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Coronavirus outbreak and mental health: How we can help people in quarantine

No part of the world can any longer claim to be completely safe from the coronavirus outbreak that has now spread to 77 countries, infecting over 90,000 people in a span of just three months. As on march 4, more than 3,198 people had died due to COVID-19 (the disease caused by this variant of the coronavirus). In India, the situation had been relatively under control because vigilant health officials in Kerala were able to promptly trace the three cases that were reported last month. All of them were students studying in China (the epicentre of coronavirus outbreak) and had returned home for annual vacation on account of Lunar New Year festivities in China.

Things have changed drastically this week with 26 new cases reported from Delhi, Rajasthan and Telangana. The Union health ministry has assured it is taking all preventive measures against coronavirus and issued fresh travel advisories, besides increasing screening at airports and seaports.

QURANTINE: OUR BEST BET TO FIGHT COVID-19

It’s a well-established fact that one of the most effective strategies to control spread of any communicable disease is to prevent people’s exposure to the infected patient. In case of a fast-spreading epidemic like the present coronavirus outbreak, this becomes non-negotiable.

There are basically two ways in which this can be achievedquarantine and isolation. Though often used interchangeably in media reports, these terms refer to unique situations. Quarantine is the separation of people who are suspected of having being exposed to the infection, while isolation refers to separation of the infected person(s) (i.e. confirmed cases) from the general population.

One of the major reasons why Kerala was able to contain coronavirus infection was its ability to effectively and immediately put over 3,000 people in home quarantines. These were the people who were identified to have possibly come into contact with the three confirmed cases. The result was: after the three patients recovered at isolation wards of government hospitals in three districts, no new case was reported in India until Monday.

Similarly, hundreds of Indian nationals who were evacuated from China following the coronavirus outbreak too were put in special quarantine facilities set up in New Delhi. In China, many affected cities have been turned into quarantines to contain the spread of coronavirus outbreak.

With 26 new COVID-19 cases, health officials in Delhi, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are working on a war-footing to trace all people who are likely to have come in contact with these confirmed cases. Once they are traced, they will be placed under quarantine for at least 14 days.

The infected patients have meanwhile been put in isolation for recovery and to contain further spread of the viral infection.

NEED A SENSITIVE TOUCH

While putting people in quarantine has proved to be effective in controlling epidemics triggered by communicable diseases, it is important that the process is sensitive enough to ensure that those who are being put in quarantines don’t suffer mental agony. It is important for health officials and society to ensure that people put in quarantine and isolation aren’t stigmatised or made to feel that they are being treated like criminals.

Wendy K Mariner, professor of health law at Boston University School of Public Health, argues that treating patients as criminals is problematic because it defeats the purpose of disease-control efforts as they then target a person instead of targeting the pathogen.

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