In December 2019, a cluster of patients with ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ was linked to wet markets in Wuhan, China. Scientists zeroed in on a virus from the Coronavirus family, and named it 2019-nCov (n for novel), now called SARS-CoV-2, the seventh member of the family, others being MERS-CoV,SARS-CoV, and others. The disease syndrome ranged from flulike symptoms of fever, sore throat, cough and running nose, from which a majority recovered. But many patients worsened to develop pneumonia and breathing difficulty. They required ventilator therapy, despite which they worsened and succumbed to multi-organ failure. Soon, this strange disease in its worst form spilled over from Wuhan into mainland China, causing sickness and death, especially to those 60 years and above, and those with co-morbidities like diabetes, hypertension, chronic lung and renal diseases, and the immuno-compromised. China witnessed death and sickness of humongous proportions. 82,295 took ill, and 3,342 succumbed. Soon, the virus crossed borders, most noticeably to Italy, supposedly carried by Chinese silk traders visiting Italy.1,62,488 were infected and 21,607 succumbed in that nation. The virus proceeded to wreak havoc in other European nations, leaving a trail of infection and death. The virus then proceeded to cross the Atlantic into the USA, which is currently the world’s hotspot, with 6,14,180 infected and taking lives of 26,061, and counting. The WHO, which named the infection COVID-19 declared it ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ on January 30 2020.
India wasn’t spared of the viral stranglehold. At the time of writing, 14,792 Indians have been infected, and 488 dead. India with her burgeoning population of 135.26 crores was a sitting duck to the virus. She needed to act fast and decisively to prevent death and illness of global magnitude. By the time the virus crossed Indian borders, scientists had deciphered its mode of spread.
Two principal modes of transmission were identified:
- Aerosol spread through body fluid from the upper respiratory tract ejected forcefully when an infected person coughs, sneezes or blows the nose to infect another within one meter of that person. This necessitated the following preventive measures to limit human-to-human spread of the virus
- Social distancing- whereby people are supposed to maintain a minimum distance of at least one meter between each other. People were advised to avoid crowded places, and contribute to crowding.
- Respiratory etiquette- whereby people were advised to cough, sneeze or blow noses into handkerchiefs.
- Public spitting and nose blowing, rampant in India were banned. bus passengers and crew spitting chewed pan and betel leaves on to the street below on passersby, who ultimately look straight out of Holi celebration is common sight in the country.
- Spread through fomites. The virus was found to survive on various surfaces viz; plastic, glass, cardboard for variable periods of time, ranging from minutes to hours. This necessitated the following measures to limit human-human infection by the virus
- Avoidance of touching one’s face, should the virus be carried to various portals of infection like the eyes, nose, and mouth
- Frequent washing of hands with soap and water, or application of alcohol-based sanitizers on the hands.
With India staring at the stark reality of COVID-19 lacking an effective and definite treatment and effective vaccine, the only option for the country was to stringently and religiously follow measures that limited human-to-human transmission of the virus.
Certain precautions were also necessitated by the incubation period (time interval between infection and appearance of symptoms), which for COVID-19, is 1-14 days, which means a person who harbors the virus, even if asymptomatic can infect up to 3 persons up to 14 days after contracting the virus.
This required (1) a person who has been tested positive for the Coronavirus, (2) a person who has travelled to a geographical region where the infection is rampant, and (3) a person who had interacted closely with the above two be quarantined for a minimum period of 14 days, at which time, should such persons become symptomatic, can be treated.
To sum things up, people needed to religiously observe social distancing, meticulous hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, and had to be quarantined to prevent transmission of the virus, observance of which could only be achieved if life slowed down, or even ceased to move.
It is for this reason that the Prime Minister Modi declared an unprecedented 21-day national lockdown on March 24 2020, exhorting people to stay wherever they were, and to draw a ‘Lakshman Rekha’ outside their homes, to remain homebound, except in emergencies. All modes of transport were suspended to prevent movement of infected people. Avenues for crowding viz; malls, movie theatres and places of worship were closed. Social events like weddings, engagements, baptism, celebrations and religious rituals and festivities were suspended or postponed. People couldn’t afford to congregate, as the number of infected and the dead continued to spiral. Places of education and offices were ordered shut. Need for people, except those involved in essential services to foray outside their homes became nonexistent overnight. Such a drastic step was crucial to halt the viral death dance.
As the fallout of the above measures, ‘life on the fast lane’ came to a screeching halt. Man’s self-assumed invincibility and self-conferred lofty preeminence and lofty claims of indispensability came crashing down.
Frills and embellishments of life which seemed inevitable and permanent suddenly assumed redundance. In fact, it became evident that a sub-millimetric microbe had managed to rewind time.
As places of worship remained closed, every house became an altar from where prayers were said. Family prayer, now exchanged for other comforts of life, especially television soap operas returned to every home. Adults had nowhere to go, as almost all places of employment, except probably healthcare facilities remained shut. Children too had nowhere to go, as schools were closed. Families rediscovered long-lost time together. Human beings discovered themselves as families and individuals. Youth found backyards of their homes equally appealing to party, as malls they frequented to satiate hunger and voyeuristic ways remained inaccessible. As hotels and eating places downed shutters, people increasingly ate from home. Exchanging stories and the days’ incidents returned to dining tables at homes. With cinemas and malls closed, families sat around the television at homes. Card and board games returned to family spaces. With nothing to do for ‘entertainment’, parents played games with children in gardens and empty by lanes. People rediscovered the forgotten habit of reading ‘to kill time’. The aged had children and grandchildren to spend time with them. It was driven home to people that marriages, engagements, baptisms and funerals could be conducted with undiminished piety and solemnity with sparse participants, with people conducting them saving precious money in trying times. With traffic density dipping abruptly, driving became a pleasurable experience. Traffic accidents plummeted. Air pollution dipped. Stars and the moon in the night sky appeared closer. Men woke up to bird calls than to alarms. Animals and birds left their forest abodes to foray into empty roads, bereft of over-speeding and threatening vehicles on. Rivers like the Ganges and Yamuna and lakes reflected the hue of the clear sky above as industrial pollutants ceased to flow into them. Man was forced to practice personal clean habits through washing of hands, and frequent showers. He gave up public spitting, sneezing and nose blowing, which was unthinkable in a country like India, where a microbe obviously had life retrace its beaten path, and even set time on a rewind mode, without robbing life of verve, zest and even efficiency.