Army Chief's 'Air Doctor' is a Symptom of India's Floundering Response to COVID Pandemic

To see the army chief adorned – among his other medals – with a device that claims to be able to “prevent viruses, bacteria and fungus within a one-metre radius” is remarkable.

Bengaluru: On September 4, India’s army chief, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, was photographed wearing a badge with the words “Air Doctor” on it.

This “Air Doctor” seems to be a small pouch of sodium chlorite that slowly releases chlorine dioxide, a disinfecting agent, into the air. The purpose of this device of sorts seems to be to create and maintain a bubble of sanitised air around the wearer at all times. The claim is that it is able to “provide protection against airborne pathogens”, presumably including the novel coronavirus.

There is much to read here, beginning with the army itself and the deference to technology.

To see the army chief adorned – among his other medals – with a device that claims to be able to “prevent viruses, bacteria and fungus within a one-metre radius” is hilarious, especially considering this invader, a virus in the moral-neutral grip of the principles of evolutionary biology, has threatened national unity, laid waste to the economy and tested faith in the government’s response to its wildfire-like spread.

Also read: Self-Absorbed, Uncaring, Incompetent: COVID Has Exposed Populist Leaders for What They Are

The Indian state has repeatedly treated the coronavirus pandemic as a law and order problem, deploying police personnel to ensure people abide by public health guidelines, arresting or in other ways humiliating those who don’t comply for any reason, and cracking down on doctors and hospitals for defying government orders. It imposed a now-infamous lockdown that seems to have done nothing but curb the rights and livelihoods of hundreds of millions. As if a grand display of strength and self-discipline could render the virus extinct in India.

Through all this, the Narendra Modi government has further centralised power and decision-making authority, effectively crippling the country’s – and especially the research establishment’s – ability to be adaptive and agile, and left states with less financial freedom. India on September 4 crossed 4 million cases, will overtake Brazil for the number two slot by Monday and accounts for 8% of all recorded COVID-19 deaths worldwide. Gayathri Vaidyanathan reported in Nature News recently that India’s COVID-19 outbreak is poised to become the world’s largest by the dawn of 2021.

The “Air Doctor” Gen. Naravane has been seen wearing (that makes his mask look like a grudging nod to medical advice that doesn’t buy into the product’s premise) seeks to appease the egotistical but misguided rationale underlying this state of affairs: that we can simply because we will it. Because in all enterprises – from science to combat – we Indians are capable of pushing back on our enemies using strength and discipline alone. This is the same way the “Air Doctor” claims to be able to ‘sanitise’ a bubble of air around the wearer by releasing chlorine dioxide in considerate volumes, and not subjecting the general to the ‘treatment’ meted out to migrant labourers in Bareilly and other places: to squat on the road while a municipal officer hosed them. If anything, “Air Doctor” is certainly in the same league as our attempts to respect healthcare workers by clanging utensils on balconies, and frightening the virus away with chants of “go corona go”.

I don’t know if the gas can destroy or damage the virus, reduce the risk of contracting the virus or is safe to breathe considering its oxidative properties. I’m also suspicious of the device’s usefulness as chlorine dioxide is a little more dense than air and will slowly float downwards, not up. And up is where mouths and noses exhale droplets, big and small, carrying viral particles.

One reason the Modi government has failed to arrest the novel coronavirus’s spread – as well as effectively tame a host of other epidemics, including tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, multiple diarrhoeal diseases and seasonal infections like malaria and dengue – is that it has focused on pseudo-technological solutions while turning a blind eye to the ‘soft’, and more consequential, parts of the problem.

For example, historian of medicine Kiran Kumbhar wrote in May about how a study in the late 1950s found that tuberculosis patients in India could be given drugs at home instead of having to be admitted in special sanatoria first. The findings supported a quick-fix solution that would considerably ease the government’s responsibility, and so the government of the day quickly took to it.

Also read: How True Is Modi’s Claim That His Decisions Saved India From the Worst of COVID-19?

However, within a decade, it became clear that tuberculosis persists not because we don’t distribute enough drugs – we do – but because patients’ socio-economic conditions don’t improve in tandem. Moving from wherever tuberculosis patients lived to the sanatoria did more of the trick than the drugs themselves. But band-aid solutions like this, most recently in the form of the Aarogya Setu app and building toilets to stop open defecation without thinking about access to clean water, have persisted because they allow the state to stay with, in Kumbhar’s words, “mechanical, technological solutions that seem less messy than stuff like welfare-oriented progressive reforms and equitable distribution of wealth and resources”.

“Air Doctor”, then, is part of this same lopsided worldview. Here, the coronavirus is likely to become endemic to India not because we didn’t swallow the Indian government’s baffling approvals for hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, favipiravir, itolizumab, tocilizumab and whatever else. Instead, and despite parables to the contrary, the coronavirus does distinguish between rich and poor – especially when the poor live in one-tenth of the space, intimidated by the cost of tests and requirements of quarantine, a culture of neglect towards their ilk in better-equipped hospitals, furious with broken insurance schemes, and always in crowded and highly resource-restricted conditions. As Banjot Kaur recently reported from Dharavi, physical distancing is only for the rich.