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Death toll touches 273 nationwide, with 127 in Maharashtra; Kerala bucks trend with only two new cases

With the nationwide death toll from COVID-19 touching 273 and the number of positive cases reaching 8,447 on Sunday, the Union Health Ministry said India is preparing for a possible exponential surge in cases.

“We would rather be over-cautious and over-prepared,” a Ministry official said while admitting that the recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases in some countries was a matter of concern.

According to data released by the Ministry, the country registered as many as 909 new cases and 34 deaths since Saturday evening. The fatalities included 17 from Maharashtra, five from Delhi and three each from Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. As many as 716 persons have been cured/discharged after treatment.

Amid demands for ramping up health surveillance, the Centre said it is expanding the COVID-19 testing capacity in State-run as well as private medical colleges.

The Centre’s proposals came even as a Punjab police officer’s hand was chopped off in a brutal attack on a team enforcing lockdown restrictions amid reports that plans were under way to ease some curbs during the likely extension of the lockdown.

According to reports from the State Health Departments, the total number of cases stood at 9,205, with 7,880 active ones. The death toll was was 332.

Maharahstra recorded 149 deaths, with 1,625 active cases, while Tamil Nadu recorded 1,014 active cases, with 11 deaths. Delhi had 1,104 active cases as the toll in the national capital climbed to 24.

Kerala, however, saw 36 more patients cured of the disease, adding only two positive cases. A total of 179 persons have been discharged in the State, with only two deaths reported so far.

More testing facilities

Addressing the daily press briefing, Joint Secretary in the Health Ministry Lav Agarwal said that with the average rate of over 4% growth in cases recently, the government is expanding testing capacity in State-run as well as private medical institutions.

“The government is extra prepared if the number of cases rises exponentially,” the official said.

“Fourteen mentor institutes, including the AIIMS and NIMHANS, have been identified to mentor the medical colleges and expand testing capacity,” he added.

An Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) official said more than 1,86,906 samples had been tested across the country. “In the past five days, on an average, 15,747 samples were tested per day,” the official added.

He said that while 40-plus COVID-19 vaccines were under consideration across the world, none had moved to the testing phase.

On the resurgence of cases in countries such as China, Mr. Agarwal said, “This is a new virus and there is much that we are still learning about it. We have taken this new development into account and are taking serious note of it.”

Boost to primary care

“We are now focussing on increasing the capacity of primary medical infrastructure which includes dedicated hospitals, isolation beds, ICU beds, and quarantine facilities, he said.

“Currently the requirement of beds for 8,356 cases is estimated to be 1,671 (20% of confirmed cases with moderate and severe/critical clinical symptoms), the present availability of beds is 1,05,980 in 601 dedicated COVID-19 hospitals across the country. The number of isolation beds in dedicated hospitals across the country is being further augmented,” he added.

France severely hit by rising infections and death toll

The arrival of the first batch of Rafale fighter jets for the Indian Air Force is likely to be delayed by around three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as France battles rising infections and deaths, and continuing lockdown restrictions, which have also impacted the training schedule, defence sources said.

“In mid-March there were 8-9 weeks of training left before the first major group could move to India for starting operations here. Some logistic support equipment and test equipment were also to be flown to Ambala beginning April, which is postponed as of now due to the lockdown and restrictions on flights imposed by India,” a defence source told The Hindu on condition of anonymity.

‘No clear timeframe’

In addition, the lockdown restrictions are expected to continue in France at least till the end of April due to severity of the outbreak. “So, it is only obvious that we expect corresponding delay,” the two sources separately stated.

“Taking in the delay due to the lockdown in France, followed by any restrictions on flights and personnel coming from Europe imposed by India, we could be looking at July[for the arrival of the aircraft],” the first source stated, adding that the timeframe was not clear yet.

In October 2019, on a visit to France for the second India-France ministerial-level annual defence dialogue, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh took formal delivery of the first Rafale jet built for the IAF at the Dassault Aviation’s facility in Merignac. The jets were scheduled to arrive in India by May 2020.

The government is “engaged” in talks with the U.S. administration to reconsider President Donald Trump’s orders to impose visa sanctions on countries that don’t take back illegal “aliens” in the U.S. within a week. In particular, the order clashed with New Delhi’s decision to restrict all passengers, including Indian citizens from any other country, owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

If Washington refuses to relent on its seven-day deadline, or New Delhi refuses to lift the ban on incoming travel within the week, Indians could face a major cut in U.S. visas granted this year.

“We have been engaged with the U.S. government on resuming these deportation-related travels at the earliest opportunity,” government sources told The Hindu, when asked about the logjam over the U.S. President’s memorandum.

“Like all incoming international travel, the deportation of illegal immigrants to India has also been affected by the lockdown and COVID-19-related travel restrictions,” the sources explained, adding that India had been cooperating with the U.S. to repatriate illegal Indian nationals from the U.S. as it is the government’s policy “not to encourage illegal immigration to any country”.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s 2018 survey, Indians constitute one of the largest groups of illegal aliens in the U.S., numbering an estimated 4,70,000 who had entered by 2015.

However, the Trump administration has pushed for India to tighten its controls on emigration, and accept more deportations in the past few years.

