Life in time of swine flu - India gets back to work

October 12th, 2009 - 4:49 pm ICT by IANS  

By Kavita Bajeli-Datt
New Delhi, Oct 12 (IANS) The markets are crowded with Diwali shoppers, cinema halls wear houseful signs and children are headed for school. People in India who were once panic-stricken have learned to live in the shadow of swine flu that has so far killed 389 people and affected as many as 11,874 people.

No queues are found in front of testing centres nowadays, a stark contrast to the panic some weeks ago. Now, except at hospitals and at the arrival lounge of the Indira Gandhi International Airport, no one is seen wearing masks, which had fast disappeared from chemist shops after 14-year-old Rida Shaikh died from swine flu Aug 3 in Pune, becoming India’s first Influenza A (H1N1) victim.

It’s quite a contrast to the time when in Pune - considered to be the epicentre of swine flu in the country - thousands of people turned up for testing on a single day or in Delhi where, again on one particular day, over 900 people gathered at a hospital to be checked up.

As the hype and panic slowly peter down, it is work as usual in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi where the maximum fatalities and cases have been reported since the first case was reported May 16.

People are busy shopping for Diwali, the festival of lights, capitalising on the number of eye-catching offers or getting ready for the marriage season, even though the onset of winter may mean a resurgent virus.

The authorities see it as a good sign.

Karnataka’s principal secretary for health I.R. Perumal said: “People have realised that there is no point in panicking. It’s a positive sign that places like schools and offices have adopted preventive measures to fight the H1N1 virus, rather than closing public places.”

For instance, in Delhi, two Class 9 students of Sanskriti School tested positive for H1N1 Oct 5 after they returned from a school trip to Himachal Pradesh, but it was not closed as was done in August when a student tested positive for the virus. This time only an advisory was issued.

Sometimes that may not suffice, of course. In Shri Ram School’s Aravali branch in Gurgaon on the outskirts of the capital, all sections of Class 6 closed early for the Diwali break after a surge in swine flu cases following an outstation trip. But the rest of the school continued as usual.

Even in Maharashtra, which has reported 160 deaths and 3,321 cases - the highest in the country, life is back to normal.

The health authorities say it’s all due to sustained government campaigns.

“Now you don’t see people moving around with masks even in a city like Pune, the worst-hit by swine flu,” said Pradip Awate, Maharashtra epidemic medical officer and in-charge, state swine-flu control room.

Awate can now afford to smile. On Aug 10, the Maharashtra government had announced the closure of schools, colleges, cinema halls and malls in the Pune-Pimpri-Chinchwad area. While some remained closed for three days, others did so for a week.

The change was visible in the state after Ganesh Chaturthi when a large number of people gathered to worship at temples.

Even in India’s IT hub Bangalore, people are breathing a little easy, although fear still stalks them.

“I cannot stop going to office, but we’re concerned,” Pallav P., an IT professional, told IANS. Karnataka has seen 110 deaths so far.

In Hyderabad, however, where the first swine flu case was detected in India May 16, following which one of the offices of search engine giant Google was shut down, motorists are still seen wearing masks.

After the initial panic, things cooled down. But when the cases and deaths went up again, state authorities extended the Dussehra holidays for schools and colleges by five days up to Oct 5.

Although cases are rising every day, there are fewer people at the testing centres.

According to Jayakumari, the Hyderabad district medical and health officer, the number of people coming for check-ups at screening centres has dropped by three-fourth. “People are no longer fearful of contracting swine flu.”

But one person who is anxious is Delhi Health Minister Kiran Walia. She said citizens are coming to hospitals late. She has reason to worry as the Indian capital has reported 3,046 cases - the second highest in the country.

One assuring thing is that the health authorities have asserted they are geared up for the next bout of the virus.

“We are in the process of expanding the existing medical and related infrastructure to control swine flu and treat it. We are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Awate in Mumbai.

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