Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Covid is playing change agent for both better and worse
Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion | Covid is playing change agent for both better and worse

The world is forging new networks of cooperation while we still seem to be disrupting ours

Two developments over the past couple of months—one quiet and global and the other local but widespread—contain some glimpses of future changes once humanity comes to terms with coronavirus. These changes might be short-lived, but will provide a view of an alternative future, both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Convention demands grace take precedence over the unsightly. So, the good news first.

A lot of hope has been pinned on a deal that the University of Oxford signed with UK-based pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca for developing and manufacturing a coronavirus vaccine. However, the move seems counter-intuitive. AstraZeneca is not big on vaccines; its closest competitor, GlaxoSmithKline, is the reigning champion, with proven vaccines for Hepatitis A and B, meningitis, cholera, typhoid, rabies and many others. Yet, Oxford opted for AstraZeneca.

The reason may be Astra’s expertise in conducting large-scale, late-stage trials. The clue could also lie in Oxford University vice-chancellor Louise Richardson’s statement: “Our partnership with AstraZeneca will ensure that the British people and people across the world, especially in low and middle income countries, will be protected from this terrible virus as quickly as possible."

Let’s stir the pot some more. Astra has promised not to profit from the crisis and has tied up with global non-profits to supply the vaccine to poor and developing nations. Throw into this mix the US and some other governments paying it to reserve the vaccine whenever it’s available. Now join the dots: Astra and Oxford will use government grants and internal investments to manufacture the vaccine not only for rich countries, but also for poor and developing nations at affordable prices. Profits will flow later through future regular vaccination programmes, but also when Astra leverages this vaccine development platform for more vaccines.

The Astra episode offers some pointers to future pharmaceutical product development. Formulations will increasingly be developed through global cooperation and coordination, with different players across the world pooling skills to create meaningful medicines, and not just expensive blockbuster lifestyle drugs. Credit must also go to Chinese scientists and doctors for freely sharing the coronavirus genetic architecture before it became a pandemic to help speed up vaccine development.

There is also hope that the pandemic might prompt some changes in the rent-seeking intellectual property rights (IPR) regime. In an essay in The Wall Street Journal on 16 May, author Matt Ridley posits that the West is experiencing an “innovation famine". Ridley argues that reinvigorating innovation will require not only speeding up regulatory licensing, but also freeing it from IPR. “Surprisingly, there is no good evidence that patents are helpful, let alone necessary, in encouraging innovation." Ridley provides numerous examples in which innovation, freed from the IPR stranglehold, flourishes on the back of rejuvenated knowledge networks and mutually-beneficial feedback loops.

But where hope springs global, despair dampens local sentiment. The Indian economy is about to undergo some momentous changes. The mass reverse migration of labour is likely to transform the nature of Indian industry, economy and, perhaps, the national character. The Indian economy has been characterized by free movement of labour, despite the occasional cynical attempt to leverage son-of-the-soil disaffections. Research on internal migration of labour shows that movement takes place primarily due to the drying up of income opportunities at home. The Economic Survey of 2016-17 estimated India’s migrant labour population at around 100 million, while S. Irudaya Rajan, professor at the Centre of Development Studies and an expert on migration, estimates it at 140 million. Studies also show that most migrant workers are from Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, with some other states such as West Bengal and Odisha making up the balance.

The lockdown-induced income shock and the anxiety of contracting a fatal disease in crowded urban settlements forced many workers to undertake arduous journeys back to their hometowns or villages. Irudaya Rajan said in an interview that at least 30% of the workers won’t return to their old jobs.

Migrant workers send remittances back home that play a crucial role in improving incomes, increasing consumption, enhancing savings and reducing overall poverty levels. Supply of migrant labour at destinations also improves efficiency and assures economies. Apart from this, remittances support an entire ecosystem of banks, business correspondents, microfinance institutions and mobile money-transfer platforms.

Some of this may now be under threat with UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath declaring that any state wishing to employ workers will need its permission. It remains to be seen whether UP has the capacity to absorb all the workers—estimated at 2.5 million—who have returned home. More importantly, this unilateral decision strips the worker of free choice and agency.

So, here is the final contradiction. At a global level, some companies and institutions are creating networks to provide public goods at affordable prices. Locally, state governments are uprooting networks and occupying private spaces, instead of focusing on providing adequate income opportunities, robust healthcare and education systems, and a reliable social security safety net.

Rajrishi Singhal is consulting editor of Mint. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal

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