The Federal’s data-speak: Scale up COVID testing, make it an opportunity

The government instead of spending thousands of crores in the form of give-outs should think of economic revival package and the basis of that should be testing. Photo: PTI

What should be India’s strategy to deal with COVID-19 while the country is in the midst of Lockdown 3.0?

It should be testing, testing, and more testing, says The Federal’s Data Editor Venkataraghavan Srinivasan, as he puts the COVID-19 situation into perspective.

The government, instead of spending thousands of crores in the form of give-outs and corporate bailouts, should think of an economic revival package and the basis of that should be testing. Testing would cost only a few crores.

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In other words, this could also be described as the cure for coronavirus!

The ‘cure’ is to make it safe for everybody to get back to work and resume daily life. This is the way to get to a point where everyone does not have to be in lockdown for months or even years on end.

The trick in this strategy is to identify who are infectious (asymptomatic) and then go on to isolate them, while allowing everybody else to return to business as usual. In fact, the lockdown has thrown a lot of our folks out of work and we could also use them to help facilitate testing at scale — in other words finding them ‘jobs’.

We have doctors, nurses, sanitary workers, police officers, government officials, media, and people offering their services. They have to be at work and there is no question of work from home or chill-out time for them. So, the question to ask is, what can we do to make their working environment safer?

The first thing is to test people and test them repeatedly. By doing so, authorities will be able to identify who is infectious and pull them off the line so that they do not infect their colleagues, the public or senior citizens.

The other thing is to provide these key workers protective equipment so that, even if they deal with someone who is sick or needs help, the protection will prevent them from exposure to the virus. So, the most optimal way India could spend on the stimulus is not through giveaways alone but by scaling testing and rapidly increasing the nation’s production of PPE.

Those who tested negative could go back to work for a week or two and maybe, at the end of it, get tested again. So, instead of telling the world whether they are sick or not, they can go back to work. If people are tested repeatedly, positive cases could be isolated, thereby preventing the spread of the virus. Testing should be continued even if 15-20% of such cases turn false negative. Authorities can still catch them quickly when they become infectious.

All it requires is to spend a fraction of the stimulus money to take the tests to labs across India with support from IISERs, CSIRs, IITs, NITs, Kings Institutes etc. (Also, the country can build more testing facilities with support from these institutes as they are already equipped with the technology.)

Unlike the West, labour is cheap in India (the reason these tests are expensive in the West is due to labour cost and stringent norms such as BSL 3, which is not the case in India). In fact, at scale, it is possible to reduce the cost of these tests to even double-digits or a few hundred rupees and not the $117 that is being bandied in the West.

We must use this adversity as an opportunity to build a health delivery pipeline and make it ubiquitous (This is an investment for the future as well). We would be saving billions downstream.

We should have ‘testers’ deployed at testing centres in police stations, electricity boards, grocery stalls, milk booths (also called ‘Aavin’ booths), restaurants, and office complexes.

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