Preventing coronavirus from spreading a challenge, says doctor

Commuters wearing masks as a precautionary measure following cases of coronavirus in the country. Courtesy: Raj K Raj

Containing Covid-19 is like waging war against an invisible enemy – everyone has to pitch-in and stop its spread, says Dr Naresh Trehan, chairman and managing director of Medanta-The Medicity. The hospital is treating 14 Italian nationals who tested positive for the disease.In an interview with Hindustan Times, Dr. Trehan spoke about the lessons learnt from the experience and how the government should proceed to keep the disease from spreading.

Italian tourists who tested positive for Covid-19 are being treated in Medanta. What were the lessons from the experience?

We had the facility to isolate them – air-tight capsules with independent air systems. But preventing the virus from spreading can be a challenge. It was a huge effort for us to contain the virus – we had to dedicate separate areas for everything, separate lifts, separate kitchen etc. In case the situation escalates, the way to deal with it would be to make arrangements en bloc. Not like 10 patients in one hospital and 14 in another. If that happens, they will keep spreading it to others. If you have a big facility, like 500 patients at one place, it will be much better because then the hospital won’t have to worry about anything except protecting the caregivers.This was done by China and Korea, who successfully contained the disease. And the places where they didn’t do it, it spread like wildfire.

We learnt a lot during the H1N1 pandemic as well. Everyone pitched in. We faced it and it went away. The mortality was just 2% and it was not a big catastrophe. It can be this way for Covid-19 too. Another thing we learnt was the way the caregivers reacted. They went in full steam – the doctors, the nurses, the technicians, the housekeeping staff – they took it as a mission to really take care of these patients. They have done an excellent job without flinching. If things escalate, our people are ready to serve.

Is there a better way of containing the disease? What needs to be done next?

The government has been pretty proactive in dealing with the situation – closing schools, clubs, gyms, pools, cinema halls. It is a very good thing. This will no doubt create a huge economic burden on people. Look at the hotel and airlines industry — they are going to come under severe economic strain. They may go bankrupt and become NPAs (non-performing assets) and then affect the bank. It will be a ripple effect.

But in the larger scheme of things, if we let the virus loose and hundreds and thousands of people get affected, then the country will come to standstill anyway. And, it will be much worse. Next we need to go down to the village level and see how we respond to the disease.

Is there a need to scale up Covid-19 testing facilities in India? What role can the private sector play?

In times like these, there can be irresponsible behaviour on the part of patients who demand to be tested and even establishments performing the tests commercially. If things get worse, you don’t know how many million tests you need to do and testing everyone may draw resources away from people who really need it.

This is a collective responsibility. There is an established criteria today, is there anything wanting? Till yesterday, I would have said it was wanting. We did not know what was going on in the community. But the government is now going to dipstick, testing people at random to check for community spread. That will be the first indicator.

If the numbers are really low or not at all, it will tell us that it is not time to do mass testing. If the yield of this test is very high then you may take a different approach. It has to be proportionally rewarding. There are 1.3 billion people, how many crores will you test? Is there even enough equipment, enough tests? Also, we have to consider national money.

If the situation changes, that’s when instead of keeping up with their own resources, the government might set a price and criteria under which private players may test. It should not be wanting, it should not be wanton.

How has social media changed the way we react to a pandemic?

Social media is on its own trip and that is not nice. Some of it is very irresponsible. But that is part of society today and we need to learn how to use it. But it is good in a way because information spreads faster. Even in the rural areas, I am hoping there would be more awareness.