Saying Yes to Precautions and No To Panic
Why panic related to COVID-19 is not justified and can be very harmful

Bharat Dogra

COVID-19 needs a balanced response with several precautions. But at the same time a lot of care should be taken to avoid creating a panic as in panic conditions it becomes more difficult to stick to rationality and avoid irrational, exaggerated actions which create more problems than they solve. It is clear that panic is harmful and is not justified at all by the available evidence.

The German Network for Evidence Based Medicine is an association of German scientists, researchers and medical professionals with about 1000 members. In a recent statement this association compared the 2017-18 seasonal flu in Germany with the recent spread of COVID-19 in Germany. This analysis stated that in the 2017-18 flu season over a period of 15 weeks the infection spread to 5 million, doubling every 4.4 days on average. There were 25100 deaths with a fatality rate of 0.5. In 2020 the spread rate of COVID-19 was roughly the same, but the fatality rate was much lesser at 0.2 (40 per cent of flu fatality rate). In other words, the COVID-20 threat in 2020 in Germany has been a lesser threat compared to the seasonal influenza threat in 2017-18. However, in 2017-18 there was no lockdown, no excessive burden on hospitals, no panic. In 2020 , however, with the daily toll occupying  a big place in media, there have been lockouts and a lot of panic, without even caring to confirm that the fatality rate was even lower than that of seasonal flu.

Coming now to India in recent times there has been a lot of scare regarding what is rather widely perceived to be a very high rate of spread of COVID-19. The situation reported on June 13 was that over a period of 134 days or roughly 19 weeks the cases of COVID-19 had increased from zero to 3 lakh ( 3 hundred thousand). Now compare this with the spread rate reported in the statement from Germany  ( spread to 5 million or 50 lakh within 15 weeks for seasonal flu and a comparable rate of spread for COVID-19) and  judge for yourself  whether there is any reason for panic, particularly when the fatality rate of COVID-19 has been mentioned to be very low by the ICMR recently.

In May and early June there were several reports about shortage of beds for COVID-19 patients in Delhi hospitals and these led to a scare among people. Then a senior Delhi minister made a statement about the very rapid spread of the disease in the near future leading to a very high need for hospital beds. The panic increased further.

It was at this stage that a leading newspaper checked out the actual occupancy of the existing available beds for COVID-19 patients in Delhi government hospitals and found that as many as 70 per cent were actually unoccupied!

The newspaper reported on June 11 that the Delhi government had reserved 4360 beds in six hospitals for COVID-19. Inquiries made on June 10 revealed that the number of vacant beds in these six hospitals ranged from 49 per cent to, believe it or not, 100 per cent in the six hospitals, the overall vacancy being 70 per cent.

This is just one example of false perceptions about COVID-19 accentuating panic when the need is for reducing panic. When the minister spoke that a big increase in COVID-19 cases is expected, he certainly had a right to say this if he had enough evidence, but in addition he could have stated the well-known facts that the infection fatality rate for the disease is very low and that the chances of young people and children being affected is very low. This more complete statement would have been more correct and would have helped to reduce the panic regarding the pandemic.

On June 11 the findings of a serological survey conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)across 83 districts of India were made public. This survey reported that the Infection Fatality Rate was very low at 0.8. What is reported frequently is about four times this number. In the USA and elsewhere some widely quoted, highly credible recent research has found this rate to be around 0.1 per cent or 0.2 per cent.

The survey of ICMR also found that only 0.73 per cent of the population surveyed showed evidence of past exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

Another finding reported was that the urban slum population was the most vulnerable to the spread. “The ICMR has calculated that compared to rural areas, the risk of spread was 1.09 times higher in urban areas and 1.89 times higher in urban slums”, the ICMR Director-General said at a press meeting.

On the day the findings of this survey were made public, the number of COVID-19 deaths in India was also in headlines and it was highlighted all over that the figure of 8000 deaths has been crossed. However, it was not stated that this means that so far, the COVID-19 deaths had amounted to average of about 60 deaths per day in India (8000 deaths in 134 days) while the average number of deaths per day from all causes is about 27000 in India. In other words, only 0.3 of total deaths have been COVID-19 deaths during these 19 weeks (figures up to June 11), while 99.7 per cent of deaths were related to other causes.

So, it is very important to place the existing data and facts in perspective. If day to day mortality data is highlighted for any serious disease on daily basis in a big way in media this can create panic. As compared to about 60 average deaths per day from COVID-19 in India there are 1090 tuberculosis deaths per day in India (18 times the number of COVID-19 deaths) but this very high number of TB deaths taking place year after year never created any lockout or panic. However, if you start highlighting these deaths on a daily basis, together with the high number of new infections then this too can create panic.   

While all deaths are tragic, there is hardly a justification for panic and panic-driven response. More problems are being caused by unjustified panic. Panic comes in the way of a balanced response. So, let us say yes to all precautions that are truly necessary but let us at the same time say a firm no to panic.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.       

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Jun 27, 2020

Bharat Dogra

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