COVID-19 AND BIODEFENCE: Can We Prepare Better?-[PART II]

by Shivam Mishra and Aman Vijay Bhatt

The article is a part of a two – part series. The first part can be found here.

In the second part of this bipartite blog series, the authors continue their discussion on the nation’s unprepared biodefense in the domestic context, as flowing from India’s response towards this virus. The authors discussed the State actions that failed to restrict virus spread with thousands of people dead and nearing one lakh patients, an imperative analysis has been followed by suggestions including the adaption of efficacious biodefense strategy.

BIODEFENCE AND DOMESTIC INSTANCES

An enormity like COVID-19 poses more threat to countries like India which has a large and dense population where the implementation of measures like social distancing and proper lockdown is almost impossible. Therefore, what the government is required to do is to stop the virus spread at is initial stages and for which a proper mechanism is needed. While India doesn’t have any national strategy for biodefense its existing system is nothing but a hollow structure of coordination among different agencies. 

Preparedness of a country focuses on the risk analysis, public health consequences, medical countermeasures, and research to prevent future threats. The bio-defence mechanism is based on two models – The first model aims to protect the nation from any natural bio-incidents such as Covid-19. The second model aims to protect the nation from any man-made bio-incidents such as bio-attack. Considering this India has modelled its multi-sectorial bio-defence mechanism. The ministry responsible for dealing with naturally cause bio-incidents is the ministry of health and family welfare; it provides help to detect the virus at its outburst. All the health-related guidelines are also issued by them at a bio crisis time. Ministry of home affairs works in conjunction with the health ministry in case of threat from any man-made bioweapons while biowarfare managed by the ministry of defense.  Ministry such as agriculture, environment, and climate change, department of animal husbandry and fisheries, department of drinking supply also play major roles in this mechanism. DRDO also takes active participation to develop protective defense equipment to make the county less vulnerable to any man made bio-attack. While India from the security prospect of bio-defense has considerably developed its mechanism with the inclusion ofMobile Reconnaissance Laboratories, NBC Hazard Prediction Software,and thedevelopmentofAirborne Laser technology and Agent Defeat Warhead which are capable to restrict the bioweapon attack, from the medical prospect, which needed at the time when bio incidents occur due to natural causes India lacks miserably as there is hardly any preparation to counter and recover from naturally causes bio-incidents like COVID-19.

For example in India on average there is one single government doctor who serves nearly 12,000 people. Consequently, at the current crisis when patients are now more than 1.15 lakhs (as on 22nd May), doctors are forced to work without any proper rest and facility even then most of the people are remaining untreated. The doctors are also facing shortages of protective masks and PPE kit

As suggested, Public awareness is an indispensable part of biodefense as unaware people add fuel to the fire at such a time of crisis. Hence, the government should be more proactive to warn its citizens of the probable repercussions. However, in India people failed to realize the consequences of such incidents possibly because they were not aware of its effect as it is the first time in the recent few years when India is under such a crisis of infectious disease which has transcended the boundary of the state to grip the whole nation. An example of this is the gathering of Tablighi Jamaat where thousands of people were gathered despite the knowledge of Covid-19. After this, they even refused to quarantine themselves by pelting stones and spiting on doctors and police teams. Consequently, the cases increased rapidly due to unreported Jamaati attendants. Furthermore, there were several cases reported in different cities where people attacked the police when cops stopped them from mass praying.  Moreover, they were also incidents where people gathered in thousands number on railway stations and bus stands. Such awareness also helps to establish civilian biodefense at the gross root where an individual can take measures and contribute. However, instead, several cases have been mentioned where people were thrown out from trains and buses due to the spread of Covid-19 fear. These instances giving evidence of public unawareness which is a gross failure for the government and their preparation of bio incidents.

Risk Communication is the foremost aspect while dealing with such a crisis. It requires designed coordination between state and centre, between ministries and departments. However, it also lacked immensely during such time.  For example, Madhya Pradesh’s government even at this time ran for one month without health minister, Discrepancies in the data released by ICMR and by the health ministry causing a huge communication gap. The negligent claims of elected public leaders that virus can be cured by drinking cow urine are making the situation worst. All this again highlighted the absence of single leadership and framework which could reduce such gaps and rumours. 

Furthermore, also police who is the first respondent at such time don’t have adequate training and knowledge to deal from such circumstances. As of now, only two battalions of total eight battalions created under the National Disaster Response Force have given such training. Leaving the first respondent from such training is also a major lacuna that needless to say could be avoided if a better approach would have been taken towards biodefense.

In addition to this, infectious virus-like Covid-19 requires careful handling while developing the vaccine for the virus or finding the nature of the virus. Such specialized work requires biosafety standards facilitated laborites scaled from BSL-1 to BSL-4. In India, these laboratories are very few in numbers, countries are testing the Covid-19 in BSL- 4 laborites concerning its high contagious nature however in India only three BSL-4 facilitated laborites are there which are way less in comparison to other nation. Thus, making the road-tough ahead for the nation in the fight against this haunting virus. 

