Prime Minister Modi in his recent address to the public, where he announced an extension of lockdown, discussed a number of efforts by the Central Government to contain the deadly virus. He stated how his government took swift decisions, such as making people returning from abroad to live in quarantine for 14 days and imposing pan-India lockdown when there were only few hundreds coronavirus positive cases in the nation. Although he compared India’s present situation with several other first-world nations hard hit by the the pandemic in terms of number of positive cases, and declared India’s position to be far better, he missed an essential criteria of comparison—testing.
Imposition of pan-India lockdown at an early stage is appreciable, but that is only a very basic step that the governments must take to contain the virus. Another essential yardstick to gauge the transmission of the Covid-19—testing—is clearly undermined by the authorities in India. When compared to other nations such as Italy, UK and South Korea, India is conducting far lower number of coronavirus tests. As per the recent data available, India conducted almost 161 tests per million people while Italy did 17,333 per million, South Korea 10,053, and UK 5,537.
Until India announced the lockdown, authorities presumed that there was no community spread and the virus is only contained by the people coming from abroad. However, this flawed presumption had direct consequences on the spreading of the epidemic. What followed the announcement of the pandemic was the mass migration of the labourers from the metro cities, which now have become the hotspot of the COVID-19 cases. Although there are no official reports present, but this would have resulted in the unintentional transmission of the virus to the peripheries from the core.
It is well known that India’s healthcare system has witnessed decades of low public investment that has denied majority of the people access to quality healthcare. The mobilisation of the migrant workers and limited testing has exposed areas to the spread of the virus where health infrastructure is miserable. Even if the Central Government supplies required number of testing kits to the states, the bitter truth is that there are not enough government laboratories to conduct the test at the required numbers. It is important to note that people can get tested for COVID-19 by private laboratories at their own costs, if they are not hospitalised. The cost price is ₹4500 per test which is far too expensive for the majority of India.
By virtue of having one of the best healthcare infrastructure in India, following the recommendations of WHO, Kerala conducted aggressive testing. As soon as the state traced its first COVID-19 case, it vigorously deployed rapid testing kits to contain the virus. Interestingly, it became the first state to report a coronavirus positive case in India, but because of the robust response by the state government, it has successfully ‘flattened the curve’. The state has recorded 388 coronavirus cases with three deaths, as on the date of writing. It would be good if other states could learn the methodologies that Kerala deployed to tackle the virus, but replicating the Kerala model in any other state would be difficult because of the ill healthcare infrastructure.
This isn’t a good time to spread bitterness; but in the case of India, truth is bitter, and truth must be spoken at any cost. The truth is, we are caught unprepared, and in a situation when we are incapable of testing people at the required rate, lockdown remains the ‘only’ option available to contain the virus. Having said that, India has proved herself as a capable nation every time it faced adverse situations. We have played an important role in eradicating smallpox from the face of the earth and we can do it again. It would be interesting to witness what role India plays to eliminate the deadly virus.