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Dispatch X: A columnist looks back

We knew little about coronaviruses (although they weren’t unknown) before the pandemic. We would have known a lot less if not for Sars, which emerged in 2002-03, flared up, and then died out.
By R Sukumar, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 01, 2021 06:04 AM IST
A worker inspects syringes of a vaccine for Covid-19 produced by Sinovac at its factory in Beijing. (AP)

For 10 months last year, at least five days a week, very rarely more, even more rarely less, I wrote a column on the coronavirus disease, Covid-19. It was mostly focused on science and data — the two things that I have maintained are needed to fight Covid-19 — although there were digressions into economics, the nature of work and play, literature, and music.

I stopped writing the column on January 1. It was the day India announced the launch of the vaccine — and it was, I believed (and still do), the beginning of the end. Sure, Covid-19 will be around for a long time; it may never be eradicated; but the vaccines render it powerless.

There’s been a lot to write about since then, and there are times I have considered restarting the column. The mutant strains of the Sars-CoV-2 virus have really come into their own in recent months, and we learn about them with every passing day. India has made several avoidable missteps in its vaccination drive, just like it did with its testing protocols in the initial days of the pandemic. And the number of cases in the country appears to be on the rise, although it is still around a sixth of the peaks seen last year, and the fact that I have repeatedly got it wrong about a second wave (something I am delighted about because who would wish for one?) stops me from terming it as such.

There has been no let-up in the volume of scientific papers being published on the virus, its effects, and vaccines and other treatments, and I continue to read a lot more scientific literature than I did before the outbreak of the disease — December in China, and early March in India — when the first local cases were registered.

We knew little about coronaviruses (although they weren’t unknown) before the pandemic. We would have known a lot less if not for Sars, which emerged in 2002-03, flared up, and then died out. Over the past year we have learnt more about the virus itself, details that point to a level of sophistication unseen in other viruses, and aimed at increasing its power to infect cells. This has resulted in a plausible theory about its bio-engineered origins in a laboratory somewhere in China, but it’s just as plausible that the virus jumped from bats to humans through an intermediate species, picking up some weaponry along the way. Sars-CoV-2 isn’t as lethal as some other viruses but it is highly infective, and the combination perhaps makes it among the most dangerous pathogens humans have faced. Someday (soon, maybe) we will understand the evolutionary journey of the virus, and, if our scars are healed by then, perhaps even marvel at it.

We have answers, at least partial ones to many questions — why the virus affects some more adversely than it does others? Why some people become superspreaders? Why the death toll in the US and the UK are high? And we do not have answers to others, including, for those of us in India, the mystery of the country’s Covid-19 numbers, or, if a smaller mystery-within-a mystery is needed, the reason for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar’s low Covid-19 infections and deaths. Or why, in general, states with good public health parameters have fared worse than those with poor ones.

Beyond the numbers, though, history will record events of 2020 (and 2021) along three dimensions: scientific, government, and individual.

The scientific response to Covid-19 has been staggering in its speed and ingenuity. All previous records for vaccine development have been broken, not once, not twice, not three times, but several times over. A clutch of repurposed drugs and some new ones are now available to treat Covid-19. Death and hospitalisation rates have progressively reduced (with some exceptions). Science is winning.

The response of governments has been mixed — not surprising because of the scale and the complexity of the problem and the speed with which the disease emerged, and not surprising because governments have traditionally had an uneasy relationship with science and data, the only two things that should have, in ideal circumstances, driven their response to the pandemic. The Swedish, firm believers in science, seemed to turn their back on it in a strategy that was initially praised, then criticised, then acclaimed again, and finally debunked. For the record, I insisted all along that it was the wrong approach (not out of prescience but the understanding that when it came to pandemics, science could never be wrong). Still, while there were missteps (and there continue to be), and governments could have performed better than they did, and taken smarter decisions, they could just as easily have done worse on both counts.

I just hope their experience with the pandemic has made governments realise what really matters (in this case, to repeat myself, science and data).

Meanwhile, people adapted — to no jobs or those that paid less than they did before the pandemic; to constantly wearing masks; to social distancing, isolation, and quarantines; to not dining out or travelling; to working from home (or not working from home); to studying from home; and to many other things that would have seemed strange just a year ago.

And so, scientists shone, governments faltered to varying degrees, and the rest of us, well, did what we do best — we coped.

P.S: The last column I wrote on Covid-19, Dispatch 238, appeared on January 2. My colleague Kunal Pradhan who edited most of the columns, and who had gotten into the practice, once I crossed 100 columns, of telling me which cricketer had scored as much as the day’s column number, and why it mattered, was stumped. As it turns out, a few days later, on January 5, New Zealand’s Kane Williamson made 238, and it turned out to be a record because 238, until then, had been the lowest score never to be made by a batsman (which basically meant all scores between, and including 0 and 237 had been made by at least one batsman). It’s just that we didn’t know it at the time.

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