COVID-19: If we don’t test, we won’t know

COVID-19: If we don’t test, we won’t know

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on Thursday was aimed at calming public apprehensions over the spread of coronavirus in the country. In addition to urging people to maintain social distance, he has announced a 14-hour ‘janata curfew’ on March 22. This could be a drill aimed at preparing the public for total lockdowns in the coming weeks. While Modi’s calming words are welcome, his silence on India’s strategy, which has come under fire from the World Health Organization as well as public health experts in the country, is worrying. Unlike the WHO, which stresses the need for aggressive testing of people for the coronavirus, India has adopted a conservative testing strategy. Only those who have returned from abroad in the past 14 days or those who are in contact with them or those who show symptoms of Covid-19 are being tested. The latest guideline expands this ambit to those with Pneumonia. This testing protocol is flawed as in many cases people do not show the symptoms at an early stage.

India’s argument is that community transmission of the coronavirus is not taking place as yet and hence there is no need for aggressive testing at this point. However, as WHO has pointed out, tracking the disease’s spread within community clusters isn’t possible without mass tests to identify who is infected. Without aggressive testing we are “fighting a fire blindfolded,” it has said. Proponents of India’s strategy of restricted testing say that WHO’s suggested approach of mass testing will trigger panic in India.  This may be true but panic can be fought through transparency and robust action. Our current approach is one of denial. It is said that India does not have enough testing kits, hence the restricted testing approach. This is untenable. The government must make the effort and find the resources for what needs to be done.

So far, India has tested around 12,426 people. That is just 9.2 tests per million people. Compare this to South Korea, which until March 18 had tested 2,95,647 people or 5,729.6 per million. At one stage of the coronavirus outbreak, South Korea was struggling with the worst outbreak outside China and cases of Covid-19 soared. Its aggressive testing helped identify infected persons, and isolate and treat them. Over the past few weeks, South Korea has stabilised the spread of the infection. Taiwan and Singapore, too, have been able to contain the spread through mass testing. India needs to draw lessons from their experience. There is a danger that the virus may be spreading through the community without our knowing it. India should not put off mass testing for the coronavirus until its community transmission becomes obvious. It may be too late to start then.

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