The Bombay Debate: Learning is incomplete without its implementation

The rising cases of COVID-19 have been a concern for every Indian today. It was the same country that was lauded for its success during the first wave but today it is criticised for the way it handled the second wave. According to the latest Lancet editorial, India squandered its early successes in controlling COVID-19. It went on to add until April, the government's COVID-19 task force had not met in months. “The consequences of that decision are clear before us, and India must now restructure its response while the crisis rages.”

These lines on Lancet brings us to a theme of the recently held ‘The Bombay Debate’ organised by the Free Press Journal, titled 'COVID-19 has taught us nothing'. This motion was debated by panellists from various walks of life. The knowledge partner for the session was Mogae Media and Red FM was the radio partner for the session.

The session was divided into three parts: In favour of the motion 'COVID-19 has taught us nothing'; against the motion and judgment of the debate.

The panellists for the session were (in alphabetic order) Anupria Goenka, Actor and Model; Mahesh Zagade, former Principal Secretary to the government of Maharashtra; Neeraj Hatekar, Professor of Econometrics (Retired) with Mumbai University; Dr Shashank Joshi, a Member of Maharashtra's COVID-19 Task Force; Smruti Koppikar, an Independent Journalist; and Tista Sen, Regional Creative Director of Wunderman Thompson, South Asia.

The judges for the debate were Alok Rai, Vice-Chancellor of Lucknow University; Harit Nagpal, MD and CEO of Tata Sky and Praveer Sinha, MD and CEO of Tata Power. It was moderated by influencer, blogger and brand storyteller, Geeta Rao.

For the motion

Smruti Koppikar: The world has seen pandemic-like situations before, but we have not learnt anything. History proves pandemics cause economic disruptions. It creates a war like situation and countries have taken years to get back on foot.

India did not analyse the economic implications last year, this year (during the second wave) it is beginning to address it. Marginalised people tend to fall through the cracks during such crises. It came as a shock to see 100 million people travelling from cities to their homes (in villages) during the lockdown. We weren't prepared for it last year but slightly prepared for it this year. But it is too early to say as people are still struggling trying to match their ration cards with their Aadhaar cards. All this to get a minimum ration.

Pandemics touch women and children in a different way. There are much longer socio-economic impacts on women and children.

Pandemics cause mental health issues as well. If you look at influenza in the 1920s, the word depression appears in government records. It was not a big issue 100 years ago, compared to what it is today. It was not even acknowledged. There was a huge amount of stigma attached to it. Today, we are floundering right now how to address a bigger pandemic related to mental health. There is a mental health pandemic happening right now as we speak. It is faced by people who are affected by COVID and by people who have been bereaved due to the pandemic. Many frontline workers have been hit as well.

We could have learnt something from illness like Ebola and Zika but we did not learn anything. Any disaster begins in a specific way but its impact is never limited. For instance, Tsunami begins as a natural disaster but it is followed by socio-economic impact.

COVID began as a health crisis. History shows it would never remain as a health issue. Despite the volume of evidence from history, we did not prepare to address it correctly. The world got blindsided in 2020 initially when it was struck by COVID. But that cannot be given as an excuse after a year or 15 months down the line. The sad truth is that we have not learnt anything.

You may say Kerala has done better. There will be expectations and that is exactly proving my point that we have not learnt much.

Shashank Joshi: COVID has been a great teacher for all of us. But we do not learn from our mistakes. A year and half back, COVID was not there among us. COVID is predictably unpredictable. We have not learnt from our past.

The virus is growing -- the virus in the mind is as much as the virus in the body. Unfortunately, we have a mindset problem. We tend to be reckless and rebellious; and we fail to follow basic principles like wearing a mask, maintaining distance and other principles of public health.

We are not allowing science but other things beyond it to rule us. If we have to conquer the pandemic, we have to stay safe; and follow COVID appropriate behaviour. We will have to continue doing this for a year and half more. If that is not followed, we will go back to where we started.

We anticipated a second wave but no one had anticipated the timing and the ferocity of the wave. It started from a less-exposed population, mostly the people who did not have COVID-19 during the first wave. We have to be prepared for the third and fourth wave. As we walk through this journey, we have to be mindful of two things. -- we are at war and have to ensure that we stay safe and ensure we help people in need.

India is at its peak. However, Mumbai is showing signs of decline. So, is Maharashtra. Despite the drop in case, we need to continue following COVID appropriate behaviour. If that is not followed, we will go back to where we started.

Despite all this, we have to ensure that we stay positive.

Around 80 per cent are going to recover even if you treat them or now, 20 per cent need a lot of attention. Do not have fear about vaccination, take whatever is available.

In between all this, maintain a healthy lifestyle. We had something called a Before COVID (BC) era, now we are in the DC era (During COVID). I am certain in a year and half, we will have the After COVID (AC) era.

Neeraj Hatekar: The scale and the root of the virus is much bigger than a pure management exercise. It is a large socio-economic phenomenon. We have to look at it differently.

Initially, we centralised the issue. Later, we decided to decentralise the whole thing but that came as an afterthought. But we should have initially helped build the capacities of communities to manage this. Some communities that have acted on their own have had productive impact. For instance, the village communities kept a strict tab on who was coming to the village, ensured that those people were quarantined, and immediately informed medical authorities about people having symptoms. We as a system did nothing to harness the strength of communities and hand hold communities.

