A graveyard on the outskirts of Shillong, Meghalaya. PHOTO: CALVIN LYNGDOH 

5 points to ponder


Distressing news about the coronavirus pandemic has come out of Shillong in the past few days. The news of the first case in the state being detected has been followed almost immediately by news that the patient had died. Tragedy was heaped on tragedy as his last rites could not be performed for the better part of two days. The bereaved family, already dealing with the shock of a loved and respected elder being afflicted and dying, had to deal with trolling from strangers who blamed them for bringing the disease to the state, and the shocking aftermath in which different localities refused to allow both cremation and burial of the deceased.
Dr John Sailo Ryntathiang, 69, was director of the Bethany Hospital in Shillong, and had spent his life as a medical practitioner serving the people. His wish to be buried on his own land near Nongpoh unfortunately could not be fulfilled because the public there, perhaps being instigated, refused to allow this. Christians are normally buried in the burial grounds of their own church denominations, but this too did not happen. The government’s proposal to cremate the body and bury the ashes in the place he had wanted also faced a hurdle because society leaders of the Jhalupara crematorium objected to the corpse being taken to their locality. Now, when the country’s Vice President has commented on this, and the national media has reported it, individuals and communities are busy bickering and blaming one another for the mess. As if the coronavirus pandemic is not a big enough problem already, the situation is being made worse by the introduction of a communal angle, surrounding both the infection, and the incidents of denial of cremation and burying.
We had seen this tendency towards communalisation already earlier at a national level when news of the Tablighi Markaz cluster of cases emerged. The case in Shillong was a senior doctor, a tribal and a Christian, just not one from the local tribe. Had the patient been a Bengali Muslim or even a Hindu non-tribal, I shudder to think of what the reaction might have been. The main reason for such a reaction, to my mind, is fear. People are afraid and they are reacting in fear which soon turns to hatred and anger. Since they cannot see the virus, the anger turns on the unfortunate afflicted. This is probably a natural reaction given the shock of realising that the dreaded disease has finally found its way to their vicinity. However, it is based on a failure to understand or remember a few basic facts:

1. Meghalaya and Shillong were extremely fortunate for a long time

The first case in India was detected on January 30 in Kerala. The first case in Meghalaya was reported on April 13. By then, every state in India except Meghalaya and Sikkim had reported cases. All other Northeast states including Arunachal Pradesh, the remotest of the Northeast states, had cases. Even the Andaman and Nicobar Islands had cases. It hardly needs to be said that all major communities had cases. Shillong is arguably far more connected at a global level than any Northeastern town or city excepting Guwahati. Given that the coronavirus has spread literally to the ends of the world, it was a bit too hopeful for Shillongites to think the disease would never find its way there.

2. Meghalaya and Shillong were extremely unfortunate when it hit

Manipur’s first case was detected on March 24. It was a young student studying in London. She was safely quarantined, and recovered. Mizoram’s first case was detected on March 25. He was a pastor who had returned from the Netherlands. In both of these cases, the first patient to show symptoms was not someone who had wide physical contact with a large number of people. Mizoram had already suspended church services a week earlier. Shillong’s luck was truly rotten. The first case itself happened to be a senior doctor. A lot of people are going to hospitals even under lockdown, because they have to – other diseases have not ended since coronavirus began. A lot of people also work in the hospital. Doctors and medical staff have to touch patients, in many cases. From no suspects the state went directly to having thousands of people calling in to be tested because they had visited the hospital and therefore had possible contact with the doctor directly or indirectly.

3. A lot of infected people are asymptomatic

It is not necessary that an infected person will show symptoms. The dangerous thing about the disease is that around 25 percent of the cases are asymptomatic, meaning that the infected person shows no symptoms, Dr Robert Redfield, the Director of the US Centers for Disease Control, told NPR in an interview. In case of Shillong, Dr John Sailo, the deceased patient, is the first known case. It was unfortunate that he happened to be an elderly man with existing health conditions, which caused him to pass away soon after he was diagnosed. How he got the disease is still a matter of speculation. His son in law, a pilot, who flew back from New York on March 14, was suspected of being the carrier, but he had no symptoms and tested negative thrice. Is it possible for someone to have the disease and test negative? Yes. Scientists have expressed concern that the most common type of covid-19 test, the reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test, is showing false-negative results about 30 percent of the time. Moreover, the accuracy of any test depends on it being properly performed. This is a new disease and ground level staff, who are themselves terrified of it, are also inexperienced in dealing with the sample collection and testing. There are chances of errors, although thrice would be highly unlikely.

4. Illogical beliefs are making things worse

Part of the widespread fear is being fuelled by illogical and unscientific suspicions. In the case of Shillong, it was irrational on the part of those who denied Dr Sailo cremation and burial to have done so. The mere passage of a coffin through an area should not be enough to panic a neighbourhood out of its humanity. Dead people do not cough, sneeze or even breathe. Whatever viruses are inside the dead body would remain there. Some viruses might be present outside, on clothes or skin, but once the casket is sealed the virus should not normally be propelled outside. Burning the body in case of cremation would also destroy the virus. A wash of the place and some thorough hand-washing by those who handled the body after would have sufficed – and indeed, this is more or less what finally happened. It is understood that thoroughly washing hands with soap is sufficient to wash away the virus. That is why the whole world is busy washing hands all the time these days – because washing hands washes away any viruses that might be on the hands. There was no need to panic.

5. The disease is probably here to stay

This is the hardest realisation that not just Shillong or Meghalaya but India and the world have to come to. The coronavirus is probably here to stay. It is not going away next week or next month. It has now spread to 210 countries and territories, which is more than the membership of the United Nations. It can no longer be isolated or contained. The genie is out of the bottle. The only way this pandemic is going to end is when a sizeable part of the world’s population develops what experts call “herd immunity”, meaning immunity as a group. This immunity can be developed in one of two ways. A person can become immune by having the disease and recovering from it, or by taking a vaccine once it is invented, tested and available in the market. However, please remember that no vaccine exists yet, and even when one is invented, all countries around the world will try to grab it, and rich people everywhere will scramble to buy it driving prices up beyond reach of the poor. It may be years before it is available at affordable prices all over the world.

It is going to be a long haul. People of Shillong, Meghalaya, and the world will have to overcome their fears and rally together to courageously help one another in this crisis. Panic, recriminations, and communal hatred will not help. They will make a bad situation worse. In order to successfully fight this pandemic, we have to find, if at all they exist, the better angels of our nature.

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