NOT Testing Enough for Coronavirus: Is India Making a Big Mistake?

Yeh Jo India Hai Na, it needs to realise that it needs to have its Coronavirus Testing Strategy in place.

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Yeh Jo India Hai Na… it needs to be very clear about how to deal with coronavirus. And the most important aspect of this is our Coronavirus Testing Strategy because that could save or cost a lot of lives!

Take a look at this – since the beginning of February, India has conducted close to 12,000 tests. Compare this with South Korea, that has so far conducted over 2.5 lakh tests, often as many as 10,000 tests in a day. India has conducted just 5-10 tests per million people.

South Korea has conducted more than 4,000 tests per million. Clearly, Korea and India have two very different approaches to testing.

What’s India’s Logic for Doing Limited Testing for Coronavirus?

Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) says, right now, they are doing ‘Symptomatic Testing’, which means they test those who have travelled from countries which have a high rate of coronavirus, (which has now, of course, become a lot of countries) or those who have come in contact with someone who’s tested positive.

Among these, they prioritise those showing coronavirus symptoms ie, dry cough, fever, shortness of breath.

Now, the problem with this is that because we are testing less, we may not be identifying all the positive cases that there may be. We also might not be doing it fast enough. Why is that a bad thing? It’s bad because it might result in us becoming another Italy!

Why Italy? Because we all know that currently Italy is the country that’s been worst-hit by coronavirus. Today, Italy has well over 35,000 positive cases (41,000 as of 20 March) and over 2,500 dead (3,405 as of 20 March). The country is under full lockdown.

But did you know, that very recently, on 15 February, Italy had only three positive cases and South Korea 28. South Korea today has less than 9,000 positive cases, less than 90 dead. That’s way less than Italy.

What was the one thing South Korea did right that Italy didn’t? They did a lot of testing!

Here’s what we in India need to note – unlike what India is doing right now – South Korea chose to test everyone who had the symptoms and not just those with travel and contact history.

Equally importantly, they made sure they had the capacity to test people in such large numbers and they started to raise their testing capacity from January itself. On the other hand, Italy delayed mass-testing, delayed quarantining and is now paying a heavy price.

So, I ask again: Should India do what South Korea did? Some are arguing that given our huge population, the current number of 150 positive cases is not large. But here’s the point – this number may be small because we do not know how many more people are positive because we are simply not testing enough!

Let’s look at Trump’s America. I say Trump’s America because initially Trump was dismissive about testing, about lockdown, about self-quarantine and as a result, the US government’s volume of testing too was very low. Now, the US has over 10,000 cases (14,250 as of 20 March), and 120 dead (205 as of 20 March).

At the moment, the coronavirus pandemic is at Stage 2 in India, where it is spreading in small numbers, what is called ‘local transmission’.

Stage 3 is when it starts to affect larger groups of people, in bigger numbers – that stage is also described as ‘community transmission’. What most experts tell us is that Stage 3 will happen and the number of positive cases will rise in big numbers then.

The Indian government says it has been conducting random tests among people with no travel or contact history. They say around 1,000 such people have been tested and no one has tested positive for coronavirus and because of that, for now, the government is sticking to its strategy of Symptomatic Testing.

So, here’s another question: Is the Indian government standing by this less-testing strategy because we actually don’t have the capacity for mass testing?

That we would not be able to mass-test our citizens even if it became the need of the hour tomorrow. An article on the website Scroll has done some math, which suggests that if government labs tested to their full capacity of 6,000 tests per day, India would run out of testing kits in less than four weeks. Now, we can only hope that is not the reason for testing less.

Another doubt raised by the same article by Scroll – here is the Ministry of Health’s own definition of “suspect cases” of coronavirus – it says those with severe respiratory illnesses, that cannot be explained by any other cause must be considered as “suspect cases” for COVID-19 even if they do not have any travel or contact history.

But, as government health officials have said repeatedly to the media – so far they are not testing anyone without a travel and contact history. Are they taking a big risk by NOT following their own guidelines?

Yes, so far our numbers are not spiking. Most states have shut down several public spaces. India has quarantined itself from all foreign entry, massive awareness campaigns are on, more testing kits are being sourced and all of this together should help.

But, our coronavirus testing strategy – Yeh Jo India Hai Na, we all really hope we have got our Coronavirus Testing Strategy right.

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