As we are past the pandemic

The pandemic brought about changes in work environment and systems
As we are past the pandemic
GK Photo

On August 15 New Zealand removed the last of its public restrictions relating to Covid 19. It had imposed a very strict zero Covid policy which had, for a long time, practically isolated the island country from the outside. The New Zealand government justified its approach on the ground that it prevented the kind of death rate which was witnessed in other countries. According to media reports, New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told his country’s parliament that 3249 deaths had occurred in the country due to Covid 19. He went on to say that “If New Zealand had had a similar rate of mortality as the United States, we would be reporting around 15000 deaths from Covid”. There is no doubt that the harsh measures taken by New Zealand kept the death toll under control but it also very adversely impacted the economy. This led the government’s approach to becoming unpopular.

This writer’s attention was drawn to the report relating to the New Zealand action regarding Covid because the pandemic, which was so catastrophic for human health and the world economy, is now almost completely out of media attention. It also hardly figures in government statements or inter-governmental discourse. Indeed, it seems to have faded so much from the public mind that it would not be out of place to recall some basic Covid facts even if they occurred only three and a half years ago!

A new coronavirus emerged in China during the autumn of 2019. It began to spread outside its borders by February 2020. It initially began to cause havoc in some European countries. However, it soon became clear, though, that no part of the globe would be safe from this new zoonotic virus. Consequently, the world began to go into lockdown in March 2020. On the 11th of that month the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it as a pandemic.

As the virus was new, the medical profession had no clear idea of how to deal with it. Certainly, there were no universally accepted medical protocols against it. Only non-therapeutic means were available to stem its spread. These relied on personal hygiene and social distancing. Hence, a policy of lockdowns was pursued in all countries, including India. This necessarily led to stopping the wheels of industry, causing enormous hardship to labour, especially migrant workers. India witnessed painful scenes of lakhs of desperate workers leaving their places of work to go back, many on foot, for their home towns which were located hundreds of miles away.

Countries with advanced medical facilities, like the United States and those of Western Europe, were also badly hit with hospitals overflowing and shortages of life saving systems. Memories of the last great pandemic—the great influenza—of 1918-1920 were revived. That had led to a death toll of between 5 to 10 per cent of the then human population. If this was the condition of the advanced countries fears were expressed about the fate of the developing countries. However, the medical profession relatively quickly rose to the occasion and found vaccines which could prevent Covid or reduce its severity. India became one of the principal centres of vaccine production, both of the indigenously developed variety and of foreign origin. The government’s performance in developing a programme for inoculating those of the vast population of this land who needed vaccinations was excellent. Yet, the Delta wave of the early and mid-summer of 2021 hit India and the rest of the world very hard.

By the beginning of last year, the virus had evolved by developing many strains. While some of them became more contagious they also became less dangerous except for those persons who had co-morbidities or were aged. Consequently, the death rate fell even if large numbers of people became infected. The need for hospitalization also came down. This is illustrated by the present situation of Covid infections.

The worldometer site which now gives the number of daily infections shows that currently there are 2 crore and 12 lakh active Covid cases worldwide. But of these only 37 thousand are categorized as serious or critical. Statistically this is a very small figure. Therefore, the world has opened up almost completely to travel, manufacturing and work. As a very large percentage of the human population has received vaccines and also as immunities have developed it can be surmised that the Covid 19 challenge has been overcome. However, troubling questions remain about global capability to handle a future pandemic if and when it hits humanity again. This is because the kind of international cooperation that was required to develop common, universally accepted mechanisms to handle the pandemic was simply not there. Besides, till now the Chinese have not cooperated adequately so that the cause of the origin of the Covid virus can be conclusively determined. This is essential to prevent future zoonotic and other pandemic causing viruses.

The pandemic brought about changes in work environment and systems. It is still too early to assess how permanent are many of these changes. In many cases the working environment which had become home based has either returned to the previous office or hybrid modes. In other cases, it has not. What has speeded up because of the pandemic is the use of technology in governance and in the private sector too. This has been good but humans are social creatures and like to congregate.

It would be useful if the Indian authorities bring out a White Paper, at the appropriate time, on India’s Covid experience and management with a focus not only how the country fared in handling this challenge but also on lessons learnt for the future.

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