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Is India under-reporting coronavirus cases? What can be the repercussions?

A surge in local transmission due to lack of awareness would shift the outbreak to a new phase and drastic large-scale measures would be needed to contain it.

Parag NarangParag Narang | Updated: 22-03-2020 00:51 IST | Created: 22-03-2020 00:50 IST
Is India under-reporting coronavirus cases? What can be the repercussions?
Despite lockdowns and curfews being imposed by the state governments, there is little change seen in the behaviour of people who are blatantly defying orders. Image Credit: ANI

For the third consecutive day, China has reported zero new cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 but the situation is still gloomy for the rest of the world, which is kicking in never-before measures to try to contain the outbreak.

The outbreak started from Wuhan province in China but countries as far as the United States and Argentina have announced lockdowns to control the spread of the pandemic. Most of Europe is under lockdown with Italy being the hardest hit, having over 47,000 cases and the death toll surpassing even that of China.

Surprisingly, India, which shares a 3,488 km border with China, has so far reported only 315 cases, almost half of which surged only in the last couple of days.

If true, the government must be commended for controlling the outbreak of a virus that has spread to over 160 countries and has sent millions, if not billions, into some form of isolation. But if the cases are being underreported as being claimed in some media reports, it can have serious repercussions and can truncate the impact of any damage control measures taken in the near future.

"I have always suspected from Day 1 that the numbers which are being declared are just the tip of the iceberg and the real numbers are many times more. The infection is simmering in the community, waiting to explode," Dr. Arvind Kumar from Sir Ganga Ram Hospital told NDTV on Friday.

The country recently reported the highest jump in coronavirus cases with 63 cases being reported on Friday. The total number of cases soared to 315 on Saturday.

In response to the growing outbreak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a Janata Curfew (People's Curfew) for 14 hours on Sunday along with several other measures including state-level lockdowns announced by local governments but Kumar says that the country has already "moved to Stage 3" of the outbreak and current measures might not be enough considering the "real number" of cases.

Repercussions of underreporting cases

Some things are understandably kept confidential and underreporting cases during the initial stages of an outbreak could prove successful in controlling social panic and irrational public reaction like panic-buying being witnessed across the world right now.

But underreporting cases during the more serious stages could very well enlarge the problem and even hamper the government's ability to fight an outbreak.

  • Lack of seriousness

This is already being witnessed right now in different parts of India. Despite lockdowns and curfews being imposed by the state governments, there is little change seen in the behavior of people who are blatantly defying orders.

Maharashtra has announced a partial lockdown while several other states and UTs including Haryana, Rajasthan, Goa, Puducherry have imposed Section 144 or curfew to contain the disease. But the ground-level impact of these measures is questionable.

Maharashtra has registered almost 540 offenses for violating restrictions in place to control the spread of coronavirus, officials said on Saturday. The violations include not observing lockdown, fleeing home quarantine, hiding or falsifying travel history, spreading rumors or fake news about the pandemic and advertising products with the aim of profiting from the outbreak panic, they said.

The Kanika Kapoor case is another example of the lack of seriousness among people. The Bollywood singer recently returned to India from London but went on to attend a party with dozens of people in Lucknow.

Two passengers, who were marked mandatory quarantine, were deboarded from a train between Bengaluru and Delhi on Saturday. 12 other passengers who had recently traveled by trains were also tested positive for the coronavirus.

A surge in local transmission due to lack of awareness would shift the outbreak to a new phase and drastic large-scale measures would be needed to contain the outbreak because tracking down people exposed to a positive case would become much harder.

  • Fuelling fake news

Underreporting could also encourage unproved theories like one about the virus not being able to survive the summer heat. This theory is going around in the whole world right now and although experts have acknowledged that virus-based respiratory illnesses tend to reduce with the rise in temperatures during summer, they warn that countries can't afford to make assumptions at this point.

Besides not all virus-based illness is reduced in warm weather, the Middle East respiratory syndrome or MERS, also a type of coronavirus, is transmitted mainly in hot countries.

From fake DIY detection tests to herbal remedies for curing the novel virus, social media platforms are being flooded with misinformation, which could add to the social panic and thus hamper the government's ability to efficiently fight the outbreak.

The Indian government has taken some commendable steps in fighting fake news and is actively working to bust rumors related to coronavirus. But a confused policy response and different approach of state and central governments could encourage people to turn to other sources for information. Reports of cases being underreported could also have a major impact on how people view the information provided by official sources, therefore the government must address any such reports.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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