly, overwhelming our health systems because of lack of beds, ventilators, masks and so on.

Photo by Amarjeet Kumar Singh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

India’s population density is 3 times more than China and it is rampant with inequalities that make social distancing very difficult. The economy is slowing down, businesses are adapting by allowing people to work from home. This helps but there are people who will suffer the most. The daily wage labourers, the poor on the street, the maids, the poor who are reliant on everyday income (about 100 million). Without something to float their boat, they won’t be able to practice being distant. They will bear the unproportionate burden of survival. They will get exposed, and might just expose others.

Many will die, not because of a deadly disease but because of a deadly economic and social inequality that will leave them powerless to support themselves, helpless to seek healthcare in an already stressed health care system.

Then there will be health care workers who would be at risk from high exposure and fatigue. They are the ones who have the power to reduce the number of deaths. And the numbers can be staggering. Globally, 20% to 60% of people are expected to get infected. For India, this means 200 million to 600 million people. Estimates by an expert suggest that around 2 to 2.5 million people could die because of the healthcare system’s inefficiencies. If we improved the efficiencies and if we enforced people to stay away from people, stay at home, we could save 1 to 1.5 million people.

What is most important to figure out now?

  • How to enforce social distancing and home-quarantine for people?
  • How to support the most vulnerable, the economically weak, the health workers, and the elderly?
  • How to innovate the health systems to reduce inefficiencies? That is, removing financial and medicinal constraints for people, reducing equipment limitations and helping health workers’ lives to remain stable, functional and healthy.

Please comment with your thoughts and recommendations on how to improve.

Created by Aakash Dhingra

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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