By Amit Roy
A TOP professor in the US has told Eastern Eye that the 21-day lockdown imposed by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi could help to bring down the number of those who might become infected with coronavirus “from 1.3 million to 15,000”.
Bhramar Mukherjee, professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the school of public health at Michigan University, made this assessment in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight last Tuesday (24).
She told presenter Ritula Shah: “The quoted 1.3 million was a worst-case scenario and the upper bar to the projected number of cases if there is no intervention done. In the same study, we did some simulation calculations where we showed these counts can come down to about thousands, like 15,000, from one to two million. So, draconic measures are needed for the world’s largest democracy.”
Mukherjee was an academic high-flyer at Presidency College and the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata before migrating to the US, where she has now settled.
Referring to the outbreak, she warned: “A tidal wave is coming and we cannot have a picket fence to resist it. And we cannot keep arguing, ‘When is it coming? Is it coming in the morning? Is it coming in the afternoon? Or is 10ft high or 100ft high?’
“The fact is the picket fence will be washed away – and the tidal wave is coming. It is not if, it is when the tide is coming.
“The number of beds in Indian hospitals for 1,000 people is 0.7. Compare this number to 2.8 in the UK and 2.9 in the US, 11.5 in South Korea and 4.2 in China.
“So, if you are thinking of the health system being overwhelmed, then this is going to happen much more easily in India. About 20 per cent of these patients are going to need critical care and hospitalised and then maybe five or 10 per cent of these people are going to need ICU beds.”
Afterwards, in an interview with Eastern Eye, Mukherjee said: “I do think the Indian government is taking the right public health measures. If you look at the footprints of the pandemic, no nation where there has been a critical collection of cases has escaped without a lockdown – except South Korea, where they started large scale testing very early on and took the strategy of contact tracing and isolation of all cases and exposed contacts. I do not see that happening for India.
“So, if you have to do it, better to do it earlier – (then) your chances of containing the disease is higher.”
However, Mukherjee conceded: “The collateral damage from lockdown in economic and social terms is significant, thus it is a hard decision either way.
“As a public health expert, I feel we need to fight the virus on a war footing that will be the only way to save the economy, too.
“Short-term pain in terms of disruption of life and other hardships may lead to long term gain for the nation.
“It needs strong partnership of government, public, private sector and a long-term strategy. It requires trust, empathy, efficiency and accelerated implementation. We can learn from the success of China and South Korea that these severe measures work, so let us adhere to public health guidelines and defeat this virus.”
Mukherjee revealed she was born into a family “passionate about the liberal and performing arts and artists. Gauss, Newton, and Archimedes remained in the periphery while my father mandated we read the great Indian and Western classics in literature, visited art galleries, watched the best of world theatre and cinema, become immersed in (Rabindranath) Tagore and Harry Belafonte music, and deconstructed the theories of Derrida and Foucault.”
In a slightly jocular vein, she added: “I was born as a highly competitive maths nerd, the black sheep of the family.
“I was obsessed with mathematics and science – not obviously present in my genes. Often, I would hide my textbooks inside comic books so my parents thought I was relaxing and not studying.”
She added: “I am most proud of being a full-time single parent – with no family support – while I rose through the academic ranks. This took extraordinarily hard work, discipline, determination and grit, but was truly worth it. I took my PhD qualifiers at Purdue (in Indiana) in August 1998, exactly 10 days after my daughter was born.”
In 2016, she was appointed associate director for cancer control and population sciences at the University of Michigan.
Asked if she could have achieved as much had she remained in India, Mukherjee replied: “I could not have pursued this career in India as I work in close collaboration with my colleagues in medicine and public health. This integrated infrastructure of interdisciplinary work just does not exist in India. Mathematics and statistics are quite decoupled from health sciences.
“I have my parents, my sister, my nephew and a large extended family in India who are always rooting for me and are very present in their absence.”