An avoiders' expert guide on how to 'live with the novel coronavirus'

In the absence of clear guidelines or a prescribed protocol, people have devised their own ways of protecting themselves from the virus.
Coronavirus epitomises the adage, “Prevention is better than cure.” The raging pandemic — with its debated origins and undiscovered remedy — has made sanitisers and masks indispensable, and social-distancing and quarantine household terms. Vegetables are being washed with soap and newspapers microwaved to ensure the virus doesn’t slip into our homes, while all around us we hear the refrain: “we have to learn to live with the virus”.

Well, how? The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has issued general guidelines such as covering your mouth when you sneeze and cough or wearing masks at all times when you step out of home, but there isn’t any clear advice on how to deal with basic, household items. In a May 22 update, “How Covid-19 Spreads”, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) in the US has stated that while the virus spreads easily from person to person, touching contaminated objects or surfaces, or exposure to infected animals, does not appear to be a significant mode of transmission. However, in the absence of clear guidelines or a prescribed protocol, people have devised their own ways of protecting themselves from the virus. But are these measures effective? And are they safe? Are they truly useful or merely paranoid? Let’s ask the experts.

Fruits and vegetables

According to Shahid Jameel, the CEO of DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance, a Delhi-based biomedical research charity, washing vegetables and fruit under running water is adequate since the novel coronavirus is a fragile virus. But a more conservative way of ensuring they are clean and virus-free is spraying store-bought vegetables and fruit with a solution that’s one part vinegar and three parts water. He recommends letting the solution stay on the fruits and vegetables for about 10 seconds before rinsing it off. One can even immerse fruits and vegetables in a solution of water (2l), salt (2 tablespoons) and vinegar (half a cup). Another option is to use potassium permanganate: soak the fruits and vegetables in a solution of water and the disinfectant (one part potassium permanganate for 100 parts of water) for five minutes and then wash them thoroughly.  

If all this feels like a task, Sarman Singh, director and CEO of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Bhopal, recommends exposing the veggies and fruits to direct sunlight for three to four hours. And while buying them, Singh suggests minimum handling of vegetables and fruits. “For instance, use your own carry bag and let the shopkeeper directly put the items in it,” he says. Singh does not believe that there is a need to wash fruits and vegetables with soap if you are blanching the fruits and cooking the vegetables before consuming them.

T Jacob John, former head of the Indian Council for Medical Research’s Centre for Advanced Research in Virology, says only those fruits and vegetables that have thicker, less permeable or useless skin should be dipped in soapy water for 20 to 30 seconds and then rinsed thoroughly. “Keeping these items untouched for 12 hours is also enough to kill viable viruses,” he adds.

Couriers and packages

Metal, plastic and cardboard are some commonly used surfaces on which the virus can thrive (though the CDCP report now contradicts this). Such items, Jameel says, “can be sprayed with a solution of a bleach. Regular fabric bleach diluted with water (1:100) is sufficient to clean such surfaces.” This solution can be used on packaged groceries like packets of sugar, salt, pulses as also on bottles and cans. John’s rule of thumb for dealing with couriers and packages is keeping them untouched for 12 hours. “Make sure you sanitise your hands after you touch these packages.” he says.

Newspapers and currency notes

“Yes, the virus can spread from glazed newspapers as even the hawkers who distribute it often use their saliva to turn the pages. This is very dangerous. The same goes for currency notes,” says Singh. Jameel, too, is careful about touching newspapers and prefers to use a tong to pick them up. For both newspapers and currency notes, he suggests using a dry-iron. The heat applied to these objects would be enough to kill any virus on the surface. He warns against microwaving newspapers as that may lead to problems with the microwave. Coins should be washed thoroughly as they are metallic.

Laundered clothes

One might think getting clothes ironed by the local dhobi is dangerous, but Singh points out that it is actually the dhobi who is at a greater risk of contracting the virus from various households. “If clothes are washed and then sent for ironing, it is fine. But refrain from getting your clothes washed by a dhobi.” The ironed clothes are not a problem as the heat would’ve killed the virus. The cloth in which these clothes are wrapped can remain untouched for a couple of hours, preferably under sunlight. Those using dry-cleaning services do not have to worry about their clothes being contaminated, but they should definitely clean the plastic cover and the hanger on which they are delivered.

Footwear

Singh says the risk of bringing the virus home on your shoes is high as the reach of these virus droplets is about one to one-and-a-half metres. What if you have stepped on a surface on which an infected person has spat or coughed, says Jameel. Though washing your hands after removing your shoes should do, if there are vulnerable people in the house (for instance, the elderly), shoes must be kept away from common areas.

How much is too much?

All three experts agree that wearing gloves as an extra layer of protection only adds to a false sense of security. “The chances of contracting the virus remain the same if one does not wear gloves,” says Jameel. In fact, they believe people are more cautious of maintaining good hand hygiene, which is currently the need of the hour, when they are not wearing gloves. “There is nothing better than washing your hands with soap and water. Even sanitisers should be the second option,” reaffirms Singh.

John and Jameel also stress the importance of using commonsensical measures like wearing masks, social distancing (since the virus spreads mainly through close contact, which is within about six feet) and handwashing as the best ways to keep the virus at bay.

With gradual lifting of restrictions, regular life is bound to resume. And so the experts suggest incorporating the habit of regularly disinfecting doorknobs, doorbells and handles with either a sanitiser, detergent or bleach. Finally, the golden rule: Don’t touch your mouth, eyes and nose.




Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel