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WHO: 'Impressive' how India implemented COVID-19 measures

Murali Krishnan Interview
August 11, 2020

In an exclusive interview with DW, Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the WHO's regional director for Southeast Asia, praises India's efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic considering its huge and diverse population.

Health worker and Doctor conduct Thermal screening and pulse test of a resident at Rajiv Gandhi Nagar Slum , Dharavi during Covid-19 , on July 8, 2020 in Mumbai, India
Image: Imago Images/Hindustan Times

DW: Are you satisfied with the way Indian authorities are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic?  

Poonam Khetrapal Singh: India took bold decisions such as screening people at ports of entries, tracing contacts, training health workers, scaling up testing capacities, preparing health facilities and engaging with communities. The early nationwide lockdown helped authorities scale up healthcare facilities. The decision to produce protective gear locally to meet the ongoing and future needs for medical supplies showed the country was geared for the long haul.

However, [COVID-19] responses vary at national and state levels. In a country as big as India, the measures were not sufficient across all areas. Scaling up capacities and response remains a challenge.

Despite these challenges, India has demonstrated an unwavering commitment in its fight against the pandemic.

Read more: Coronavirus: Is India about to achieve 'herd immunity'?

Do the rising numbers of coronavirus cases pose a challenge to the government?

Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh
Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh: 'We must use all the tools we already have at our disposal'Image: DW/M. Krishnan

The number of cases in India should be seen in comparison to the country's population of 1.3 billion. The transmission of COVID-19 is not homogenous in any country, and India is not different. There are areas with sporadic cases, some with small clusters, and the mega cities with large clusters in their densely populated areas.

At the same time, we are also witnessing impressive implementation of core public health measures – test, trace, isolate and treat – in the most difficult places that have now become examples globally of how COVID-19 should be tackled. One example is Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums and one of the most densely populated areas in the world where over 1 million people live in a 2.1 square kilometer (1.3 square mile) area. In Dharavi, the virus transmission has dropped to sporadic cases after rigorous implementation of core public health measures.

Read more: Tackling coronavirus pandemic: Is the Kerala model in India really working?

Does India need multiple approaches to deal with COVID-19?

As countries now work towards finding the right balance to save lives as well as livelihood, they need to focus on local epidemiology to adjust and implement public health and social measures. The response now should be guided by subnational or even community-level risk assessment, which should be based on epidemiological factors, healthcare capacities and public health capacities.

Public health and social measures should be accordingly adjusted with protection of vulnerable populations being central in the decision to maintain or lift a measure. The adjusting of public health and social measures, including large-scale movement restrictions, should be done to minimize the risk of resurgence in COVID-19 cases. Continued efforts are needed to prevent further spread of the disease by slowing down, suppressing and breaking the chain of transmission.

All countries, including India, must continue to detect and test suspected cases, isolate and treat confirmed cases, and trace all their contacts; promote safe hygiene practices and respiratory etiquette; protect health workers; and increase health system capacity.

Read more: Coronavirus in India: Is public negligence causing surge in cases?

Compared to Europe and the US, how do you assess India's COVID-19 response?

No two countries can be compared. Other than population and country size, every country has its unique socioeconomic, cultural and political drivers that impact its approach and response.

When do you think a COVID-19 vaccine will be made available for commercial use?

Currently, over 165 candidate vaccines are at some stage of development. Of these, about 26 vaccine candidates are in human trial. We know of at least 3-4 going into phase 3. AstraZeneca, Moderna and CanSino are in or starting phase 3; we are also aware of a Russian candidate vaccine that is entering this phase. There are several others currently in phase 1-2, which will enter phase 3 in the coming two months.

Candidate vaccines can be of various types – virus vaccines using live attenuated virus, viral vector vaccines, protein-based vaccines, and nucleic acid or RNA and DNA vaccines, which are completely new platforms.

The speed of vaccine development has been extraordinary. The robust vaccine pipeline gives us hope, even if there are many unpredictable factors that will determine their success. There are promising results from the clinical trials for some vaccine candidates, which is very encouraging.

However, we need to wait for completion of the vaccine trials and their outcomes to be in a better position to understand by when the vaccines will be ready for use. It is important that the potential vaccines meet the recommended mandatory standards of efficacy and safety before they are used for mass vaccination of human populations.

Read more: Can India really have a coronavirus vaccine ready by August?

When do you think the coronavirus will see a downward trend in India and the rest of the world?

It is hard to predict, especially because it's a new virus and we don't have an effective medicine or a vaccine for it.

We must use all the tools we already have at our disposal. For countries, this means implementing the fundamental public health measures to find, isolate, test and care for cases; and trace and quarantine their contacts. For individuals, this means doing everything to protect themselves and those around them. This means keeping your distance from others, cleaning your hands, avoiding crowded and enclosed areas, and wearing a mask where recommended.

Read more: Coronavirus: 57% of people in Mumbai slums had virus

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh is the World Health Organization's regional director for Southeast Asia.

The interview was conducted by Murali Krishnan. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11