Back to the pandemic to plan ahead
Two years ago, on January 31, I was at a party to celebrate my sister-in-law’s 60th birthday. My brother and their two daughters had done everything to make it a memorable event. We chatted late into the evening while eating and drinking, until someone mentioned the “Chinese virus” which was rapidly infecting people and killing many. It was quickly postulated that China, while trying to destroy us Indians, had inadvertently infected its own people. Ha-ha.
Two years ago, on Republic Day, Brazilian President Bolsonaro was the guest of honor at a ceremony of pomp and grandeur; five women motorcyclists and their team wowed the crowds; there were many other acts of glory, as there always are, on Republic Day.
A month later, I was sitting in my clinic wearing my facial fig leaf, soaking my hands in alcohol-based hand sanitizer and lecturing my puzzled patients about the danger of the new virus. I canceled holidays and neighbors’ house calls; apart from a few provocative outward forays, I confined myself to the home and the clinic. Two years later, I am still wearing the fig leaf and respecting the precautionary measures while praying hard that this third wave too will end. I need not dwell on the course of events over the past two years, except to stress the absolute necessity of recording every detail of those years, for posterity. So that we, and the generations after us, can look afresh at the blight and devastation, applaud the triumphs, accept the failures and rethink the future. Forgive me then for turning the pages back while watching and planning ahead.
Two years later, we are still suffering. Children are confused and depressed by the monotony of online classes, doctors and nurses are physically and mentally exhausted, the poorer sections of our society are struggling with unemployment and severe deprivation, the rich are bored and are apathetic, celebrities can’t believe their on-screen antics aren’t a priority at all; and the country’s VVIPs are disappointed to have to postpone their jet-setting for mega events and global conferences that come to nothing.
As with every crisis, there are lessons here for everyone. Consider what they might be — for us as citizens; for the medical profession; for the government.
Does every citizen bear a responsibility? You bet. During the first phase of the pandemic, we made many mistakes, some small, some gargantuan. We have not taken proper heed of the fundamental measures that we have been repeatedly told to follow. Even the leaders wandered around without a mask. If we had all diligently followed basic precautionary measures, it is certain that more than half of the more than 4,000,000 deaths in our country could have been prevented. The basic preventive measures of masking, distancing and hygiene remain the most effective measures to combat the virus.
Medical professionals have worked hard, struggling to cope with the strange situation in which, for terrible months, only Covid patients dared to go to hospital, because the risk of going to the hospital seemed bigger than not going there. The number of doctors, nurses and other health professionals who have lost their lives in this process is difficult to estimate.
The government did what it knows how to do: pretend. Enough said about it, the hasty reactions, confusing signals and ensuing catastrophe. Unfortunately, those most affected were those without adequate resources. We had to watch worthless spectacles like lighting lamps, beating thalis, raining flowers, playing music – like Nero, when lives burned for lack of the most essential commodity, oxygen.
After retiring as a surgeon a few years ago, I work in an independent clinic in my small rural town. Most of my work now comes down to general practice which I have come to enjoy. With no advice or direction, I took the only option – to find out about the new killer. Online medical information helped me understand the pathology and course of the disease; discussions with colleagues helped me set up my own protocol while using the guidelines issued by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences as a point of reference. I have found that a timely antibiotic, antihistamines, ivermectin, immunity boosting vitamins and minerals and sometimes other anti-inflammatories like colchicine and diethylcarbamazine are extremely helpful in treating mild to moderately serious. It was indeed possible to avoid a serious outcome in all but a few patients who required hospital care.
It is urgent and imperative that the medical community come together to plan an effective strategy to deal with future crises like this. This means we need hospitals/services/medical personnel who can be on the front line with immediate effect. For this, the government must take the necessary measures after talking with medical experts. We must emphasize the absolute necessity of such critical short-term medical management. This is the time for us to come together, so that our voice is heard.
For every Indian citizen like you and me, it is a good day to reflect: ‘reflection’ is to ‘look at yourself’ in the mirror with an unwavering gaze. Like what you see? Well. Be who you are and carry on. It’s aptly called “streaming along”. Go with the flow with no questions asked and society will rock you there. But if you can look in the mirror and ask yourself some bold questions, you might find some answers.
India is at a critical juncture: a small percentage of us are living in comfort and ease while others are struggling to live in modest dignity and many millions are struggling to meet their basic needs for food and of shelter. Additionally, climate change will soon dictate its own terms, we cannot afford to be unprepared. My own hopeful chant for Republic Day to avert future disasters is: Plan ahead. To prepare. To prevent.
This column first appeared in the print edition of January 27, 2022 under the title “Plan, prepare, prevent”. The writer is a surgeon and author, most recently, of A Luxury Called Health (Speaking Tiger)