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Home / Analysis / Envisioning a self-reliant and science-driven India

Envisioning a self-reliant and science-driven India

While behaviour, drugs and vaccine will give an exit from the disease, strive for a new route to recovery, prosperity

analysis Updated: Aug 14, 2020 22:20 IST
K Vijay Raghavan
K Vijay Raghavan
A health worker in personal protective equipment collects a sample using a swab from a person at a local health centre to conduct tests for the coronavirus disease , Delhi, August 14, 2020
A health worker in personal protective equipment collects a sample using a swab from a person at a local health centre to conduct tests for the coronavirus disease , Delhi, August 14, 2020(REUTERS)

It was 1918, three years after he returned to India from South Africa. Mahatma Gandhi thought he had a mild case of dysentery while in Ahmedabad. Tempted by an offer of kheer made by Kasturba, he went on to be severely affected. “This was sufficient invitation to the angel of death,” he later wrote in Experiments with Truth. What Gandhi had was a gastric version of the infamous Spanish flu, a pandemic that devastated the world towards the end of the World War I, a gripping story told in Laura Spinney’s The Pale Rider.

The state of the world seemed immutable only a year ago. The global braid of politics, economics, dominance and relationships were all knotted together in a way that seemed impossible to redo.

In December 2019, all this changed. A spillover occurred. A virus, normally resident in bats infected a human, in Wuhan, China. Often, the story would have ended there. The human would recover and all would be well. This time, the virus had the ability to infect another human from its first human host and then others. If the 1918 flu pandemic spread like ripples in a pond, the SARS-Coronavirus-2 has spread Covid-19 like a stone-hopping across the pond of earth. Not only has the disease wreaked havoc on the health and livelihood of the most vulnerable, the consequential damage to the world’s economy and morale has been immense. Lives and families are in disarray. The stress and the effect on mental health are not to be underestimated.

On Independence day, as we look back from January 30, when the first case was reported in India, to the present, we need to grasp three strings — acknowledge citizens with pride, grasp the way out of this pandemic, and take a new path — to create a new braid that will hold India and the world together in a more just way.

To anyone unfamiliar with India, it would seem extraordinary how all of India observed lockdowns from the first one onwards. Next, our doctors, nurses and hospitals worked relentlessly. Our administrators from the smallest towns to the big metros have also not rested. Our scientists and engineers, our industry, our farmers, all came together to make extraordinary products for our people and the medical system, defying broken global supply chains.

From within government at every level, and at every level in the bureaucracy, there was and is an unflinching commitment to deal with each aspect of this pandemic. These are extraordinary times where decisions, based on complex and multifarious inputs, have to be taken each day, accepted by all each day, and then implemented. All of this under the relentless, eagle-eyed, and critical watch of the media, of intellectuals, and of disease-analysts; all necessary and natural feedback in a democracy.

Now, as we go two-thirds of the way through this nightmare year, it is more necessary than ever to wake up, take charge and wrest our lives and livelihood back, and not be numbed into inaction, waiting for a miracle to lead us out. In truth, that miracle is here and it is all of us. We have learnt much about the virus and we need to learn a lot more. But, some conclusions from science are very persuasive.

Following them, we can crush the virus and get our lives back. Mask up properly when in company. Observe hygiene. Keep a distance from others, and as much as feasible, stay in ventilated spaces. These are simple to say but often hard to do. Yet, we must keep at it. These acts effectively decrease the spread of the virus.

External help is also at hand. Through the efforts of scientists, we are getting better and faster diagnostics tests. In the near future, we will have access to inexpensive and frequent tests, allowing us to carry on with our activities more efficiently than we could in the early stages of the pandemic. Drugs that mitigate the severity of the disease are available and more will come steadily. Drugs that prevent the disease are more difficult, but large efforts are underway. Increasingly, successful vaccines appear more and more promising. They will come and be rolled out, we expect. Studies are ongoing but it seems likely that those who have recovered will be immune to re-infection at least for a while. So, the time, if ever there was one, for shock and despondency is long over. We need to focus on innovative ways to recover and brighten the lives of every Indian.

While behaviour, drugs and vaccines will give us an exit from the disease, we need to also pull ourselves up into a new route to recovery and prosperity. The fury of the pandemic has brought together our people and their expectations, our industry and its aspirations, our scientists and their purpose, and our governments (at the Centre and the states) at the helm. Analysts, over many years, have lamented the “silo” mentality in each of our structures and how, if only, we worked with a shared purpose, much can be done. We have worked together during the pandemic, because, now we must work together as that is the only future we have.

Here, science and technology has a critical role and must take courage and place itself at the centre. For the first time in many, many years, people have demanded research, not just the fruits of research. There is an appreciation of and expectation from scientists of every kind.

We, therefore have a responsibly of immense proportions. Speaking in 1941 on language and science, Albert Einstein said that if the goals of a society are clearly articulated, scientists will find the means to reach them. If there is “perfection of means and confusion of goals”— and much of our science has been trapped in this cage — will not move ahead. The pandemic has shaken us to what our goals should be — we must focus on the environment, biodiversity and sustainable development through Aatmavishwaas and Aatmanirbharata.

Ill with flu in the 1918 pandemic, the Mahatma did not flinch and instilled both. On this Independence day, we must take that path again.

K Vijay Raghavan is principal scientific adviser, Government of India
The views expressed are personal

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