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'Guard Against Excessive Fear. India Won't Suffer as Much So Don't Cripple the Economy'

In an interview to Karan Thapar on the extend of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, public health consultant Deepak Natarajan breaks down the morally difficult medical health versus economic health debate.

Taking a strong and what to many would be a morally controversial stand on the medical health versus economic health debate – which so far India has not entered into – public health consultant Deepak Natarajan says that even if India is looking at a death toll of 20,000 people due to the coronavirus over the next six months, that would not justify crippling the economy and endangering the livelihoods and lives of hundreds of millions of daily-wagers and rural landless labourers.

In a 38-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Dr Natarajan extrapolated from Chinese coronavirus statistics to estimate the number of people who are likely to be infected in India and the number of people who may die. China, as he put it, is a country comparable in size and scale, as well as density of population. However, China’s healthcare facilities are far superior. Unlike India, which announced a total national lockdown, the Chinese lockdown was largely for Hubei province alone. Despitw this Dr Natarajan said that in China, around 82,000 people had been infected – which is 0.005 % of the population. Of that number, 3,300 had died. If you multiply those figures by a factor of 3, to account for the fact India’s healthcare is no where near as good, some 250,000 people could be infected in India and upto 10,000 or 12,000 could die.

This is Dr Natrajan’s “projection” for the next six months.

Dr Natarajan said these projections do not justify a prolonged lockdown which will cripple the economy and severely affect both the rural and urban poor – some of whom will not just face serious hunger and loss of livelihoods, but die. “Even 20,000 Coronavirus deaths do not justify crippling the economy and endangering hundreds of millions of daily-wagers and rural landless labour,” he said.

Dr Natarajan told The Wire that the medical health versus economic health debate is undoubtedly morally difficult but is essential for a democracy to have so that people are fully aware of the arguments on both sides and thus in a better position to support whatever decision the government takes.

According to him, if the government feels an extension of the lockdown is necessary, it should not be a total national lockdown but specific and targeted on high risk groups like the aged or the very young.

Dr Natarajan told The Wire that India must also step up its testing. It’s not advisable to leave 70% of your testing capacity unused; it’s only when the widest possible testing is done that you can be confident of the spread or containment of the virus, he said.

He also specifically disagreed with ICMR’s Prof Gangakhedkar’s view, expressed on Saturday, that random testing is not necessary.

Dr Natarajan said a second wave would recur a few months after the first subsided but this is not a cause of concern because we would be better prepared for it on the basis of our experience of the first wave and also because immunity levels would be higher.

However, Dr Natarajan does not accept that Indians, because of their greater exposure to a variety of viruses than people of many other countries, have higher immunity levels which would supposedly retard the spread of coronavirus or reduce the severity of whatever illness it brings.

This is a paraphrased precis of Dr Natarajan’s interview to The Wire. Please watch the full interview for accurate details: