New Delhi: The unprecedented and unfamiliar ‘life and deat’ crisis that the corona pandemic has created in the perception of the people at large in India, is throwing up a new challenge of dealing with mass anxiety that seemed to be growing in this long haul. Since it is the efear of the unknown that had the most unsettling effect on any ones sanity, dissemination of right information about the character and pattern of spread of the virus has to be kept up through news bulletins, government hand outs and interviews in credible media at this point of time. Circulation of unauthentic warnings and scare stories on social media has become a malaise and informed citizens should stop forwarding these messages.
It is not known widely enough that the corona virus is not a living organism but a protein molecule that can mutate and multiply fast on reaching a human being — by way of a droplet from an affected person penetrating through the skin, throat or even the ear of the new individual — or wait on a surface for a limited time to be picked up on touch of hand and then make it to the body. The virus cannot be ekilled’ through medication — simply because it is not a ‘living’ entity — but can easily be made to degrade and destroy itself ‘if left alone’. It follows therefore, that hand hygiene against a surface touch and keeping safe distance from another human being who could be in an asymptomatic phase — unknown to anybody — and who would leave droplets in the air, are early precautions that had to be understood and practised. This is the essence of how ‘social distancing’ — a term that is perhaps still too mysterious for many and not a mere upshot of common sense that it really was — is to be used as a weapon to defeat this ‘enemy’.
Unfortunately, social distancing is being taken as ostracisation or social stigma — much like a response that an infectious ‘disease’ such as tuberculosis produced in the olden times — primarily because the narrative whipped up on this pandemic is all couched in negative expressions that drew that parallel. Quarantining a suspected ‘carrier’ meant physically separating the individual from others for a scientifically calculated period and not declaring the person as an ‘untouchable’. ‘Isolation’ is not putting the individual in a closed cell — in fact the person should have access to natural free air all the time — but rather keeping him or her at a certain distance with the latter’s consent. Many experts feel that there was too much of an ‘information outburst’, mostly negative, by way of a mass of warnings that only painted a dismal future without clarifying how the danger could also be easily met. They think there should be a balance between the abundance of information flow and the highlighting of certain well-defined precepts that all could understand and adopt to deal with the health hazard staring in every body’s face.
It is particularly important to tell the people that a simple cough and cold should not cause panic as the sign of corona virus infection lay in the combination of dry cough, temperature and difficulty in breathing. These symptoms should lead to immediate testing at one of the assigned centres and hospitalisation wherever necessary — in the knowledge that these facilities were available on call. There are concerns about medical facilities. Hopefully, the issue of inadequacy of these arrangements is being tackled on a note of urgency. People ran into panic initially because an assurance of state-backed facilities being made available free , and promptly, to any helpless citizen, was not forthcoming immediately.
What has greatly helped to put people in a frame of mind that would not be all pessimistic, was a clear mention by the Prime Minister during his announcement of the 21-day total lockout on March 24 that medical aid would be made available wherever necessary during this enforced ‘social distancing’. The bigger anxiety of people at the mass level on account of scarcity of essential commodities and loss of earning for an indefinite period came to the fore as was natural and the prompt intervention of the Prime Minister subsequently, assuring the citizens that there will be no shortage of food and other essentials and that they would have access to the same, did have a sobering impact. The Modi government is moving with alacrity — Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has on March 25 announced a Rs 1.7 lakh crore scheme to help the economically weaker sections since the loss of jobs and income resulting from the corona outbreak would put them in jeopardy. She made it clear that the government priority at this point of time was to consider the poor and declared that ‘no one will go hungry’ — adding that ‘other concerns would be considered separately’.
This is an extremely commendable step as the spectre of hunger was beginning to loom large on many sections of the poor and the weak. The government has to take note of the unemployed workers making their way back from the city to their villages traversing long distances on foot along with their families. Apart from widening the aura of distress these movements could make the rural side up north a shade more vulnerable to the corona virus. The administrative and police machinery of the states is going to be tested for its efficiency in providing access to the people to the food stores on one hand and delivering food to the doorsteps of the poor rendered totally helpless, on the other. Stray cases of policemen indulging in wild behaviour like destroying vegetable stock of vendors show once again that officers at some places had not given proper briefing to their subordinates. This should be noted.
The economic dislocation felt by a large chunk of India’s population on account of the lockdown and the probability of the undercurrent of fear, pessimism and psychological stress peaking in the days to come are the two aspects of the nation’s life that would need special attention. Finance Minister’s timely initiative takes care of the first. It is the second that calls for innovative responses. Indians have experienced the shutdowns forced by wars in the past but the corona pandemic has directly exposed everybody to the fear of life in a manner where the threat was perceived to be imminent but was neither predictable nor well defined. This is the time for mental health specialists and clinical psychologists to come forth to give to the people at large a message of assurance — rooted in communicable knowledge. A few cases of desperate acts reported in media are early indicators of the possible breakdown of mental health that could overtake many individuals. A young man brought to a hospital for testing committed suicide out of sheer depression, another young man fled from the house — where a family member had been tested positive — to save ‘his own life’ and an elderly person went insane thinking of his grandson stranded abroad in a corona affected country.
Information that strengthens the belief of the people about the country pulling through this crisis will help. India’s data on corona virus can legitimately be interpreted in terms of the chances we have of defeating this ‘enemy’ through the resolve of the people and the pro-active measures of the central and state governments. Misgivings about health and jobs will persist but the way out is to bend government and private effort together and establish the line of sanity in the thinking of the people — that a united endeavour guided by knowledge, frugality of lifestyle and trust in the government, would ultimately succeed in putting India on top of the situation. India needs to maintain a fine balance between the analysis and assessment of the threat and the collective defence being mobilised for protecting every individual against it. May be the worst is still to come but the right course is for all concerned, including the citizens and the State, to opt for a total effort to keep the threat away and not succumb to complacency.