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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Needed: a scientific temper to secure our post-covid future
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Needed: a scientific temper to secure our post-covid future

The most important first step in reimagining and remaking our future after this crisis is the cultivation of a scientific temper

Photo: PTIPremium
Photo: PTI

Framing a problem is key to its resolution. Framing a problem like the coronavirus pandemic is complex and therefore lends itself to no easy resolution. By resolution is not meant the therapeutic resolution of covid-19 which will hopefully happen in the course of time as it occurred with flu and other viral infections prior. Resolution in the true sense means preventing a pandemic like coronavirus from recurring without undermining the three meritocratic and critical underlying conditions that ironically aided its spread, namely globalization, trade and commercial interconnectivity worldwide, and covid-19’s origin in a global manufacturing hub which, incidentally, happened to be China.

The framing of the coronavirus problem would, in consequence, have to encompass several domains. These would include qualitative aspects of future political leaderships that aid pandemic containment with the limited choices available; the politico-economic balance required to minimize the malignity of future pandemics while preserving the existing economic order and its strengths optimally; the investments and intellectual devotion to epidemiological sciences and healthcare; and the global dispersion of efforts to check a repetition of the calamity. Facing an existential crisis of such dimensions and severity for the first time since World War II, which exceeds in some respects the Cold War, the US and Western Europe will presumably draw lessons from the pandemic and evolve nationally, politically, socially, economically and scientifically. In their own particular ways, Russia and China, as modern states and major powers, will not be far behind in the lessons learnt.

How should India reimagine and remake a post-coronavirus future? Much like the rest of the world, India cannot reverse globalization and all its concomitant features. There is nothing forever and China may also fall victim to historical cycles and cede its global manufacturing base to another state or a group of closely aligned nations in a region. But this denouement is scarcely expected to occur in the

immediate future and the coronavirus pandemic may not even be the chief motive force, this being in all likelihood a similar combination of factors that made China a manufacturing powerhouse. Instead of expending national energies on insulating itself with made-over autarky in favour of which suggestions have tentatively emerged from the ruling establishment, India would be better placed aligned with the globalized world while instituting early warning and control and containment mechanisms for another covid-19-like outbreak.

The most important first step in reimagining and remaking a post-coronavirus future is the cultivation of a scientific temper, which was sorely absent at first in the current pandemic and continues to reveal itself periodically and exasperatingly in the form of ingrained superstitions and irrational beliefs. It was extraordinary, for example, that the rather inelegantly named “janata curfew" was assumed by many to be a 14-hour silver bullet for coronavirus whose longevity, according to The New England Journal of Medicine, as far as may be ascertained, varies from three hours in the air and four on copper to a full 24 hours on cardboard and 72 on plastic and stainless steel, the stuff of most Indian utensils. The less said about the circulated coronavirus “tips for survival" on social media, including consecrated excreta, the better. Tied to scientific temper is abandoning the mythicization of medieval science which invites ridicule to the detriment of genuine achievements and clouds the future.

The cultivation of scientific temper requires a leadership steeped in the merits of science, which was this country’s fortune to possess at the dawn of independence and which has proven difficult to sustain. This is by no means a peculiar characteristic of the country. The decline of scientific temper from the previous US president who rapidly and resolutely deployed the country’s epidemiological resources to countering Ebola in West Africa to the White House incumbent oscillating between denying the early seriousness of coronavirus to calling it a “Chinese virus" is too stark to be ignored. All the same, the country could do with more chief ministers like Pinarayi Vijayan of Kerala, who said that “Our experience in dealing with the deadly Nipah (virus) helped us draw up a protocol wherein… minutest details of information were garnered, analysed and dealt with… We (imbibed) good experiences from across the globe (and made it) Kerala-specific."

It is possible that a political leader who scorns or is at least indifferent to science can flourish in a nation with scientific temper and high R&D spends in gross dollar terms and as a percentage of GDP, as is the case with the US. The dissonance, however, can be repaired without great exertion in the next change of leadership

because the fundamentals are robust. India’s problems run deeper. Exacerbating the strains of missing scientific temper among politicians and compounding them are R&D spends which remain stagnant at 0.60% of the GDP, compared to 4.55% for Israel/ South Korea, 3.21% for Japan, 2.79% for the US and 2.15% for China. India also does not find a place in the first ten spots of the 2018 Scimago Journal and Country Rank for peer-reviewed papers related to the proximate area of pandemics such as immunology, microbiology, biochemistry, genetics or molecular biology. It is no more heartening that the country spends a mere 3.7% of GDP on healthcare (all included), putting it at the bottom 25 of nations worldwide.

Since the urgency of preparedness for the next pandemic cannot be overemphasized in these dreary circumstances of poor healthcare and constrained research, imaginative collaborations may be a good starting point. One collaboration worth considering is with virus genome analysts like Trevor Bedford of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who track disease outbreaks worldwide. Bedford was the earliest to raise the alarm about the undetected spread of coronavirus in Seattle, Washington, and has a worldwide following among epidemiologists. Collaborations could nicely mesh with the new gene-mapping Genome India Project that has a part devoted to anticipating diseases which could be vastly expanded to serve new pandemic contingencies.

Trickier by far is arriving at the optimum balance of saving lives versus saving the economy and preserving growth in the grim circumstances of a pandemic like coronavirus. It may be argued that the idea of such a balance possesses greater traction in Western economies than in the Indian one, where over three quarters of the work force has neither a secure job nor a guaranteed minimum wage. This critical difference has produced the internal migrant nightmare during the Indian lockdown almost turning the cure worse than the disease with nothing closely resembling this occurring internationally apart from the surging covid-19 deaths. While the pandemic will contract every major economy, starting with the US and China, and even induce recession in some, short-term recovery is less assured for India. Growth was in decline when the pandemic struck and the country has to bear the added costs and the steep burdens of absence of a dislocated and shattered unorganized workforce. In consequence, regularization of over 80% of the workforce with health benefits approximating Western and Russian levels would be critical to countering a next pandemic, whereafter the balance between life and economics may be struck in all their imperfections. Since the modelling of the balance, combining the models of disease epidemiology and disaster-mitigating economics, incorporating multiple variables and significant unknowns about pathogens, is still very much in infancy, being only as old as the community spread of covid-19 to the West, India has time, but not a great deal of it.

In the middle of a full-blown pandemic, a total lockdown and surging mass casualties, when going from one day to the next poses countless challenges to authorities, future challenges from civilization-threatening contagions may not enjoy the highest priority today. But it would be perilous to ignore the challenges and adopt a business-as-usual attitude once coronavirus is overcome with all that modern science and governments and societies acting in concert can throw at it.

Life may or may not change after covid-19. But the centrality of disease anticipation with science, robust healthcare without exception, and general economic wellbeing, these being mediated in their entirety by a leadership imbued with scientific temper, must become common practise and natural wisdom.

(N.V. Subramanian is a writer, journalist and analyst)

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Updated: 09 Apr 2020, 12:55 PM IST
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