The government’s point man on the gravest health emergency confronting the world and India is Dr Harsh Vardhan, our very own Health Minister, a Chandni Chowk MP. A doctor himself and in the main an Otorhinolaryngologist, he has risen from a doctor to a well-regarded politician. Extremely soft-spoken, he has been a minister in the Delhi government and headed the Delhi BJP and was its CM candidate. Prime Minister has a special bonding with him. And as such he heads what has turned out to be the most sensitive ministry in these challenging times.
He also heads the Science and Technology and Earth Sciences Ministry. With the world witnessing the worst ever pandemic, Dr Harsh Vardhan has now been elected to head the WHO executive board. Arguably one of the busiest persons in the country currently, he took time off to speak extensively with IANS. Here is everything that you wanted to know about the corona virus, but were afraid to ask. Excerpts:
Q: What is the situation of the COVID-19 cases in India compared to other countries like US, UK and China? Some research is showing that deaths in tropical climes is only 6 per cent, will rising temperatures kill this virus?
A: In India, definitely, due to the timely decisions taken by our government under able guidance of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji, the situation is better. As on May 26, in terms of confirmed cases per lakh population, India has so far about 10.7 cases per lakh population as against global average 69.9 cases per lakh population, 486 cases per lakh population in USA, 390 cases per lakh population in UK and 5.8 cases per lakh population in China. Further, in terms of case mortality per lakh population, India has so far about 0.3 deaths per lakh population as against a global average of 4.4 deaths per lakh population; 29.3 deaths per lakh population in USA; 55.3 deaths per lakh population in UK and 0.3 deaths per lakh population in China.
As I have been saying all along and which has also been informed by various studies, there does not appear to be any correlation between the rate of infection and atmospheric temperature. The spread of COVID-19 outbreak around the world does suggest a preference for cool and dry conditions; although it is worth noting that the virus has appeared in countries with a wide range of climates, including hot-humid ones. The low death rate of COVID-19 in tropical countries compared with the Western world could be due to various reasons such as lower population density, younger average age of people, and lesser number of international travels in tropical countries as compared to Western countries.
Q: You have been saying that people have to learn to live with the virus. How is it possible for the government to implement the task of distancing and yet continue the process of opening up? Is it Catch-22?
A: I say that with my experience. This new virus, SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID- 19, has an incredibly fast rate of spread, but at the same time, it has a low fatality rate. In fact, in India it is due to complete lockdown as well as focus on augmenting public health infrastructure that has placed us in a good stead and helped contain the fatality rate. However, it is too early to say when the virus will be completely eliminated. Just like any other virus which remains in populations and ebbs over time, this virus may also become part of our lives in times to come.
Given this uncertainty, we have to find ways and means to enable us to restart our social and economic activities that have been brought to a standstill due to the lockdown. We should remember that lockdown has not been an easy decision. This is because socio-economic and psychological costs are associated with it. Despite this our Hon’ble Prime Minister took the decision of complete lockdown as we had to prioritize lives of our citizens.
Today, when we are fully prepared to tackle the spread and have made our best efforts to tackle the disease, we are mindful of the fact that this lockdown, this fight has impacted the livelihoods of a large number of our people. We cannot let our economy slow down as it would be catastrophic in the long run. That is why to reboot our economy, our Prime Minister has brought this economic package of Rs 20 lakh crore.
Moreover, with every new phase of lockdown, we have been opening up the economy. We are starting activities in such a way that the relaxation allowed does not interfere with the containment measures and a balance is achieved between containment measures and the activities allowed.
Moreover, unlike previous viruses, we need to remember that this corona virus spreads through lack of observance of personal hygiene and maintaining physical distancing. So, these should become part of our lives to check not only the spread of this virus but other similar infections in future. In fact, this would spur us further to develop innovative and safer ways of interaction with each other in the society.
The onus of maintaining this balance also falls on all of us. Each one of us has to follow all necessary guidelines and advisories issued by the government from time to time in true spirit — use of face covers, regular hand washing, cough etiquettes and use of sanitizers both at home and workplace regularly is essential. Crowded places and gatherings need to be avoided. Let us follow our Prime Minister’s clarion call of eJaan Bhi Jahan Bhi’.