In the two weeks since March 2 when the first 2019 novel coronavirus case was confirmed in Delhi, the Capital has registered six Covid-19 positive patients. Of them, two have already recovered but one died. With no vaccine in sight, the fear among the citizens is palpable. The administration has declared the outbreak an epidemic, acting swiftly to take measures aimed at prevention and containment.
Underlining the importance of “social distancing” in fighting a virus that spreads through direct (proximity) or indirect (touching contaminated surfaces) exposure, the government has shut down cinema halls, schools and colleges, stopped conferences and sporting events, and advised people to stay away from crowded places. The civic agencies and public utilities have launched an unprecedented cleanliness drive, disinfecting public transport, toilets and places that see high footfall. Offices, shops and malls have been told to sanitise their premises daily.
The government’s to-do list has asked people to wash hands frequently, cover nose and mouth with one’s arm or elbow while coughing or sneezing, avoid spitting in public, maintain a one-meter distance from the next person, and desist from touching doorknobs, railings, gates etc in public spaces. It has also advised people not to panic.
Indeed, keeping one’s head is perhaps the best survival skill at such times. The obvious consideration that denying others access to soap, sanitiser or protective masks will only boost the outbreak, and undermine everyone’s safety, should discourage panic-driven hoarding of items now declared as essential commodities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that the 2019 novel coronavirus can spreads through small droplets when an infected person exhales or coughs. These droplets can land on people nearby or on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people can catch Covid-19 if they touch these objects or surfaces, then touch their eyes, nose or mouth. One of the cheapest and most effective ways to avoid Covid-19 — and a range of ailments from the common cold, eye infections, diarrhoea, influenza to potentially fatal pneumonia and tuberculosis — is to wash our hands frequently with soap and water.
Then, as we run from one chemist to another driven by our sudden hyper-awareness of personal hygiene, there is perhaps also a moment for reflection: shouldn’t we have followed the hand-washing regimen anyway? That was perhaps the first lesson in hygiene we were taught by our parents and later at school. But it took an outbreak of epidemic proportions for us to sit up and take notice of the perils of unwashed hands.
It is easy to take lightly any advice on hand hygiene, as most of us do, merely because we do wash hands after using the toilet and before cooking and eating. While reflecting on childhood lessons, it is perhaps also an opportunity for us to slow down since not many allow enough time for our soapy hands to get disinfected. It takes lathering up on all sides and vigorous scrubbing of wrists, fingers and nails.
Besides, no matter how much soap we use for how long, hand-washing becomes useless if we touch contaminated objects immediately after. Think mobile phones, or keyboards, a virtual extension of hands for many of us and easily some of the dirtiest reservoirs of viruses. WHO recommends that such objects at the workplace be wiped with disinfectant regularly.
We are likely to be far less in control when we step outdoors, where it is a bigger challenge to maintain distance from other people or to avoid touching things that others have already laid their hands on.
Also, public toilets are disease factories because many of them lack running water and have poor cleanliness. Not everyone has the privilege to avoid these facilities altogether.
For now, civic agencies making a bulk purchase of disinfectants and sodium hypochlorite, a disinfectant used in hospitals, to clean toilets as well as offices. One wonders why the administration waited until an epidemic outbreak to undertake measures that are anyway essential for safeguarding public health.
Both as individuals and as a society, we have compromised our private and public hygiene over time. This is a moment to pause, take a step back and mend our callous ways. Fortunately, the prescription remains simple: avoid panic, slow down, keep distance and wash well. Easier prescribed than practised in today’s fast and connected world, but this is the only way to contain coronavirus or any contagion in the future.