Docs on a mission

Three doctors explore what we can learn from the ancestors of COVID-19


There is hope. A new book, The Coronavirus: What You Need to Know about the Global Pandemic, might not be what spells comfort. But it is exactly what the doctor ordered. Written by Dr Rajesh M. Parikh, India’s first neuropsychiatrist, his son Dr Swapneil Parikh, a doctor who focuses on lifestyle diseases, and Dr Maherra Desai, a clinical psychologist, it comes with just the right medical weight to be read.

"We will prevail," says Rajesh. "I can say that with absolute certainty.” There is precedent. "Our ancestors survived the Spanish flu,” he says. “It wiped out 1.8 crore people in India—about 6 per cent of the population. That is what happened then. Everyone who is alive today, is because their ancestors survived the pandemic, natural disasters and famines in India.”

Bringing together data, facts, history and details of vaccines, the book reads like a thriller. The idea of the book struck Rajesh during a tranquil boat ride with colleague Ram Ranganathan in the Sundarbans. "As we were drifting along in the Ganges delta, Ram and I were saying, 'It looks like we have a big problem,'" says Rajesh. They were discussing about Covid-19, and the lockdown of Wuhan hit home. "The enormity of it all struck me," he says. "It did not make sense. If the Chinese maintained it was not so bad, why would they lock down a huge city?"

What began as an intellectual exercise on a boat, became a personal mission for Rajesh. He suggested that a standard operating procedure be implemented in Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai, where he is director of medical research. "I could sense some people wondering what I was getting so worked up about," he says.

More than just being one of the first books in India on the topic, The Coronavirus makes compelling reading. It talks about the ancestors of the virus and what we have learnt from them, and the doctors who have been forerunners in this battle. Like Dr John Snow, a 19th century English physician and a founding member of the Epidemiological Society of London, who discovered the link between cholera and bad sanitation. Or, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician, who could not understand why the clinic he worked for had a higher mortality rate than those that were staffed by midwives in 1846. The reason? The doctors did not wash their hands.

But beyond making sense of medical jargon and providing answers, the book also ends in a question that the virus has made obvious. "I am reasonably sure we will find a vaccine," he says. "[But] here is the big question. How are we going to ensure the equitable distribution of the vaccine? How will we make sure it is as available for a person in the slum as it is for person in a colony?"

The virus, which is always a step ahead, is forcing the world to look at itself closely, Rajesh believes. "It doesn't respect your GDP or your military arsenal. This virus is a great leveller," he says.

The Coronavirus: What You Need to Know About the Global Pandemic

By Maherra Desai, Rajesh Parikh and Swapneil Parikh

Published by Penguin eBury Press

Pages 224

Price Rs299

📣 The Week is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@TheWeekmagazine) and stay updated with the latest headlines