Day 11: A Teachable Moment


Day 11

Looking at Covid-19 response in India and the developing world over the past few weeks Gulzar Natrajan writes that ‘this is a teachable moment.’ He suggests that ‘the response of governments across developing countries to Covid 19 should count as an example of triumph of theoretical knowledge over practical wisdom.’ In the run-up to the lockdown and through the lockdown there have been numerous models circulating around. Every person worth his mathematical training presented graphs projecting how the pandemic will spread through Indian population. There are plenty of buyers among the media for that kind of analysis from armchair experts. From the Bengaluru IT park variety engineer to economists, everyone got busy plotting their graphs. The only ones missing have been epidemiologists and biostatisticians. Everyone else was ready with their snake oil. Media taught them enough about asymptomatic and symptomatic infections. To ‘flatten the curve’ they knew well what the numbers should look like. Some did take care to know what a typical epidemiological model looks like and worked with the terminology. In all this model peddling, practical thinking got more distanced than people. 

Natrajan points to this piece by Debraj Ray and S Subramanian which I was pleasantly surprised to see because it isn’t common for Ray to write an opinion piece. They get to the argument straight – 

At this time of crisis, it is absolutely necessary (a) to concentrate our effort on policies that are feasible; (b) to avoid measures that are unaffordable for most citizens; (c) to not criminalise private actions triggered by the need for survival; and (d) to communicate state intent in credible, unambiguous, and specific terms.

The voices that must have been amplified and heeded should have been of the likes of Dr Muliyil, an epidemiologist from CMC, Vellore. There is much experience and insight in these simple words, that seems beyond comprehension for many – 

In India, suppression would mean hurting each other, exploitation, giving power to wrong kinds of people. That is not my response to a public health emergency. Community participation is. And community participation and suppression do not go together.

This is going to be a long haul. You have to be sensible about it.

There are serious questions that India and countries with limited resources as us face – to lockdown or not, for how long, what is the best emergency and pandemic control response, how to soften the impact of shutdown on its people and so on. While we muddle through this and human costs mount, clear thinking is getting difficult. 

As the coronavirus shows up in newer places and threatens more lives half the world has gone under lockdown. Nearly every country’s first response has been this followed by a scramble to stock up PPE, ventilators and hospital beds. Beyond this other moves are a reflection of the priorities of the respective countries. All of which is based on their understanding of policy options, trade-offs and political leadership that they have. 

In these days of lockdown, I often indulge in speculation about the ways in which our public, personal and political imagination will change after the pandemic is contained. This is certainly a teachable moment. The personal worlds hopefully are undergoing a creative destruction, only to yield better individuals in terms of their social, moral and ecological consciousness. One hopes.

2 thoughts on “Day 11: A Teachable Moment

  1. I hope you’re right about this being a teachable moment, (or rather that we will be willing to learn). That is my optimistic wish too. I’m impressed with the progressive approaches being taken in Canada (and incredibly impressed by some of our politicians that have really surprised me by how they have risen to the crisis and put people’s lives and livelihoods first). But honestly, few countries were equipped to meet this situation with the necessary tools. And we are learning more about the virus every day. There are lessons for us all. One can only hope the price paid is not too high.

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