As India enters the third year of dealing with Covid, the sense of déjà vu seems overwhelming. Omicron is the new variant on the block. It is extremely contagious. Not as severe as Delta.
But the truth is we really don’t know too much about it. Scientists across the world, are working against time to decipher this new variant and its peculiarities. Omicron is spreading fast and furiously.
It seems, at first glance, to be less lethal than the Delta variant. But, in countries where vaccinations themselves have become a ‘belief system’, the results are worrying. Europe and the United States are reeling under the numbers. Their already stretched healthcare systems are near collapse. And the rudiments of safety and socially responsible behaviour are cast aside, as anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, make the world unsafe for themselves and those around them.
Right now, the surge in cases is scary. There are almost 150,000 cases in the UK daily, 110,000+ cases in France daily. In Russia, almost a 1,000 people are dying each day because of Covid. In the US, which has not really recovered from the first and second waves, there are almost 325,000 cases each day, and over 1,200 deaths. In India, thankfully, after the devastating second wave, things seem much calmer now. But for most people, the trauma of last April is too vivid.
And most states and administrators are veering towards safety first. Conversations have again begun veering towards lockdowns. Many states in India have imposed partial closures in public spaces. Malls, theatres, restaurants, have all been told to shut.
Schools, which were due to reopen in the new year, are now not opening. Companies that had begun asking people to come back to work from office, have now put those plans on hold. All in all, it seems like we are back in January 2021), without the resilience to cope with what is yet to come. In all this, it is unclear whether either populations, or indeed the economy, can cope with more lockdowns, waiting for cures that may never take place. For governments, the trade-offs between keeping people safe and keeping the economy moving have become too expensive to even contemplate.
In all this, as Omicron rages, policymakers must look at three vital parameters. Because their decisions will not just impact today’s populations, but future generations. The first needs to focus on education and educational continuity. Covid has wreaked havoc on educational systems worldwide. In India alone, it is estimated that over 250 million students have been impacted, at various levels of education. As kids stay home, safe from Covid, but away from peers and teachers, there has been a loss in socialisation, learning, and literacy.
The divide between those with access to basics – space, computing, and uninterrupted power and connectivity – and those without, has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Education systems must get geared to understanding that this may indeed be the new normal. Large chunks of education delivered remotely, and some in person. This will allow for the distribution of expertise and helping students in remote areas access the best. But unfortunately, this system does not exist, right now. And there is no reason why it cannot be.
The second is on affordable and universal healthcare. Covid has exposed healthcare systems worldwide. From the US to China, from the UK to India, from Italy to Brazil – there is no nation whose healthcare system was not overwhelmed by Covid. In a world that is rapidly aging, the key question is how you fund quality healthcare accessible to all. No system seems perfect. Most are, in fact, very flawed. And yet, going forward, this will need to be fixed not just for Covid and Omicron, but also for the long run. The third is investment in evidence based science.
Experts predict that zoonotic diseases – where diseases jump from animals to humans - are going to be more frequent. Currently, there are approximately 150 zoonotic diseases recognised. A dozen of these cause more than two million deaths each year. And it is going to get worse. To survive, we need to be one step ahead of nature. And to do that, we need robust funding systems for scientific research. It is apparent that it is going to take more than government funding, to solve the problems of tomorrow, today.
And the keenest brains in the world need to look at how to bring in more private funding into research. Three Januarys ago, the world as we knew it began changing. From the wet markets of Wuhan (China) arose a pandemic that spread across the globe. Nations locked down to save their people from infection and death. And since then, we have seen regular repeats of the scenario replay repeatedly.
There is no quick fix for Covid. We must learn to live with it. But what can be done is to improve the overall infrastructure that makes us more capable of battling it or any other health disaster.
(The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker)
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