By Dr. K. Javeed Nayeem, MD
Thanks to modern technology, for the first time in the history of mankind after the Deadly Plague of 1918, we are staring into the eyes of a pestilence which can perhaps prove to be deadlier, if we do not tackle it on a war-footing. I say this because today the spread of any disease for which we do not have either prevention or an assured cure is facilitated and hastened by our rapid globe-trotting way of life which did not exist a century ago.
To recap what happened then, let me first clarify that though it was called the Deadly Plague then, it was not the real kind of plague caused by bacteria and which is spread by infected rat fleas. It was actually an outbreak of viral influenza called the Spanish Flu, very similar to what we are seeing today in different hues like Swine Flu, NIPAH, SARS, MERS and certainly not unlike the present day COVID-19 infection.
The Spanish Flu was actually the first of the two pandemics caused by the H1N1 Influenza Virus with the second one being the Swine Flu of 2009 exactly ninety years later. It wiped out a quarter of the world’s population between January 1918 and December 1920 by killing an estimated 5,00,00,000 people.
The exact geographic origin of the infection was never known and simply because Spain happened to be a neutral country during the First World War which had just ended then, it was conveniently labelled the epicentre; the heavy price it had to pay for not taking part in the madness that had afflicted a greater part of mankind then!
The close quarter living in military camps and the mass movement of troops across the length and breadth of a greater part of the world helped the rapid march of the infection across the globe. The disease killed people relentlessly in every part of the world with as many as twenty million people dying in India alone.
A second and more lethal wave of the pandemic was followed by a complete and spontaneous decline in its onslaught which can be explained by the propensity of all viruses to mutate from less lethal strains to more lethal ones and vice-versa. While it lasted, it killed more Americans than the two World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars and America’s present military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan all put together.
But this earth-shaking pla-gue quickly faded from public memory because of other global events like the resurgence of the global economy after the Great War and then the commencement of the Second World War itself. We are right now fighting the present day great plague which has arrived in the garb of the Coronavirus and it is time now for us to fight it right if we have to succeed in stopping its march.
While our Governments both at the State and the Centre seem pretty serious in galvanising us all into action we the people seem to be in no hurry to respond and react. I say this because most people do not seem to have understood the seriousness of the problem which is exactly why I have started this article on a rather grim note to make them understand what happened once and what can happen once again if we are not careful.
Reports say that life has slowed down in Bengaluru with the streets showing a much lesser density of traffic, I see no such thing here in Mysuru. The cinemas and malls may be shut but people are continuing to throng the shops, cafes and restaurants as usual.
My friend who runs a high-end lab in the city called up yesterday to say that there was no drop in the footfalls in his lab which suggested that most doctors were practicing as usual, seeing all routine non-emergency cases and prescribing the usual routine lab tests for them. Even at the cost of losing valuable revenue which was coming to his doorstep he was of the opinion that we doctors should stop seeing and sending patients to labs who did not really need immediate treatment.
Although I stopped seeing non-serious patients in my consulting room, I was experiencing some difficulty in turning away the ones who come pleading for a prescription one last time. The result is that I have now entered into a state of complete self-quarantine from practice!
I think the time has now come for doctors to be permitted to suggest remedies for trivial problems to their patients through WhatsApp and SMS messages. The Government should take immediate steps to permit this in public interest and withdraw the ban that exists on it now. That way we would be enhancing our much needed social distancing measures.
The most important agency that promotes cross infection is the mass air-conditioning that exists in most of our office spaces today. We have completely destroyed and eliminated the concept of cross ventilation from our work places and all people healthy and unhealthy are forced to breathe the same foul air over and over again which can only mean mass suicide in times of viral pandemics like the one we are now facing.
All offices should follow the good example set by Infosys, the software giant, in sending most of their trainees and workers home in the interests of public safety. The Government should immediately order all similar establishments to ensure that their employees work from home. If some of them cannot ensure this, they should be asked to shut down their operations temporarily.
It should also suspend all forms of air-conditioned mass transport like buses, trains and the metro, especially where people travel rubbing shoulders, hips and even noses! When most of the office-goers themselves are asked to remain at home, the stopping of the metro will not make any difference to the few people who have to be present at work places like hospitals, banks, hotels and Police Stations. Travel from one place to another, even by any mode of personal transport should be restricted and monitored closely.
When the rest of the world has done it very effectively, there is no reason why we should not be able to do it too before we begin to regret our inaction. The time to act is now. Tomorrow will be too late! But I only hope I am not talking of bolting the stable doors after our horses have already bolted!
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