The Cheat Sheet

The lunacy of flouting social-distancing advice

| Updated on March 19, 2020 Published on March 19, 2020

A file photo of seats marked with signs to maintain social distancing   -  Bloomberg

You sound a trifle overwrought.

It’s hard not to be when you come across such egregious instances of people — in India and elsewhere — violating entreaties to practice a bit of restraint in their social mixing until the risk of contagion from the COVID-19 virus fades.

Whom do you mean?

Where do I begin? The Oxford University brat, the son of a top West Bengal bureaucrat, who ignored advice to stay quarantined after his return from abroad, and has now been diagnosed COVID-positive, and has likely passed on the infection.

I heard about that one.

Then there are the countless confirmed cases of patients who have ‘escaped’ from hospitals, and are now contaminating the community; the flock of religious adherents — across most faiths — who continue to congregate in large numbers for ritual observances; the anti-CAA protestors at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere, who refused to heed appeals to call off the protests in the interest of averting a public health emergency; cocky millennials, who consider themselves invulnerable, and can’t stop partying…

There’s a lot of idiocy going around.

Clearly. And it puts millions of others, who may be more vulnerable to infection and have themselves been playing it safe, at grave risk.

But India has been relatively unaffected, right?

The number of confirmed positive cases, and the number of deaths, in India is mercifully low so far. From all accounts, that owes largely to the ‘big bazooka’ response of the Central and State governments in responding to the pandemic.

Moat of the cases in India are ‘imported’ ones — of people who became infected on travels abroad. But there is concern that the actual numbers may be understated because India has not adopted widespread testing — in the way South Korea did. There is additionally a continuing risk of secondary ‘local transmission’ — or worse, of community-level contagion leading up to a full-blown epidemic of the sorts that China and Italy have experienced.

So we’ll have to practice social distancing for a lot longer?

Very likely — at least until the risk abates.

But does social distancing work?

You bet. A 2015 research paper ‘Measured voluntary avoidance behaviour during the 2009 A/H1N1 epidemic’, published in Biological Sciences, scientists noted that social distancing policies are “an important public health tool for controlling epidemics, particularly during the early stages.” Non-pharmocological interventions — such as social distancing — are in some ways as important as drugs and vaccines in fighting a pandemic.

Illustratively, during the 1918 pandemic, St Louis fared much better than Philadelphia: St Louis had its first flu cases on October 5, 1918, and by October 7, it had taken a range of measures: school closures, theatres, shutdown of dance and pool halls, and a ban on public gatherings, including funerals.

But Philadelphia, which had its first cases on September 17, did not act until October 3; in fact, on September 28, a city parade was held.

So what should the Indian government do?

As a 2014 research paper, ‘Achieving Effective Pandemic Response in Taiwan through State-Civil Society Cooperation’, published in Asian Survey, noted, responding to a pandemic is in many ways a political issue rather than a public health one.

The state’s foremost duty is to protect its citizens, and if the cussedness of a handful of its citizenry — be they runaway patients, assemblers at religious congregations, or Shaheen Bagh protestors — stands in the way, there is a case for summoning up the lawful might of the state for the greater common good.

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Published on March 19, 2020

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