Covid-19: The only thing to fear is fear

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Media reports are designed to give the impression that tragedy is the rule for Covid victims. As a consequence, fear of Covid-19 became corrosive and pervasive, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat

This columnist and his wife are among those who had Covid-19 and—it would appear—recovered. One of the staff at Trivandrum came to our house the day before we ourselves did six weeks ago. She had developed a fever and tested positive. As did my wife in days and two other staff, while this columnist and another staffer (who had already had the disease a year back) was negative. The Manipal hospital in Udupi has been essential in assisting Karnataka’s Dakshin Kannada district to fight the disease.

From the day the first case appeared, Dr Sashikiran Umakanth was on the front lines of the battle against Covid-19. Through the long, painful months since Covid-19 arrived across the world as a consequence of the Chinese authorities (with a nod from the ever-obliging WHO) permitting international travel from and to Wuhan while restricting domestic flights, Dr Umakanth studied the trajectory of the disease in his efforts at protecting the lives of victims. When he was informed that my wife had Covid-19, he suggested that a subcutaneous ingestion of Regen-Cov2 be administered soonest to both myself and her. This is a cocktail of two antibodies designed to fight the coronavirus.

The well-regarded KIMS hospital in Trivandrum had the medication, and we went there immediately. Unlike in Manipal, where this medication is administered not just to positive cases but as a prophylactic to those at high risk of catching the infection, KIMS administered Regen-Cov2 only to positive cases. Not that there was long to wait. The next day, fever struck this columnist, and the subsequent RT-PCR test was positive. The doctors and nursing staff at KIMS administered the medication to me the same day as my results had reached.

My wife started improving soon after she had got the antibody cocktail, shedding her fever in a few days, although the absence of taste and smell lingered for weeks. As did occasional weakness in both of us. Fortunately for this columnist, his symptoms vanished within a short time, but although there was taste and smell, appetite remained truant for weeks. The staff who had tested positive together with my wife showed no symptoms at all. They had been fully vaccinated, as was the case with this columnist.

PM Narendra Modi visits Delhi hospital to mark India’s 100 Cr Covid vax milestone.

It was a surreal experience calling friends and informing them of the situation, only to hear gasps of shock followed by warnings of the terrible things that Covid-19 could do to the body. Cheery indeed to listen to such prognostications. After a bit over a week had passed, a new test was conducted and all four of us were negative. The many warnings and cautionary remarks that were received from well-meaning friends ensured some nights of sleep fitful and interrupted by worry about the trajectory that the coronavirus may take in our bodies. It was only after being found to no longer be Covid-19 carriers that my sleep improved.

We returned to Delhi by the direct Air India flight, and after a few days returned to Trivandrum. Having been informed of our possible fragility, the staff at the national carrier were incredibly helpful. Despite being ravaged by officials and politicians in past regimes, when its interests were trampled upon, and being neglected by many governments in succession, Air India still retains traces of what made it among the world’s finest airlines in the initial decades of its existence.

Bob Woodward of Watergate fame wrote a book about the Trump White House, calling it “Fear”. That was the emotion that, according to the book, President Donald Trump brought out in his interactions with others, including grandees of the Republican Party. From the start of the pandemic stage of SARS2, it was clear that this was a virus that killed very few, and which did not majorly compromise the health of most of its victims.

Yet there came a flood of media reports and official statements (exemplified by Dr Anthony Fauci) that portrayed Covid-19 as being an even deadlier version of AIDS, a virus that killed almost all its victims in the initial years of its spread in the 1980s. Covid-19 can indeed kill or incapacitate. Yet accounts about it fail to mention that such cases are the exception. Media reports are designed to give the impression that tragedy is the rule for victims. As a consequence, fear of Covid-19 became corrosive and pervasive. Such accounts ensured that long lines formed outside vaccination centres. The vaccines were put into use in record time for a disease that still remains unexplored territory in a substantial way.

Five of the six individuals in our Trivandrum household who caught the disease were fully vaccinated yet got Covid-19. Only the staffer who had suffered from it a year earlier escaped. Statistics indicate that vaccination is helpful, if not always in preventing the disease, in preventing the virus from running amok. There are stray cases of those who catch the virus a second time around, but mostly, those who have had Covid-19 seem unlikely to catch it again. There must be hundreds of millions in India who have caught a coronavirus that does not generate symptoms in most of its hosts, and as a consequence India may be well on the way to herd immunity.

Another factor is the 100 crore vaccinations that were carried out over the year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi acted correctly in declining to enforce another set of lockdowns in 2021 that would have shut down much of the economy once again. The PM resisted lockdown calls despite the ravages of the wave caused by the Delta variant (which the PRC promptly dubbed the “India virus” despite being allergic to the description of the Alpha variant as the “China virus”). 2021 has witnessed a jump both in the number of foreign vaccines being manufactured in India as well being developed within the country, Covaxin being the first indigenous vaccine to get the WHO nod.

Supply of oxygen to hospitals has been decentralised and deregulated, moving away from reliance on a few large units. 2021 is finally witnessing Minimum Government, Maximum Governance, as was promised by Narendra Modi during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. Treatment protocols for Covid-19 have improved, raising the proportion of those who recover even during the ICU stage. Eventually, it will be vaccines and pharmaceuticals from India that will rescue the world from the abyss into which Covid-19 seeks to consign it. So what needs to be said about the pandemic is what was said by Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the Great Depression in 1933, that “the only thing to fear is fear itself”.

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