Indian Public health infrastructure is also very pathetic with inadequate equipment such as a PPE kit for the doctors. The spread of the virus could be stopped at its initial stages if India had an aggressive testing approach like the countries of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Turkey. These countries adopted aggressive testing for its citizen including those who haven’t had the symptoms of the virus and consequently, succeeded in restricting the spread of the virus. While in contrary to this Indian hospitals refused to test the person who hasn’t had any travel history even if he has symptoms leaving space for the community outbreak which eventually occurred. The possible reason behind this may be the inadequate preparation of the government, untrained medical staff as barring WHO project from 1996 onwards no special training program has been organized by the government. According to Associated Press, India as on 18th March India was capable to test only 8,000 people in a day which was a much lower number considering the threat it already posed across the globe it becomes worst with the fact that yet they were testing only 90 people in a day. It was only after ordering one million medical kits from Germany when testing gathered pace.

Previously, in 1994 when the plague outbreak occurred in the Beed district of Maharashtra and Surat city of Gujarat India‘s response was as confusing as it today. Rumours such as disease have spread due to Poisonous water supply poured which created large panic among the citizens and people start migrating from the cities including doctors disposing of other cities prone to outbreak. The response of the government was confusing one as there was no clear coordination. The higher number of deaths cases were disclosed by the media. The chief minister without even any confirmed report communicated that Plague in Surat is pneumonic which is more severe than bubonic unsurprisingly it caused more panic among the people. The plague outbreak exposed countries’ vulnerable Epidemiological monitoring, and inadequate supportive system to respond at such time, laboratory services, unprepared hospitals, and medical staff, failure to quarantine the patients with having o special arrangement of isolation wars even in major hospitals. The Union health minister was not able to calm the anxiety created amongst the international community which further degraded India’s stature at the global stage which gets worst with the dengue outbreak in Delhi during the commonwealth games which again exposed the insufficient mechanism of nations to the International community. Unfortunately, India failed to take lessons from such experiences and consequently as evidenced responded inappropriately against COVID-19 spread.    

For example, the government failed to anticipate the threat virus could pose as by when the virus had already taken thousands of people’s life worldwide ministers were advocating Ayurveda as the best effective means to prevent the pandemic without any substantial scientific evidence corroborating their hypothesis. Furthermore, On March 4 the government respondent in Rajya Sabha that it is screening the citizen coming from China, Japan, South Korea, Hongkong, Italy, Turkey, and Iran. Poor measurement of the government can be evident with the fact that they allow for screen testing of passengers coming from Turkey where only two patients were found and leave the US where it spread in thousands of numbers. On the same date, Prime Minister stated that he would not celebrate the holy due to virus threat which suggesting that the government was aware of the high contagious character of virus and effect measurement of social distancing. However, the normal trend continues even after the 2 weeks. Even, the demand to adjourn the parliament session was rejected on 18 March by saying that it will create panic in public. Mask wearing under the parliament was also initially rejected by the chairman of Rajya Sabha.

The above discussion suggests that like the global instances India could have also restricted the spread of the virus if it had proper and functional biodefense.  

CONCLUSION

The suffering world today is witnessing will last for long with the people who have lost their beloved ones’ in this tragic pandemic. However, the fact also can’t be denied that it was the dizzy approach of nations that caused this enormity so tragic. It could be restricted if not eliminated if the country had proper and functioning biodefense. Considering this, the above discussion emphasized the need for a proper national biodefense strategy which is lacking immensely across the nation at the moment. In 2002 when SARS-CRS spread in China due to the consumption of civet cats it received much criticism at the international stage. Consequently, China banned such consumption along with wildlife trafficking. However, they lifted the ban after 6 months. Until the 2016 amendment, their law also allowed breeding of animals for several sorts of use such as for medicine, making products from their skin and tooth, and for food as well. Though amended, without any liability clause it hardly made any difference. A proper biodefense mechanism would be kept a vigilant look over on such laws which eventually could restrict the occurrence of Covid-19.  The international organization such as WHO has been accused of helping China Japan deputy prime minister even call this Chinese Health Organization while the US is also claiming the same. Thus there is a gross failure of international organizations on the global level and hence there is an urgent need for a biodefense mechanism of each country at its capacity.

A national strategy would also help to make equilibrium between security and public health prospects of biodefense as it has been seen that countries like India have made their biodefense mechanism strong but only form security prospects, not from health.  Since pandemics are likely to become common in the near future, it is high time for the nations to evaluate their biodefense mechanism by adopting a national biodefense strategy and ensure their implementation. Otherwise, maybe the next time such bio incidents would not be a warning but the danger itself and this paper is a small contribution from the authors to avoid catastrophic incidents in the near future again by addressing the need for biodefense for all the nations.

Views are personal.

Image has been provided by the authors.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shivam Mishra and Aman Vijay Bhatt are currently pursuing B.A. LLB. from Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.

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