As on March 8, 2020, the World Health Organisation has confirmed that worldwide the number of those afflicted with COVID-19 has exceeded 100,000. Over 4,000 people have died, while a more cheering, and not-often quoted statistic is that 64,000 people have actually survived it. In India the numbers are small – just around 40 or so infected, while in Chennai it remains reassuringly in single digits. It is claimed that warm or hot weather, something that we are blessed with, inhibits the spread of the virus. Chennai may therefore not be vulnerable. On such theories we rest. But this is still a good opportunity to reflect on whether we are capable as a city to handle such pandemics.

The WHO communique reminded “all countries and communities that the spread of this virus can be significantly slowed or even reversed through the implementation of robust containment and control activities.

China and other countries are demonstrating that spread of the virus can be slowed and impact reduced through the use of universally applicable actions, such as working across society to identify people who are sick, bringing them to care, following up on contacts, preparing hospitals and clinics to manage a surge in patients, and training health workers.”

Are we doing this? Thus far Chennai has kept a tight watch on the airport – most cases have been identified here. The immigration has a not-very-impressive arrangement with a couple of people keenly watching those coming in. This may not be effective. Body scanners have not been utilised on all days and the process, when manually done, is quite slow. The airport is managing to the extent it can and hospitals and health centres have been instructed to report all suspicious cases for further investigation. That is to the good. But what about railway stations and bus terminals? There is no monitoring of any kind there. While COVID-19 may not warrant such precautions at least right now, can such entrepots become screening points in case such a situation is warranted in future? It boggles the mind to even contemplate people being screened at suburban railway stations, leave alone the Central and Egmore but that is what will be demanded in case there is a pandemic.

Next, what about spreading awareness on hygiene? True, the Centre’s Department of Health has issued a directive that all cell phone calls be preceded with a message on this subject but it is presently in English, which many people may not even be aware of. Secondly, it asks people to call a Delhi number for clarifications which most people will not do. Messages in Tamil is the need of the hour and this can be safely entrusted to the health department of the Corporation of Chennai and also the State’s Health Department. People need to be educated that surgical masks are not the best remedy and maintaining clean hands are far more important. This the administration has not even begun communicating. Taken overall, while a Government need not spread panic, it can at least be proactive. Of course, we can take comfort in the fact that no other State of India appears to be geared up also but then are we not supposed to be the leaders in healthcare? It is best to quote again from the WHO’s communique on what is expected

Pic taken from Daily Thanthi

“Allowing uncontrolled spread should not be a choice of any government, as it will harm not only the citizens of that country but affect other countries as well.

We must stop, contain, control, delay and reduce the impact of this virus at every opportunity. Every person has the capacity to contribute, to protect themselves, to protect others, whether in the home, the community, the healthcare system, the workplace or the transport system.”

This applies not only to entire countries but to constituent States and cities. Chennai needs to realise its responsibility. Where are the centres to which we need to report if infected? Are they capable of handling a sharp rise in cases – something that we have seen in other cities and countries?

Lastly, can we please stop dithering on policy? The latest announcements have asked for closure of malls and theatres in border districts. This excludes Chennai, which in case the authorities did not notice, is a border district and probably has more theatres and malls than all the other districts put together.

Let us also not forget that we pride ourselves in being the medicare capital of India. What if we bungle this?