Govt. and organisations working with differently-abled people need to make efforts to convert prevention and care messages into an accessible format, says expert

People with disabilities need much more support than others in the face of a pandemic. They may not be eating properly and may experience higher stress because they are unable to understand what is happening all around them, says G.V.S. Murthy, Vice-President and Director, Indian Indian Institute of Public Health, Hyderabad.

What are the unique challenges that people with disability face?

People with disability have special issues in a situation like the spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). People with disability are a diverse group, experiencing different hardships in accessing information on prevention and risk of infection.

People with visual impairment and blindness depend upon touch for most of their daily activities. They need to hold the hand of an escort to move around; they cannot read the messages that the rest of the population can see; they cannot practise social distancing unless there are innovative approaches like keeping a safe distance using a white cane.

For the hearing impaired, especially those who are not literate, they cannot hear the message or read it. Since many depend on lip-reading, they are compromised when the person giving a message is wearing a mask.

None of the messages in the media is using sign language interpreters. The physically disabled cannot reach a wash basin or may not be able to wash their hands vigorously.

Children and adolescents with conditions like cerebral palsy or Down’s Syndrome need to be assisted in feeding. People with mental health issues cannot comprehend the messages. At the same time, people with disabilities have a higher risk of conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, which are high-risk factors for COVID-19 mortality. Therefore, people with disabilities need much more support than the rest of the population in the face of a pandemic.

They may not be eating properly and may experience higher stress because they are unable to understand what is happening all around them, over which they have no control.

Women with disability have additional issues. They are vulnerable to exploitation and even more so during a pandemic. Many of them have children without disability and are highly stressed as to how they can care for them and family members because they are not supported to care for them.

People with communication disabilities don’t know how to express their problems. Routine health needs that they have are also not provided as health centres or transportation facilities are not accessible.

What is the scale of the problem?

India is home to nearly 150 million people with some degree of disability. Nearly 25-30 million have severe disability. Most of them live as part of their families and depend on a carer. This adds to another 25-30 million carers. Therefore, we are looking at nearly 50 million people who need special support, which is not routinely forthcoming.

How can the public and government help?

India has signed up to achieve sustainable development goals, the cornerstone of which is universal access to health and education and equity. The government and the organisations working with people with disabilities have to make efforts to convert prevention and care messages on COVID-19 into an accessible format.

Health facilities should prioritise the needs of people with disabilities over the rest of the population. Decreasing waiting time in hospitals for them will reduce contact with other asymptomatic carriers of the novel coronavirus. Their medicine needs have to be provided for. Mobile health teams can provide them services at their homes rather than having them travel to hospitals. A dedicated helpline can be set up for this so that the medical team can reach them. They need to be assured of supplies of soap, sanitisers and tissues.

The general public needs to be educated on providing support for people with disabilities. Technology-savvy professionals can help to make information available in an accessible format for people with disabilities.

Students with disabilities also need to be provided support so that they can keep up academically. Therefore, online teaching programmes should be made available to them in an accessible format. Civil society should volunteer their time to provide this sort of support. Since many of them will not be able to access professional carers during a lockdown, civil society volunteers should help. Even for supporting cooking and other self-care activities, volunteers should step in.

Inclusive society is the need of the hour. We don’t want to face a situation where medical equipment is prioritised based on younger populations being cared for at the cost of the elderly and the people with disability, as happened in countries like Spain where there was a limited number of ventilators and beds, which could not cope with the avalanche of cases that needed critical care.

A country’s development is measured by its social support and inclusive policies. We need to set high standards and not succumb to the ‘might is right’ philosophy and abandon people with disability in this crisis.

What is the current situation?

Nobody is addressing the special needs of people with disabilities and making efforts at reaching out to them. We would fail as a human race if we don’t show a humane response in an equitable manner with affirmative action for people with disabilities.

Mist-type spray ensures maximum coverage, easy installation

Passage to safety: The walkway, which costs about ₹1.5 lakh, can be easily installed in critical locations.Special Arrangement

In an attempt at providing new technologies to contain the spread of COVID-19, the Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (CMERI), Durgapur, a laboratory of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), has developed low-cost disinfection walkways.

The walkway, which costs about ₹1.5 lakh on an average, can be easily installed in critical locations such as isolation/quarantine facilities, mass transit system entry points and medical centres, CMERI Director-General Harish Hirani said. The walkway uses mist type spray ensuring maximum target coverage with minimum shadow area of an individual.

Two variants

“We started working on these walkways from the third week of March and now we are ready with two variants, Pneumatic Variant Disinfection Walkway and Hydraulic Variant Disinfection Walkway. This is cost-effective and can be easily installed,” Mr. Hirani said.

According to the CMERI D-G, the walkways use mist type spray, whose particle size could be as small as 100 to 200 microns. “We have already got orders from the local municipal corporation like Asansol and Durgapur and some schools in the region,” Mr. Hirani said.

Depending on how much chemicals are used, the walkways can sanitise a person in 20 to 30 seconds. Both the walkways have been installed on the CEMRI campus in Durgapur.

Researchers say that in these disinfectant walkways, the base liquid is sodium hypochlorite along with which soap and ethanol are added. In certain cases, if people are allergic to chlorine, the liquid can be changed to iodine-based solutions.

Emphasising that these walkways will become a part of people’s lives post the coronavirus outbreak, Mr. Hirani said the variants made by the CMERI could be easily customised.

Recently, during a videoconference with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee had suggested sanitising the markets. The CMERI-built road sanitisers can be used for this purpose.

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