This is war: A doctor on our failure to imagine the extent of the coronavirus outbreak

24 March 2020
Indians bang utensils and clap from the balconies of a residential building in Mumbai, India, on 22 March 2020, to thank health workers combating the COVID-19 outbreak.
DIVYAKANT SOLANKI / EPA
Indians bang utensils and clap from the balconies of a residential building in Mumbai, India, on 22 March 2020, to thank health workers combating the COVID-19 outbreak.
DIVYAKANT SOLANKI / EPA

The number of COVID-19 cases has surpassed three lakhs globally, according to a situation report that the World Health Organisation released on 23 March. Of these, 5,687 cases were reported in the United Kingdom. The number of cases in India reportedly crossed the five hundred mark on 24 March—remaining far lesser than many other countries. “Part of the whole story around the world is a failure of imagination as to what it would be like when it hits you. Because it hasn’t hit you,” Amit Gupta, a neonatal consultant at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, United Kingdom, told Lewis Page, a Luce Scholar at The Caravan. “And that’s what happening in India. People haven’t been seeing an absurd amount of the cases of COVID-19 just yet.” 

The pace of the coronavirus pandemic caught everyone in the medical profession blindsided, according to Gupta. “There were a fair number of us that were getting increasingly anxious, but it was only when the actual numbers started to rise when people began to realise how serious this problem is,” he said. While Gupta is not on the frontlines of dealing with COVID patients currently, he said the crisis has affected everyone. “We’ve had potential COVID patients—mothers who have been admitted to the delivery suite,” Gupta said. But he added that in “two weeks, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of mothers show up who are infected.”  

Gupta was trained as a doctor in India, and has previously worked in the country as well. According to him, the country needs to strategise better about how to deal with the outbreak. “I know these guys are not prepared, because my colleagues write to me. There are a huge amount of problems on the medical side of things,” he said. Like many countries, India has wasted time in denial about the situation, according to him. “Of course, the shutdown will create issues, but it is necessary,” he said. “The virus behaves the same irrespective of the where it operates. It won’t spare India. Why would it?” He wrote for The Caravan about this disbelief and why the government should not underestimate the pandemic.  

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The public reaction to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus illustrates that when faced with a monumental and unprecedented event, people often minimise it or simply ignore it. Sometime in the middle of January, I had a conversation with a colleague about this strange virus. We discussed that the upshot was that even though the situation looks bad, it will just die in China or, at worst, it will extend to other countries in East Asia. A couple of weeks later, we complained about the fuss. The virus seemed to be no worse than flu and we concluded that people, probably wimpy millennials, were reading too much into it. After all, we have around fifteen thousand deaths with flu in the United Kingdom annually. Coronavirus seemed puny in comparison. But we were wrong.

Amit Gupta is a a neonatal consultant in Oxford, United Kingdom.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus
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