Home/ Opinion / Columns/  Opinion | How ‘Harvard vs Trump’ can guide India’s Unlock 2.0

For all our fixation with evidence and scientific inquiry since the end of the Dark Ages, the “truth" behind the biggest issue facing the world today still depends on who you ask and what their agenda is. It spreads through air, or perhaps it does not. Hydroxychloroquine is effective, or perhaps it is not. Community transmission has set in, or perhaps it has not.

The one thing that experts do seem to agree on, however, is that covid-19 is here to stay for the next several years. A good vaccine, a cure or more ubiquitous testing could ease the situation, but it will be years before we eradicate the virus. For the foreseeable future, we cannot eliminate the risk of infection, and only attempt to reduce this risk.

This requires a significant shift in the public mindset to accept a level of risk greater than zero, in order to get on with life. At least in India, we still seem to harbour unrealistic hopes of one magical day when this is all going to be over and we would go back to our lives of what is now yore.

If we must accept some risk, then how much risk? The answer to this question is bound to vary from individual to individual, and from context to context. The government can and must play the role of gradually pushing the public mindset by announcing guidelines, but must stop short of imposing risk-aversion norms uniformly on all individuals.

Yet, this is indeed what the Donald Trump administration in the US seems to have attempted, by mandating last week that international students at universities taking only online classes would need to leave the country. This indirectly forces universities to make the difficult choice of either opening up their campus when they are not ready to do so, or compromising the interests of international students, who, let it be said, contribute a significant portion of universities’ revenue. It is no surprise that Harvard and dozens of other universities decided to contest the Trump administration’s order in court. As this article goes to press, round one of this battle was ruled in favour of the protesting universities—in an online courtroom, ironically.

Opening up a residential university campus during the pandemic is in many ways representative of the larger issue of what we in India refer to as Unlock 2.0—the challenge of opening up the nation, our society, and our lives. It is a complex and phased decision to make, balancing the risk appetites of various stakeholders. An effective decision-making framework for campus-opening can offer helpful lessons for unlocking the nation.

Such a framework rests on the foundation of identifying what is essential and what is non-essential, keeping in mind that this boundary will gradually broaden over time, as public mindsets broaden to accept greater risk. Some universities like Cambridge and Harvard have announced that all classes will be online for the next year. Others are considering letting students onto campus for activities deemed essential, such as learning in laboratories. Students whose home environment is not conducive to learning are also being offered the option of returning to campus housing. Still other universities are welcoming first-year cohorts to campus in preference over existing cohorts.

So long as the campus is even partially open, each university must develop its view and policy on containment, prevention and response. These policies will also change over time as new science about the virus emerges. Containment strategies necessarily involve regular testing—options for which range from thermal scanning and Aarogya Setu alerts at a basic level to more advanced medical tests. This comes at a cost, and the results are not completely reliable. Moreover, maintaining the campus as a contained environment with regulated entry and exit for long periods of time such as a full semester, may have mental health implications.

Prevention, in both academic and residential spaces, is a critical aspect. Classrooms are likely to fall short of extant distancing norms, when only 50 guests are permitted even at weddings. Hostel accommodation in most universities involves sharing rooms and bathrooms. Wearing masks or even personal protective equipment suits where necessary, sanitizing hands and other such measures can help. Further, it may become necessary to operate at partial capacity, with fewer students attending campus for shorter durations. Universities also need to adequately plan for responding to an outbreak on campus, by providing adequate quarantine and medical facilities.

Each of these considerations must be carefully analysed from the point of view of different stakeholders—students, parents, faculty, staff, employers and regulators—before a decision is arrived at. The realities of the local area of a city or town in which the campus is situated must also be considered. In India, public transport is still shut for the most part, making it difficult for students from various parts of the country to travel to their campus.

Each university must make its own decision, as Harvard did, and periodically review it as circumstances relating to public health and the public mindset change. The regulator must publish guidelines, not mandates, encouraging universities and their stakeholders to take calculated risks. This framework can be broadly applied to Unlock 2.0, as individuals and organizations decide the level of risk they wish to assume, while respecting such decisions taken by others.

Kapil Viswanathan is vice-chairman, Krea University

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Updated: 15 Jul 2020, 08:41 PM IST
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