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Swine Flu: Why there is no panic in India

Panicky travelers all over the world have been canceling their holiday plans—that were as it is lean given the state of the world economy, threats of the pink slip and depressed wages—because of the swine flu. But in India, hotels are reporting that domestic travel is actually looking up because of that. Cheaper airfares and hotel tariffs in Europe but particularly in South-east Asia (that saw large-scale cancellations from the Americans this year) meant that many people like us in India, necessarily budget holidayers, were looking at foreign destinations this year even for quick getaways.

Thaliand, for instance, has never been cheaper and more within reach of a middle-class Indian tourist at just about Rs 18,000 per person for a stay of four nights (Bangkok, Patttaya) and airfare, taxes included. Less clichéd and more interesting options are marginally more expensive (Hong Kong with Disneyland and Macau, ferry tickets, city tour, air fare and accommodation) comes for just about Rs 45,000 (under $1000) and so forth and a special offer by Lufthansa has flights for European capitals costing around Rs 30,000 ($600) per person.  But now swine flu fears mean that we are junking all thoughts of these summer getaways. Instead, the focus is back on India, where despite the population overload and lack of sanitation and basic health facilities, thoughts of flu are far from everyone’s minds.

Experts have suggested that the very hot weather, the kind that we are seeing in north India these days, kills the virus. And that is one reason why there won’t be a pandemic in India. But there is a variety of other opinion too on why the swine flu will surprisingly spare India. A colleague of mine, writing in the Sunday Business Standard, argues that India has been spared in the past too—from SARS, the Bird Flu and so on. None of the so-called experts have a credible answer to why that has happened despite the fact that as a country we must have the worst public health system ever. My colleague hypothesis that India is largely insulated because not too many people travel to it and spread these viruses.

While this may be true this year with tourism at an all-time low (and any way our links with Mexico are very few indeed), that hasn’t necessarily been the case in the past. Another reason for the country’s insularity, of course, could be immunity—we have so many diseases in India that we have become a hardy lot indeed. But most likely, the sad truth is that if a couple of hundred or thousand people die in various parts from flu, they will probably do so undetected.

Despite the help desks and doctors in masks you see at our international airports to screen flu suspects, there is virtually no monitoring of diseases in the country. Patients often don’t even visit doctors to treat “minor” illnesses, relying on over-the-counter medication or local or old wives cures because in the absence of medical insurance, treatment is expensive and out of reach of the poor and even the middle classes. Fancy “five star” hospitals with the best medical care in the world have come up but they are frightfully expensive and out of reach for a significant portion of the population. Besides, there is our famous disregard for life. In a country where the pressure on resources is immense, no one really cares whether a couple of lives are put at stake.

Here’s a recent comment by a school principal at a posh school in New Delhi who was talking about schools breaking early for summer vacations because of very high temperatures that could hazard the health of the young pupils: According to Madhulika Sen, principal, Tagore International school, children these days have lower immunity because they eat junk food and are used to the A-C! It’s a system that places too much stress on austerity and hardship as a necessary part of life. Don’t expect it to be concerned if you get flu!

In the meanwhile, till any case is confirmed in India, we’ll just make merry. Travel to Goa where the deals are better than anywhere else or to Rajasthan and Agra which may be burning up but are beautiful still.

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One Response to “Swine Flu: Why there is no panic in India”

  1. Summer Toys says:

    Great post as usual, long time lurker here, first comment! Thanks for the great blog.