Rarely has the world been so united as in the past few weeks since the outbreak of Covid-19, which has spread across the globe like wildfire. Since Covid-19 is uncharted territory, the endeavour to tackle this deadly virus entailed a clear vision, an effective strategy, collective action and deeper coordination between diverse agencies.

While the world looks towards the scientific community for a cure and vaccine for Covid-19, we still have an ancient disease like tuberculosis (TB) which claims more lives than any other infectious disease in history and it has struck back with vengeance, killing 4,000 and infecting 30,000 people every day across the globe. In India, 1,600 people perish every day because of this mycobacterium.

Maintain vigil, debunk myths

Although Covid-19 is a viral infection and TB is bacterial, they are transmitted through the same mediums. Preventive measures being advertised for Covid-19 are the same as required in our response to TB. By maintaining proper hygiene and cough etiquette, not only can we help in curbing the spread of Covid-19 but also the spread of TB. Against the backdrop of World TB Day (March 24), I believe that we need not wait for a pandemic to prioritise our attention and vigilance against public health threats, especially infectious diseases. Rather, we must maintain a consistent drumbeat to keep ourselves abreast and share accurate information around why and how these issues can be tackled. Be it Covid-19, TB or even HIV, there is a dire need to increase awareness to ensure informed actions and evolve appropriate strategies and policies to overcome these challenges.

A recent note by the World Health Organization emphasises this point: “Health services, including national programmes to combat TB, need to be actively engaged in ensuring an effective and rapid response to Covid-19 while ensuring that TB services are maintained".

While TB is preventable and curable, misconceptions about the disease have led to discrimination and stigma — complicating its treatment even further. Fearing societal reactions, people with symptoms of TB avoid seeking medical attention.

By actively debunking myths about Covid-19, the Indian government has shown that it has the capacity to address these issues boldly and decisively. The same level of response and concerted efforts need to be drawn into TB elimination efforts as well. Not only would this raise the profile of the disease in India but also address the grave societal issue of stigma, social discrimination and ostracisation of TB patients within the community and at the workplace.

Pivotal role for Influencers

Public influencers can play a pivotal role — celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan have campaigned for critical public health issues like Polio and TB. Now others — elected representatives, actors, musicians, sportspersons — should help generate mass awareness about TB, its treatment and preventive measures. The collective action of government, public influencers, healthcare professionals, civil society and local communities will go a long way in raising the visibility of the disease, tackling myths and misconceptions and in helping preventive measures at the grass-root level.

Covid-19 is currently the spectre at the feast. But it must not be seen in isolation. We must share experiences and knowledge on proven interventions, incorporate innovative solutions, build partnerships and coalitions, reduce morbidity and tackle other infectious diseases taking a heavy toll on our population with the same commitment and mission approach.

The writer is President, the Global Coalition Against TB