March 17, 2020 16:01:29
Over the past week, I have been getting regular messages from friends and family in Australia checking how I am coping with the coronavirus situation in India.
The underlying concern is that a developing country with well over a billion people and densely packed neighbourhoods must surely be feeling the fallout more than a wealthy nation with a robust health care system.
But to the surprise of many, India is doing relatively OK.
There are only 114 confirmed cases of coronavirus, notably fewer than Australia.
While hand sanitiser supplies are tighter than usual, there has been no panic buying, with plenty of food and toilet paper still available in shops and markets.
How can this be?
Since reports of coronavirus started sweeping across the world, India has been focused on one thing: prevention.
Here’s how India is fighting coronavirus
At the start of March, when India had just six active COVID-19 cases, the country effectively closed its borders to hotspot countries Japan, South Korea, Iran and Italy.
It took another eight days for Australia to clamp down on travel from Italy, but so far it has not imposed restrictions for Japan.
Then on March 12, as the number of confirmed cases passed 70, India hit the nuclear option, suspending the vast majority of visas from every country for at least a month.
@james_oaten India had already suspended most visas from all countries for a month due to coronavirus.
While Australia debated what constituted a “mass gathering” and Prime Minister Scott Morrison was still determined to see his beloved Sharkies, several Indian cities, including the capital New Delhi, closed schools and cinemas until April.
One-day cricket matches were called off.
Authorities confirmed the Indian Premier League would be pushed back at least until mid-April.
The city of Delhi banned gatherings above 50 people, and Mumbai shut down Bollywood and shopping malls.
‘Asian countries have been primed’
A fundamental difference between India and Australia, according to experts, is that many Asian countries have experience in dealing with the threat of a disease epidemic.
“Asian countries have been primed for some time now,” Professor K Shrinath Reddy from the Public Health Foundation of India told the ABC.
“You [Australia] have lost a bit of touch with infectious diseases.”
Over the past two decades, Professor Reddy listed a range of diseases as having “knocked at the door” of India, including H1N1 (swine flu), H5N1 (bird flu) and SARS.
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Swine flu in particular has been difficult to eradicate, and so far at least 28 people have died from the infection this year, compared to only two confirmed deaths from COVID-19.
The experience has reinforced the view in India that harsh responses might come at an economic cost, but they’re worth it.
“The economic cost of letting it run through the country like a blazing fire is much higher,” Professor Reddy said.
India was somewhat sheltered from the initial outbreak of coronavirus. Its tourism and education sectors aren’t nearly as connected to China as those of Australia or other developed nations.
If an outbreak did occur, India’s patchy health system could be tested.
And like the rest of the world, the number of coronavirus cases in India is likely underreported. How the situation continues to play out in India is far from certain.
But Professor Reddy said the coronavirus outbreak might represent a shift in global health, where developed countries can learn from developing ones.
“Over the past 30, 40 years, developed countries have been saying, ‘What can we do for you?'” he said.
“But now global health is [about] what can we do together.”