Dr. Prabir Kumar Chatterjee: India’s People’s Health Movement prepares for Covid-19 (video)

India has document over 500 cases of coronavirus and recorded at least ten deaths as of March 24. The Indian government ordered a one-day lockdown on March 22 to test preparedness in expectation that the nation will soon face the pandemic’s full force. In response, thousands of Indians saluted front-line health care workers by banging pots and pans from their balconies in what is fast becoming a global show of solidarity. 

Indians bang pots and pans to salute front-line health care workers. Video credit – The Guardian.

Even as India prepares to confront the coronavirus, health care workers are raising concerns that right-wing President Narendra Modi will resort to discriminatory and counterproductive measures. The Jan Swarthy Abhiyan (JSA), the People’s Health Movement, warned “there have been media reports of persons who have not abided by isolation or quarantine guidelines resulting in overly harsh measures being adopted by the government including stamping of hands, publication of names and marking of homes; we have addressed our serious concerns with these measures in a separate letter. Instead of adopting such ad-hoc and arbitrary measures, the government should scrutinize the root causes of these actions and address them. For instance, abysmal facilities at the quarantine centers have been reported. The reports state that these spaces are filthy and have blocked toilets and no proper drainage. Use of such places to quarantine persons who are suspected to or diagnosed with COVID-19 is outrageous and must be discontinued.”Prabir Kumar Chatterjee is a doctor who has worked in tribal areas in Jharkhand, which suffer high instances of malaria, tuberculosis, and the kala azar parasite. He has trained health workers in maternal and child health in Chhattisgarh, North Bengal, Bihar, southern West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. Dr. Chatterjee responded to questions* from No Borders News as part of our ongoing international Covid-19 coverage. 

No Borders New: What practical measures has your national government taken to respond to the crisis? Have they acted responsibly or were they unprepared? Briefly describe measures your government is taking now to contain the virus and treat people infected with Covid-19. Is there a state of emergency, are schools closed, etc.?

Dr. Prabir Kumar Chatterjee: Testing has started, but there are only 150,000 kits and, unfortunately, only a few thousand have been used yet. Now all foreign flights are banned (most cases tested were from abroad). Today, March 22, there is a one day “peoples” curfew declared by the Prime Minister. Schools closed are closed until the end of March and this may be extended. Most exams are postponed. Malls and clubs are being closed. Panic buying began yesterday, and isolation and quarantine are being arranged in Delhi, especially for those returning from China returned. But many returning from London have slipped through. And some celebrities and Very Important People’s children have later tested positive after attending parties in Lucknow and Kolkata. And one person in Chhattisgarh, who came from London to Mumbai by flight and then caught a train for the next leg of their 24 hour trip, has tested positive. There is no policy for homeless people, approximately 18 million of whom live in India.

NBN: How has your health care system responded to the crisis? What are your health care system’s greatest weaknesses? What are its greatest strengths?

PKC: One weakness is a lack of machines or tests manufactured domestically so far. There are so few ventilators, even in the cities, that if cases reach thousands per city next month, [we will not have enough]. And there are no trained personnel for new machines. [Even before coronavirus,] immunization has stopped in the large state of Uttar Pradesh and there is a danger that H1N1 flu, Measles, TB, Diarrhea, Malaria, Hypertension, Diabetes may be neglected in the focus on coronavirus.

Our strength lies in our grassroot health workers who are highly motivated and there is the opportunity to develop the mass production of tests and drugs researched or developed elsewhere.

NBN: Describe the official political response to Covid-19 in your country from the far-right and conservative parties, to liberal and social democrat parties, and the parties of the left if applicable.

PKC: Right-wing BJP supporters have tried drinking cow urine to guard against coronavirus (one person fell ill) and some have pushed homeopathy. They have also tried chanting Go Away Corona! Political leaders of the BJP have been personally careless. [Other parties have acted more responsibly. Provincial governing officials in the All India Trinamool party arrested the cow urine promoter and the left-wing government in Kerala has offered social security, better quarantine procedures, and resources to trace contacts [with infected persons].

NBN: How do you think the Covid-19 crisis will impact national politics in the coming weeks and months?

PKC: Financial collapse is imminent from forced shutdowns and social distancing. These will affect the poor and the informal economy most. They will also affect small shops and businesses. We are very likely to see profit making by big players from relief measures that government is likely to announce. If the poor getting poorer goes too far, there is likely to be an accentuation of existing issues, including land grabbing by industry, inter-community clashes, water shortages, standoffs between states, citizen register measures [targeting minorities], and greater state invasion of privacy.

[*Edited for clarity.]

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