Exclusive | 'As a species, we will prevail'

Updated: Apr 10, 2020, 07:21 IST | Anindita Paul | Mumbai

In a new book about the Coronavirus pandemic, three Indian medical experts attempt to dispel common misconceptions and lend some method to the madness.

Mumbai is one of the worst-hit cities in India. Pic/ Ashish Raje
Mumbai is one of the worst-hit cities in India. Pic/ Ashish Raje

AS India continues to be on the frontline in fighting the Coronavirus, one of the most formidable challenges emerging is the lack of reliable information — from misinformed assurances that the raging summer sun will halt the virus' spread to more dangerous beliefs about the virus only affecting the elderly, these misconceptions can not only be detrimental to the government's efforts to control the pandemic but also jeopardise personal safety. A new book, The Coronavirus: What You Need to Know about the Global Pandemic (Penguin Random House) attempts to shed some light on the nature of pandemics, including the present one. In doing so, the authors — Dr Swapneil Parikh, practising physician and founder of a healthcare start-up, Maherra Desai, clinical psychologist and medical researcher, and psychiatrist Dr Rajesh M Parikh — aim to sensitise readers to the threat of infectious diseases, while also discussing the social, economic and political implications of the present outbreak. Dr Swapneil Parikh, speaking on behalf of the authors, shares critical observations from the book. Edited excerpts:

The book draws a timeline of past pandemics. What are some of the key lessons we can learn?

The first lesson is that pandemics are inevitable — they have recurred throughout history, even more so in the past 100 years. For instance, the influenza pandemic of 1918 claimed roughly 100 million lives at a time when the population of the world was just 1.8 billion. The second lesson is that misinformation and panic contribute to pandemics. [The book recounts how the Hungarian obstetrician Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, even after presenting clear evidence about the importance of washing hands to curb the spread of infectious diseases, met with resistance from his fellow physicians. These physicians were offended at the proposition that gentlemen like them might have unclean hands! It took many years, and Dr Louis Pasteur to add credence to Dr Semmelweis's germ theory, and to give us one of the most effective methods of stopping the spread of COVID-19 — hand-washing]. The third lesson is that pandemics have not only medical but also social, economic and political repercussions. The reverberations of the plague pandemic from 600 years ago are still felt in Europe. We must understand that we're all in this together — we will prevail only when we understand that no one is safe if one of us is unsafe. We are only as strong as our weakest. To quote from the book, 'The bells that toll for COVID-19 victims in a village in Zimbabwe, toll for the senators in Washington just as loudly'.

Authors Dr Rajesh M Parikh, Maherra Desai and Dr Swapneil Parikh
Authors Dr Rajesh M Parikh, Maherra Desai and Dr Swapneil Parikh

The book highlights the efforts of other countries in curbing the pandemic. What can the Indian healthcare system and policy-makers learn from it?

There's only one formula — testing, tracing and treating. Nations that implemented these in time such as South Korea have controlled the pandemic. Those that did not, like the US, Italy and Spain, have succumbed to it. Some of the biggest challenges right now are inadequate healthcare infrastructure and inequity in the distribution of medical resources. For our policy-makers, the biggest challenge is coming to terms with the pandemic. This includes dealing with a virus that is two steps ahead and a public that is two steps behind.

There is a lot of uncertainty about the future. What is your advice for our readers?

Stay calm. About 98 per cent of the population either doesn't get the illness or experiences mild or moderate symptoms from which they recover. Keep in mind that worse pandemics have affected mankind in the past. As a species, we will prevail because we work together and solve problems. Cooperation is essential to keep death rates low.

The kiosk that matters

One of the biggest bottlenecks being faced by our healthcare system is the lack of adequate testing facilities, Dr Swapneil Parikh notes. "There is an urgent need to decentralise the process of sample collection. Currently, all sample collection is being done at Kasturba Hospital, which is overwhelming the system, and poses the additional risk of more people becoming infected." Dr Parikh and his team have installed a revolutionary mobile swab testing kiosk at the hospital. Such kiosks, he says, have been created as a contingency for the future when we don't have masks or protective gear, and must test not only a few thousand but millions of patients. The kiosks are equipped with air filtration systems, HEPA filters and plasma burners, and are among the securest in the world in terms of their containment capabilities. "The model currently being used in Kerala, and even the mobile testing clinics in South Korea, are simpler and function more as physical barriers," he points out. His team is working on optimising costs so these kiosks can be made available in large numbers across the country.

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