May be able to push peak until there is vaccine: Dr Raman R Gangakhedkar
Gangakhedkar, who retired as the Indian Council of Medical Research’s head of epidemiology and non-communicable diseases division on Tuesday, spoke to Hindustan Times on his last day at work.Updated: Jul 01, 2020 03:02 IST
The challenge ahead for India will be to strike a balance between managing the industrial impact and heath impact of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), says Dr Raman R Gangakhedkar, who was one of the senior epidemiologists at the forefront of not just India’s fight against Covid-19 but also other recent outbreaks such as Nipah, Zika, Japanese Encephalitis and the Acute Encephalitis Syndrome. Gangakhedkar, who retired as the Indian Council of Medical Research’s head of epidemiology and non-communicable diseases division on Tuesday, spoke to Hindustan Times on his last day at work. Edited excerpts:
You have been with the Indian Council of Medical Research for long. How does it feel to leave at such a crucial time in India’s fight against Covid-19?
It is difficult to contain emotions when it’s the last day of your work in an organisation that you have had been associated with for 36 years. I had joined ICMR in 1984. It is indeed a long association, and all through these years I have had the opportunity to be a part of some significant projects, especially in the field of HIV/AIDS that was my area of specialisation. Last few months have been a roller-coaster ride; we manage to achieve many milestones that may seem small to others but have been quite significant in our fight against Covid-19. It may be time for me to move on but the fight shall continue. There are several able people who will continue this fight, and even I am not entirely saying good bye and will be around as a part of CG Pandit National Chairs of ICMR. In fact, now I will have more time at hand to think a problem through.
You moved to ICMR headquarters in Delhi as head of epidemiology and non-communicable diseases division in 2018; how was the experience?
I can’t tell how the experience was because I never got time to think. I was constantly firefighting during past 2.5 years. When I joined in 2018, Nipah outbreak struck in Kerala; then in the same year a highly contagious and life-threatening viral infection, Canine Distemper Virus disease, outbreak happened in Gir, Gijarat; later in 2019, Zika virus disease outbreak was reported from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh; then Nipah again struck in Kerala in 2019; after that Japanese Encephalitis and Acute Encephalitis Syndrome cases were reported among children in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur; and then Covid-19 happened. There was literally no time as one thing after another came up that required immediate attention. There was no time to think, forget relax.
How many work hours have you been putting in daily in the last few months?
Like I said, it is not just about past few months but past 2.5 years that I have been putting in long hours; and was working even after the office time was over. During the past few months it has been around 17-18 hours officially in a day. Since I lived alone in Delhi, I could work long hours.
What has your experience been like while dealing with Covid-19 so far?What did we do right?
What has worked in India’s fight against Covid-19 is that there has been involvement of all stakeholders together from the very beginning. We have seen in the past that multi-sectoral response in an outbreak situation usually comes so late that much of the damage is already done. But in this case, from the most senior officials to the junior- most government functionaries, everyone came together much early when there was lots that could be done to save the situation from going out of hand later and that even led to early lockdown. We bought so much time and prepared ourselves much better, and well in advance. The risk mitigation that we see now happened only because of this. From the first test on January 22 to nearly 9 million tests so far, we have moved in a very short period. One needs to be realistic in their expectations; what we have achieved is no mean feat.
What challenges do you foresee?
The biggest challenge will be to achieve the balance between industrial impact vs. health impact of Covid-19. You have to take certain steps for the economy but at the same time be very cautious to not let the disease spiral out of control. India is a diverse country so the much talked-about peak may not be attained in one go; different peaks will occur in different regions because of the diversity and density of the population. We may actually manage to push it till there is a vaccine or a drug that should help. We shouldn’t only look at numbers but we have to see how to reduce death-related risks that is more crucial in our Covid-19 fight. Community mobilization is also crucial, and if we managed to increase that, then it will go a long way in successful implementation of containment strategies.
What threats do we face in future in terms of diseases?
We need to be very vigilant as infectious diseases are not going to go anywhere. It is not correct to say that only non-communicable (lifestyle-related) diseases are a part of the future; that’s not true. Infectious diseases will emerge and will keep continuing. After the second outbreak of Nipah in 2019, I had started to work on a multiple country project that included countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mayanmar, Thailand, Indonesia etc. to work out a strategy to contain infectious disease spread because infectious diseases don’t recognize boundaries. We have to protect not just ourselves but work in tandem with our neighbours to achieve larger protection. We need to work across borders because today mobility is high because of porous borders. We had started with dengue but then Covid happened and other projects had to be stalled. Hope it is taken up again in future.
How did you unwind?And what are the plans post- retirement?
There was hardly time but whatever time I got, I used to spend talking to my family. Thanks to technology, these days you can video chat with all your family members together. It was fun. As for post-retirement, I intend to settle in Pune. I would want to work for science literacy, by which I mean to make understand complex concepts of science in a simple manner. To me, it is vital to provide biology/science related literacy to our current generation. We do not have enough good science communicators. I plan to contribute in the field. Let’s see.