Three recent developments in the war against Covid-19 pandemic in Telangana are highly worrisome. First is the surge in cases itself to 12,349 forcing several traders in Secunderabad and Hyderabad to pull down their shutters till July 5. Next is the temporary halt called by government to testing of samples to clear the huge backlog. Finally, Health Minister’s Eatala Rajender’s litany of complaints against private testing laboratories ranging from giving false positive reports to exposing their own staff to the virus.
A calmer reflection of the situation shows that a little more foresight and preparedness would have gone a long way in averting this situation. The government had four months to satisfy itself about the expertise of staff and standards of testing in these NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) accredited and ICMR- approved labs.
Health authorities are brazening it out with alternative facts and numbers to wriggle out of this chaos. They say cases were bound to increase when more tests were being conducted and that some private labs were indulging in pool testing and declaring the entire cluster of samples as positive instead of conducting the more accurate RT-PCR (real-time polymerase chain reaction) tests.
Something is fatally amiss if, after four months into the pandemic, we are debating the merits and procedures of testing while traders impose curfews having lost faith in the government’s ability to enforce social distancing. To jog our collective memory: testing on a mass scale provides insight into the impact of the disease over time and by location; it provides data useful in forecasts of disease spread and resource allocation.
Today Telangana has fallen behind other States in three key parameters. Data gleaned from the Ministry of Health last week shows that the mortality rate was 3.84 per cent against the national average of 2.87 per cent. The positivity rate between June 10th and 23rd was 18 per cent (Hyderabad City 30.6 per cent), below Delhi’s 23 per cent. Only 1,713 tests were conducted for one million population compared to 14,049 in Andhra.
Only Bihar which conducted 1,424 tests per million population was worse than Telangana in this aspect. Yet, Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao expresses confidence that being a rich State, Telangana will overcome the crisis. If prosperity was the answer for disease control, America would not be having 2.52 million cases of Covid-19 and 1.27 lakh deaths.
Leaving aside the effectiveness of a State’s affluence in managing a pandemic, the importance of stepping up testing cannot be overemphasised. Strangely, opinions are voiced in the higher echelons of government urging people not to get tested and to not overburden the system unless they have symptoms of corona. Now, all cases of corona do not come with classical symptoms of cold, fever, dry cough, ache and pains, diarrhoea, breathlessness and loss of taste/smell. A large number of cases are asymptomatic. Delhi and Andhra Pradesh have addressed this dilemma by resolving to screen their entire populations.
When corona cases started with a trickle in March, an impression gained ground that Telangana was first off the blocks in confronting the virus. Somewhere along the line, the government lost the plot due to changing priorities. Official briefings on corona virus turned into a dribble. Whenever the mainstream media is starved of authentic information, rumours and half-truths have a free run as social media takes over.
It now turns out that there was a woeful lack of testing kits and personal protection equipment (PPE). Though these are easily available in the open market, it took the files 75 days to navigate the bureaucratic maze for authorisation to purchase. In this maze, the fundamentals of tackling corona — testing, tracing, treatment and tracking — took a backseat. This was a vital lapse as one positive case can infect upto 89 persons.
Moreover, it was only a month after the High Court green-lighted private laboratories that the government issued guidelines for testing like fixing tariffs and reporting back the positive cases. On top of it, the COBAS 8800 machine for testing the samples was shifted to West Bengal by the Centre leaving Telangana high and dry.
The health authorities apparently pulled up their socks around June 18-20 after Union Home Minister Amit Shah cracked the whip on the Kejriwal government and virtually seized the management of the pandemic in Delhi. The deputation of a third team by the Centre confirmed these fears.
The government has to shed the syndrome of Hyderabad’s image as an investment destination getting dented if it is criticised. How can social media posts be demoralising but not the beating up of doctors, lax security at hospitals, poor stipends of junior doctors and long working hours. These actually are the reasons for the dull response to the government’s advertisement for recruitment of doctors.
Studies have confirmed that there is a better chance of survival for patients infected 3-4 months after outbreak of the pandemic than those in the initial stages because of better knowledge about the virus’ behaviour and the way existing drugs, including the humble aspirin, can help in treatment. As they say, it is better late than never.
(The Author is former Resident Editor of The Hindu and opinions expressed are personal)