The Other Pandemic: Fear and Panic

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

At the height of the AH1N1 pandemic of 2009-2010 serious concern was raised about the rapidity of its spread, and at a certain point it was even pointed out that this was the result of the panic created by the media. We witnessed this phenomenon in Mauritius too. People were flocking to the hospitals unnecessarily for a condition that could be controlled at home by simple measures, and only seek medical help when the symptoms aggravated despite such treatment and precautions taken. And like the current Covid-19 infection, well over 90% of cases would recover.

Along with the natural transmission of the virus, panic and fear created by irresponsible and unethical reporting by what in India has been called the left liberal press is also fuelling the spread of the pandemic there. Pic –

Along with the natural transmission of the virus, panic and fear created by irresponsible and unethical reporting by what in India has been called the left liberal press is also fuelling the spread of the pandemic there. This should be a matter of concern to us because of the extensive trade and travel exchanges that we have with India, but also because the capacity of India to produce vaccines will be impacted, with consequences for the whole world as has been highlighted by experts in the matter. And the whole world includes our own country too.

On the subject of vaccines, it is unbelievable that prejudice should still prevail about Covaxin, of which 200,000 doses have already been administered, along with the 200,000 doses of Covishield, all of which came from India. There have been some side effects, most of which have been mild and settled within hours or days. Talking about phase 3 clinical trials of Covaxin is passé, and reveals complete ignorance of how the vaccine reached the final stage of approval by the Drug Controller General of India, which is the regulatory body. In an interview by Arnab Goswami of Republic TV, Dr Krishna Ella, founder of Bharat Biotech which has produced Covaxin, has given a detailed and lucid account of the process. Millions of doses have already been administered in India, and there have been no issues with regard to efficacy or safety. Bharat Biotech is expanding its capacity, and another company in India, Zydus is soon to enter the market with an intradermal vaccine, according to its CEO Dr Sharvil Patel, and is looking for partnerships to increase production capacity.

However, vaccines is big business, and since there are several global players in the game, there is bound to be competition and rivalry, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the echoes of rivalry that are being heard should prove to be true. And explain at least in part what is happening at the international level in this sector. It will be of interest to follow the evolution, especially in light of America’s decision to waive off patents temporarily, and the hard and possibly protracted negotiations that are forecasted to take place at WTO.

To come back to the problems being caused by panic in India, several psychiatric associations have made an ‘appeal to media friends’ to tone down their reporting and send out more positive messages rather than bombarding media space with despairing images and graphics. The consequence of such reporting is that instead of waiting for at least seven days after the onset of symptoms before they seek medical help if these do not relieve, people are rushing to wrongly self-medicate with dexamethasone or remdesivir, or to procure oxygen cylinders in anticipation of future use – all this obviously deprives others who are more needy. Moreover, this has led to a racket of black-marketing as unscrupulous people try to exploit the situation to make money. One such racket involving oxygen concentrators has been busted by the police in New Delhi. Another racket about blocking hospital beds has been exposed in Bangaluru by a local MP Shri Tejasvi Surya.

The political blame game at national level is not helping either, but there are more responsible views and more balanced analyses that are also expressed, but without trying to cover up the lack of preparedness and proper planning that has followed the undoubted successful management of the first wave. For example, Biocon founder and Executive Chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw feels India ‘needs to build a stockpile of essential medicines to combat the second wave of the pandemic’ and proposes how to go about doing this. The Chief Scientist of WHO, Dr Saumya Swaminathan in an interview to a TV channel made an overview of the situation in India from the beginning, highlighting both the strong and the weak points, and gave sound advice in an assured voice of hope and optimism.

This is of course in addition to the equally balanced views that are aired daily by panels of experts, counselling people over and over again to avoid panic and to be more rational. But repeatedly, the importance of the public health measures of social distancing, masking up, etc., is emphasized. Unfortunately, people continue to persist in their old ways and for reasons best known to themselves prefer to take risks, thereby harming themselves and others too when the disease strikes.

We are all appalled and saddened by the scale of the disaster in India. But also comforted by the support that several countries have stepped in to provide and are continuing to do, spontaneously, as a mark of gratitude to the Indian government for its generosity to the rest of the world during the first wave. This was through its ‘vaccine maitri’ programme, whereby 60 million doses of vaccine were distributed to nearly 75 countries.

What we have to reckon with is that we live in a connected world, and that peddling wrong information or indulging in sensationalism to sell copy in the end is counterproductive. We need messages of hope and optimism, not of despondency.

* Published in print edition on 11 May 2021

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