By Ramesh Shankar, Associate Professor, University of Connecticut.

Fear of Coronavirus is causing people to over-react

Many instances of public over-reaction are emerging:

  • In New Delhi, landlords are forcing doctors to vacate homes, fearing that doctors are carriers of infection

    “Medical staff in the national capital New Delhi say they have been ostracized and discriminated against by their communities due to fears that they may be infected after working with coronavirus patients. Some doctors have even reported being evicted, or facing threats that their electricity will be cut off.”

  • Airline pilots and staff are also facing ostracism, because people are suspecting that they might be carrying the virus.

  • Villagers are barricading their villages to prevent outsiders from entering.

These over-reactions on the part of people are symptoms of a deeper cause - lack of information on who is infected and who is not.

Lack of information forces social distancing

The reason we are now asking everyone to observe social distancing, is because we don’t know who is infected and who is not. If we could carry out testing on a massive scale, we can identify who is infected, and quarantine only those people, rather than everyone.

Social distancing in its various forms is happening on two levels: one is government-mandated, at the national level. This hurts the economy, but is necessary in the short run.

The other is private, individually driven social distancing. Examples include landlords evicting doctors and pilots, and village folk taking matters into their own hands and barricading their villages.

Lack of information will also cause people to ask their domestic help and drivers to not show up for work. These workers don’t have much savings, and depend on their daily labour for their livelihood. These workers are therefore staring at economic hardship in the near future.

Social distancing will hurt the economy

If people lose jobs, construction projects will stop because people won’t have the ability to buy homes. Construction workers will lose their daily wages. Manufacturing will slow down or stop due to social distancing, because (a) employees will not be able to commute to work, and (b) there will be reduced demand.

Identify who is infected. Quarantine and treat them.

The solution to this problem is aggressive testing of large numbers of people, as well as contact-tracing. If a person is identified as being infected, we also need to quickly identify and test all their relatives and friends with whom the infected person has had close contact recently. This is known as “contact tracing”. With aggressive contact tracing, it will be possible to identify and isolate individuals and community clusters that are infected.

Until we can do massive testing and contact tracing, we will have no choice but to enforce large scale social distancing, where everyone self-isolates themselves, because we don’t know who is infected and who is not.

Clean public and private spaces. Daily.

In addition to identifying people and places that are not infected, it is also important to keep public and private spaces disinfected. Hospitals, trains, buses, malls, parks and other public places need to be cleaned and disinfected with bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and other disinfectants known to kill the coronavirus. This cleaning has to be done on a daily basis.

Doing so will instil confindence in the public that our society as a whole is taking steps to stay clean and virus-free. This will also reduce the spread of the disease.

Hire a large temporary cleaning workforce

The government immediately needs to create a large workforce that will go about in every city, town and village, and disinfect public and private spaces. This workforce will need to be hired by the Government, and trained to carry out tasks such as cleaning and wiping handles, rails and floors in public spaces. The workforce could also be used to clean individual homes in clusters where infection is detected.

Guess who can be hired to staff this cleaning workforce? Yes, all those daily laborers, maids, manufacturing workers, and other informal sector workers who are currently out of a job because of social distancing.

How to assemble this workforce

Immediately, the government should announce the formation of a National Public Health Agency (NPHA). They should identify job descriptions - cleaning and disinfecting, information production, assisting hospitals and Covid patients, and so on. Anyone who wants to, should be immediately able to join this organization, get trained, and start their job, cleaning and disinfecting Indian society. Existing government offices, public sector banks, government schools and other government buildings could be converted to venues for hiring and training this NPHA staff.