The increasing number of COVID positive cases, at last count a little over 200, should be worrying. The question on everyone’s mind is, how was this allowed to happen. The phrasing of this question is important. It is not how did this happen, but how was this allowed to come about. The earlier ascribes no agency to anyone, while the latter demands fixing of responsibility. We know that the virus has no local origin, therefore its occurrence here would have to be via people returning home form places of high COVID occurrences in India and abroad. Since not too many people from the state are frequent international travellers, quite obviously almost all of the early COVID cases would have to be from other Indian cities where there are plenty of migrant workers and students from the state. If all of those who entered the state were screened and quarantined as per standard operational procedures, SOP, all routes of somebody carrying the virus slipping past the screening should have been sealed, and if some did slip by, there would have to be a lax somewhere in the chain. The only way the virus could have begun a local transmission without anybody directly responsible is if the test kits were not accurate enough and some carriers of the virus had slipped past the screening because the test on them showed false negative. Let us first make clear our caveat. We are not necessarily blaming our frontline workers. We all have seen they have done a commendable job and spared no effort within their command to ensure no possible carrier left the quarantine centres before the virus exhausted its life cycle and perished.
Rather than our health workers, it is quite likely the culprit is the irresponsibility of some among those returning. For the requirement was, even after official quarantine period, those returning back to the state were to undergo voluntary home isolation for another two weeks, just to ensure even in the case of a positive person testing false negative, the virus remained contained. It is quite likely many did not take this seriously. The important thing to note here is, even a single person carrying the virus mingling with the community can cause a crisis. South Korea’s infamous Patient-31, is an example of this. This 61-year old woman who brought the virus from a travel to China, was the 31st COVID positive patient in the country, but when symptoms of the disease began showing, she refused to be tested, probably prompted by her affiliation to an obscure sect of Christianity which considered illness as sin. She pretended all was okay with her and continue freely mingling with her community, including attending two huge Church services, until she became too ill and had to be hospitalised. South Korea’s meticulous contact tracing established that the original source of about 80 percent of the country’s COVID cases point to this woman as of early March. Anybody can Google search “Patient-31” to get a fuller detail of this outrageous but instructive story. In other words, even a single irresponsible person can be the cause of the entire society’s misfortune. Remember also that the contagion spreads in geometrical progression not arithmetic, hence a single person’s irresponsibility can result in hundreds of thousands infected in no time. Manipur problem now is likely to be the consequence of the irresponsibility of a few who had been exposed to the virus. Despite numerous appeals, and even a government edict forbidding ceremonial public gatherings, with casual unconcern, if not wilful defiance, there are many who still have no qualms about organising these gatherings and feasting. The public in Manipur seriously needs to remind themselves of South Korea’s Patient-31 and what she did to her society. Wearing face mask in public, social distancing and refraining from leaving home unless absolutely necessary, are not a matter of bravery or timidity, but of the ability to shoulder responsibility towards the greater common good of the society.
There is yet another meta flaw on the part of the Manipur government in tackling the new situation of initial community transmission. As several health experts have pointed out on numerous forums, lockdowns are not an end in themselves, but the means to an end. Lockdowns from this vantage is a matter of the government buying itself time to reassess its strategies of defeating the spread of the disease and stockpiling necessary arsenal for the fight. A lockdown under no circumstance is a silver bullet to kill the COVID demon. This is so, one, because a lockdown cannot be forever for that would simply mean choosing between death by the disease or by mass starvation. Two, no lockdown can be watertight, especially now after the elapse of five months of varying degrees of lockdowns having completely exhausted the population, especially the poorer sections with little means to keep their family hearths burning without their daily wages. But it is not too late yet. Now that community transmission seems to have begun, the government must move fast to comprehensively trace all contacts. As of now, the contact chain probably has not gone beyond the secondary, or at the most tertiary stage, therefore it will not be altogether impossible to identify all who may have contracted the virus, and then to get them tested and quarantined. If the spread goes beyond the tertiary stage its expansion would become exponential and given the resources of the state, things may very well go beyond its capacity to control.
It is also disturbing to see government hospital closing down on discovery some of their staff COVID positive. It is true they do need to prevent further spread therefore the time to strategize and must be given time for it, but we do hope these closures will not be indefinite or recurrent. They must treat this as the occupational hazard of their profession. Every occupation has their own shares of these hazards, as for instance, right now there are thousands who have lost their jobs and livelihoods on account the virus. There are also soldiers losing their lives in border skirmishes or militant ambushes. These occupational hazards must be minimised to the extent possible, even eliminated if possible, but nobody, especially those in the organised job sector, in this case the health business, must forget they are licensed by the government as a public service. Just as a war cannot be abandoned midway because the challenges are getting tougher or because there have been some casualties, the government must find ways to ensure this does not happen in our health services while the COVID war lasts. If a way out is not found, this would amount to an abject surrender, and with it, a devastating defeat. The government must ensure all safety measures within its command are provided to health workers. Instead of silly, premature awards just to earn applauses from the gallery, as happened in an early stage of this fight when the first COVID patient was discharged, it could instead initiate handsome COVID health insurances for our frontline workers against any possible health accidents and misfortunes in the fight. This insurance should cover all health workers, in the government as well as private sector throughout the duration of the COVID fight. The government should above all listen to the grievances of our frontline health professionals and address them adequately and reasonably. If necessary, it must even be prepared to divert funds from other less urgent projects to meet this emergency. This fund should also be used to ensure at least survival rations are provided for the poorer section of the society, should further extensions of the lockdown become necessary. Having done this, it must invoke the Disaster Management Act 2005 to ensure nobody shirks duty during this fight, or flouts COVID SOP. Let it be noted that in the military, desertion from the battlefield is deserving of the black warrant, and here too, the negative incentives must be made a strong enough deterrent to ensure compliance to battleplans. We have to win this war, and for this, everybody will have to stand together.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author