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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

There is plenty for us to unlearn and relearn as we tackle covid-19

We must be ready to reshape our thinking as new knowledge emerges if we are to firmly consign this pandemic to history

The covid-19 pandemic has humbled humanity and unmoored us from our regular habits. The disruption it has wreaked upon the world has caused us to react in ways that would have been unimaginable before it struck. When Chinese authorities shut down Wuhan in January, it was the first modern instance of an entire city with millions of people being asked to shelter-in-place. Only a few weeks later that new idea had become commonplace as India imposed one of the strictest lockdowns of all on a billion people.

As data and science have evolved and moved in the weeks since then, we have had to make material changes in our thought processes and lifestyles. We’ve had to learn, unlearn and relearn several things. A massive, quick and widespread disruption like a pandemic offers this opportunity in a markedly different way than a disruption like climate change, which is difficult to envision and comprehend in a short time.

Statistics and data: The value of collecting, parsing and presenting data and inferences has rarely been more evident. Yet, these past few months’ data has informed and misinformed millions of people around the world. We have correctly learnt from data—and disseminated widely—the facts that the elderly are at significantly greater risk of infection and that hand hygiene and social distancing are ways to mitigate its spread. The early promise of some therapeutic treatments has given way to a sober assessment involving more trials. But information about case rates, fatalities and death rates is mostly in shambles. While we have a general idea that the death rate is somewhere between 1 and 15% (even that much is useful to know), a more robust estimate will require much deeper analysis, with adjustments to be made for the extent of testing and variations in reporting fatalities. Political influence has become an instrument with which to abuse statistics. While there can be no overstating the importance of data in a great disruption, the lesson is that we should be nimble enough to adapt quickly as and when that data changes.

Public health: It was during the Manchurian flu of 1910 that a Malaysian Chinese doctor named Wu Lien Teh discovered the public health benefits of masks. Despite the evidence, a century later, compliance with this simple idea has been problematic around the world. The pandemic is not yet over, and the ways to deal with high case loads and second waves may well be quite different from the “fortress"-based early approach. A group of 7,000 scientists worldwide have written an open letter, called the Great Barrington Declaration, suggesting that harsh lockdowns are not the answer and that young people should go about their business while the “at risk" population is offered focused protection. Even though this is controversial, we must remain open to the possibility that the public health approach (independent of economic implications) may itself have to evolve and adapt in ways that require us to unlearn what we learnt just a few months ago.

Leadership and decision-making: For governments, companies and households, the constantly shifting disruption has meant a new kind of framework to operate in. In metaphorical terms, it means that we should think fitness, not war, preparedness instead of planning, and purpose rather than game-plans. Before the arrival of a major disruption, we should work on developing a tool kit of solutions, but exactly how and in what sequence we use that tool kit would depend on a variety of factors, including where exactly an intervention is best made in the problem’s progression. The perseverance and fitness combined with the mental agility required to unlearn and relearn is something the world has found itself desperately deficient in. The fog of a consumption culture combined with military-like linear thinking has made us lazy and complacent, incapable of adopting a humble approach to the learning process.

Philosophical systems from Greco-Roman and ancient Hinduism to the modern enlightenment era have urged mankind to focus on efforts and not results, as in the Bhagavad Gita’s famous shloka, “Karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kada chana (Let not the fruits of action be your motive)." Seneca and the Stoics went further by asking us to engage in premeditatio malorum, a pre-meditation of adversity. Responding to an age of repression, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rosseau and Jeremy Bentham reminded us that in social cooperation, civil debate and consensus lie the seeds of the greater good of the greater many. Artists, poets and playwrights have produced their most enduring works during periods of angst, or as Georg Hegel said, “the owl of Minerva only spreads its wings with the coming of the dusk". The Hippocratic oath embodies many of these ideas, including “first do no harm" and “no shame in saying I know not". It embeds the profound thought that prevention is better than cure. Great ideas, great beauty and great learning can come from great disruption. For that, we must let go of our idea to “conquer with plans" and substitute it with “comprehend with reflection and learning". If we are able to do that, we could ask ourselves not merely when we might return to normal, but what we want that new normal to be.

P.S: “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves and the world around us," said Socrates.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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