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India Battles the Flu and Recession, Too

New America Media, News Feature, Sandip Roy Posted: Sep 05, 2009

BENGALURU, India-- The man sitting next to me at the Bengaluru airport tucked into his Vegetarian Combo Meal with relish. When he was done, he pushed his plate away, wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and then carefully tied a checked handkerchief around his face. The fear of swine flu has turned India, especially its airports, into Zorro land. Indians are masked, kerchief-ed, scarfed against the H1N1 virus.

The uniformed guard checking our hand luggage was wearing a mask. A little girl in a red frilly dress was wearing one. A middle-aged man traveling with work colleagues yanked his mask off, complaining, Its too uncomfortable, man. Anyway I am disease-free. The two Japanese businessmen behind him looked unconvinced and firmly kept their pale blue masks on.

H1N1 claims lives almost every day in India. Pune, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Mumbai have all been hit. The government is scrambling to respond. Posters on how to take precautions against swine flu are everywhere from the bulletin board of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to the airport bathrooms. My niece had doctors visit her college to tell them the dos-and-donts about swine flu.

The media are struggling to find new angles to cover something that is quickly becoming a chronic front-page story. The Times of India published the photographs of random Indians and their ideas of fail-safe swine flu prevention tactics. One involved praying. Another involved raw partridge (no comment on the risk of bird flu.)

The government is struggling to control the epidemic. "I want to assure you that the situation does not warrant a disruption in our daily lives because of fear and anxiety," said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Indias Independence Day, August 15. The government was more worried about failing monsoons pushing up food prices. Now its trying to take on swine flu more proactively.

International flights are greeted by a phalanx of masked inspectors. This being India, it takes three people to do the job of one. One takes the temperature of the passengers, one notes it in a book, and the third hands you a form to fill out. (Of course, no one is monitoring the domestic flights or trains, though of 139 new infections reported on one day at the end of August from 11 states, 134 involved local transmissions.)

Dont sneeze or sniffle, my mother warned me. They will drag you into the infectious disease ward of the public hospital. There you will surely catch the flu if you didnt already have it. The government is planning to allow a restricted set of chemists across the country to sell prescription-based sales of the anti-viral drug oseltamivir. It is provided free but only at government hospitals and a handful of private hospitals. The Telegraph newspaper reported that a family with two members suffering from swine flu had a relative purchase oseltamivir abroad and fly it in.

Families are struggling to cope. Schools and movie theaters were closed in cities like Mumbai and Pune for a week at the height of the panic. They have reopened but the nervousness remains. My friend in Bengaluru says her little toddler doesnt go for her daily romp in Cubbon Park anymore. But the familys English bulldog still gets to go for his walk in the park. He has a small black thread tied around his hind leg to ward off the evil eye from owners of dogs of lesser breeds. Hopefully, the thread also keeps H1N1 at bay.

Businesses are struggling to deal with this unexpected epidemic on the heels of a global recession. Happy hour prices in pubs have been slashed. Malls that have popped up all over the cities are trying extra hard to entice people back in. Airlines are offering discount fares to the major metros. Movie theaters have reopened after Bollywood shoots were canceled. Peak tourist and travel season is coming up in October and everyone is nervous. Unlike the last bird flu attack when chicken disappeared off the menu, bacon and ham are still being served. But swine flu has certainly hit the economy. The growth rate is expected to go down to 5.5 percent from 6.7 percent last year.

But this being India, everyone somehow makes do. At Shiro, an upscale open-air bar and restaurant in one of Bengalurus glittering malls, a trio of smiling hostesses (again, three doing the job of one) greet the patrons as they walk in.

Sir, welcome to Shiro, beamed one.

Table for how many? smiled the second.

Your hands please, sir, chirped the third, pointing a spritzer at me.

I surrendered my palm. They squirted something intended to kill viruses. Only then was I allowed entry to the inner sanctum, where Bengalurus party people lounge under the stars drinking pricey cocktails.

My friend is a doctor, and he says all this spritzing and masking for the flu du jour is a little ridiculous. In a country of over a billion people less than 100 have died. More people die from malaria and tuberculosis and diarrhea every day. Or even traffic accidents. I saw a man on a motorbike, he said. He was wearing a swine flu mask. But he was not wearing a helmet.

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