From six confirmed cases to 31 (as on March 6th), it has taken less than a week, even as suspected cases of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continue to be reported across cities every day. How to contain the spread in a country of a billion plus, with obvious infrastructural and surveillance capacity challenges, is one of the greatest concerns in domestic public health circles today.
The Indian administration has taken a number of steps over the last one week to ensure that the spread of the disease can be arrested. Primary schools in the capital have been asked to remain closed till the end of the month and medical screening has been made mandatory at airports for all passengers, Indians and foreigners, arriving on international flights. In view of worldwide caution against mass gatherings, the Ministry of Health has issued an advisory suggesting postponement and avoidance of mass gatherings. Earlier in the week, the Prime Minister had tweeted that in view of the COVID-19 scare, he would not be participating in any Holi gatherings this year.
However, as many experts are now beginning to voice, as worrying as the pace of spread of the disease is the spread of misinformation — primarily through Whatsapp and social media messages. This is leading to widespread panic and triggering herd action by citizens, such as mass buying of masks, something that experts have repeatedly labelled as unnecessary.
COVID-19 is a new disease and facts about how it spreads are still emerging. However, it is very important to ensure that myths creating panic and anxiety among citizens are debunked. Is it really unsafe to play Holi? Can masks help protect you from the novel coronavirus disease? Are there certain foods to avoid?
Let’s try and get some of these fact-checked:
Is it safe to play Holi this year?
COVID is an airborne infection. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person, (a) between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) and (b) through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
The best measure towards prevention is, as WHO has specifically advised, good hygiene, particularly hand hygiene. Avoiding crowded places is another recommendation. In this context, it is reasonable to celebrate Holi in moderation. NOT BECAUSE those water balloons are made in China, as one Whatsapp forward says, but because mindful social distancing is the key.
It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
What precautions should one use while travelling, especially in crowded places or airports?
The Center for Disease Control has laid out the following precautions that can be taken by travellers in the affected region:
- Avoid contact with sick people.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Clean your hands often by washing them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at 60%–95% alcohol. Soap and water should be used if hands are visibly dirty.
- It is especially important to clean hands after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
- Pay attention to your health during travel and for 14 days after you leave.
Are there any tests that you must do if you’ve travelled to any of the affected countries, even if you don’t have obvious symptoms?
According to an advisory from the Center for Disease Control, those who have travelled to one or more of the affected countries must keep tabs on their health for a minimum of 14 days. They must monitor their temperature twice a day and log all the readings. If they develop a fever (over 100°F) or experience cough or difficulty in breathing, they must reach out to the respective health departments immediately. They must avoid contact with others and cover their mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeves (not hands) when coughing or sneezing.
The Indian government has created a helpline that can be contacted for the same:
The helpline number is 91-11-23978046.
The email helpline is ncov2019[at]gmail[dot]com.
Is it ok to eat non-vegetarian food? Is it ok to eat in Chinese restaurants?
While it is ok to eat non-vegetarian food, it is advisable to ensure that the meat is not uncooked or undercooked.
The corona virus has no relation to the consumption of Chinese food. The stigma and misinformation around the same has prompted the global community to show solidarity with struggling Chinese eateries and businesses with the campaign #IWillEatWithYou.
Is it ok to eat imported food?
The German Institute of Risk Assessment has found that the transmission of corona virus happens in a limited manner through “droplet infection” from person to person thus far. The transmission has also been reported through surfaces as a result of “smear infection”. But there is no evidence to support transmission of the virus associated with food.
According to the Center for Disease Control, coronaviruses cannot survive for long on surfaces, and so, there is very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures.
Turmeric water, ginger, garlic …and all kinds of things are being touted as remedies/preventives. Do they really help?
Washing hands or using an alcohol-based sanitiser is the only preventive measure that is effective against the spread of the virus. Other pop cures doing the rounds are not proven solutions. People are advised to wash hands regularly, especially before consumption of food.
What’s the course of treatment for the disease? Does health insurance cover Covid 19 treatment in India?
Corona virus can be diagnosed through blood/saliva/tissue samples. Samples are sent to the National Institute of Virology in Pune for testing. There is no dedicated vaccine for corona virus at the moment. The treatment for corona virus is focussed on containing the symptoms until the virus has run its course.
Pain and cough alleviating medication are administered along with fluid intake for those showing mild symptoms. Isolation from others is a key step in the containment of the spread. Old age and any underlying pre-existing medical conditions may require greater attention as this could lead to more complications.
Almost all health insurance policies cover for a virus outbreak and subsequent hospitalisation. Therefore your policy is most likely to cover corona virus COVID-19. Please contact your health insurance provider for any clarifications.
Are masks helpful? What kind of masks should one use to protect oneself?
Regular surgical masks may not be effective in preventing infections. They are only useful if one is sick or caring for a sick person. In such cases too, masks are useful only when worn and used properly. The following video from the WHO outlines how to put on, use, remove and dispose of a mask:
The international medical community, however, has advocated for better and stringent hand washing over wearing surgical or other flimsy masks to prevent infection. The rush to buy masks that may ultimately be ineffective has caused widespread shortage of masks in affected areas.
What is the stage of vaccine development?
There is no existing vaccine for Corona virus, with scientists racing to develop an effective vaccine to halt the spread of the virus that has so far infected over 100,000 across the world and claimed more than 3000 lives.
Can summer temperatures by itself halt the spread of the virus?
There is nothing to prove that weather and temperature impact the spread of COVID-19. Some viruses, like the common cold and flu, spread more during cold weather months but that does not mean it is impossible to become sick with these viruses during other months. Hence at the moment, it would be baseless to assume that the onset of summer will automatically arrest the spread of COVID-19.
[Compiled by Aruna Natarajan with inputs from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Govt of India; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA; Dr Rifa Tazyeem Khan, YR Gaitonde Center for AIDS Research and Education; Dr Madhan Gunasekharan, Academic Officer, Kilpauk Medical Center Hospital]