This virus has been there for a year, but we have done nothing to improve on our institutional capacity to deal with future public health challenges.

No useful data has been generated or a very little data has been generated; neither the available data has been analysed properly. We have the technology for predictive analysis, computing technology, and statistical methodology to help recognise the hotspots for the illness etc. But we have not been able to generate that kind of data that would have helped to analyse the pandemic.

There can be one centre setup in each state which would have computing and data capturing abilities that would undertake evidence-based analysis.

These are two areas that we have neglected in the first and the second wave. One was using community response, creating bottom up response, strengthening the grass roots. So, that communities on their own can have calibrated responses. Empowering communities, educating the public, providing on-going information -- this is not what we have done. This is a major failure. We have not thought of creating institutions that will look at pandemic from a broader perspective. We need to create institutional capacity across scientific discipline. This will help us capture data and look at issues in a multi-dimensional way.

Against the motion

Tista Sen: COVID has unleashed a colossal wave on the human race. Every Indian across the country has been affected by this.

COVID has taught us the kindness of strangers. There are faceless individuals working tirelessly to enable every Indian some kind of medical help. This is humanity for me.

COVID has helped develop a sense of gratitude. We haven't felt that more. COVID has taught us the importance of family and community. Usually, work is everyone's priority. But today we have everyone contributing to help you with food, oxygen, plasma etc. All this is helping us reconnect as a community which we had probably forgotten.

Ofcourse, there is politics. It has taught us to question the government. We usually have a lot of empathy towards governments and don't question the government. But today we are.

People are not just questioning governments but also people at power like the Supreme Court. For the country and the economy to grow, every citizen should don the mantle of political awareness. COVID has taught us never to be complacent. That is the tragedy of COVID but a lesson for India.

Never underestimate how low things can sink in India. Things can descend even lower than what it was yesterday. Never did we expect sheer disregard for people's lives. COVID has taught us that we have failed our nation. Nothing has prepared us for the misery COVID has inflicted on us.

We never took into account the price of human folly. COVID has taught us to expect the unexpected.

BMC which is perennially hammered by Mumbaikars starting from monsoon potholes turn out to be the star performer among the government bodies in India.

In addition, good communication and transparency are essential for winning the confidence of people.

COVID has taught us that women can work from home. We have been battling for this concept: women should be allowed to work from home. There was this fallacy that women working from home are not working and that has changed around the world. Going forward, it will become part of the HR policies.

Yes, COVID has taught us a lot. COVID is a leveller.

Mahesh Zagade: The first wave of COVID-19 reminded us of those lessons that we had forgotten. But will we act on the learning is the critical part to this. The first lesson that we have learnt globally is that agencies that were supposed to manage this crisis are crumbling down. One such institution is the World Health Organisation (WHO) and also the World Trade Organisation. They are crumbling down mainly because world leadership is backing out.

The time when WHO declared COVID as a pandemic, all world leaders should have come together and chalked a plan to tackle the crisis as a global issue. If that approach would have been taken, this menace could have been tackled in a much better manner. We realised that we do not have a world leadership to counter such challenges even in the 21st century. In this era, we should have progressed so much.

COVID has proved that countries have failed globally.

Bureaucrats should have taken it up on them to prevent this illness from spreading and preventing people from reaching the doors of hospitals.

I will never blame political leadership as they change every five years. But bureaucrats are supposed to be trained and supposed to be visionaries. But COVID-19 has shown that the bureaucratic system has failed the country and the state miserably.

I feel our bureaucratic system has been overhauled and made more accountable to tackle this issue.

Instead of building infrastructure for the second and then third wave, bureaucracy should ensure that the third wave does not come. Catch the furious bull by its horns.

We failed to create the health infrastructure and that is the failure of the bureaucracy. Bureaucrats have failed because they are not providing the right advice to the leadership.

One should not forget in such crises, the private sector has some limitations. It is the public sector that has to build infrastructure. COVID-19 has taught us that we need permanent public healthcare infrastructure.

Instead of blaming politicians, society should hold bureaucracy accountable. This will make politicians accountable. In the end, bureaucrats are service providers.

Anupria Goenka: Firstly, there is a sense of unity and a sense of appreciation for life. For a generation that feels that we are technologically advanced and things happen as per our needs, never thought life and health can be at stake in this way. Now, people are dying as falling leaves. More than the last one year, the last one month has shocked every one much more.

People have come forward to help each other even though everyone is suffering, despite different social and economic levels.

During COVID, we woke up to the reality that there are people who were into hand to mouth situations. When such events strike, they are left with nothing to safeguard themselves.

COVID has been a leveller in some way. Despite your economic background, age or any other background, this virus strikes you. While the disparity is unfortunate, the feel of oneness or unity has emerged during the COVID pandemic.

COVID-19 has taught us to be thankful of what we have rather than worry about things we don't have. I am optimistic that this feeling will stay for a while.

Health has become predominantly important.

Especially during COVID, being of a sound mind is a lot more important whether you are the one suffering, or you are the one who is inflicted by it. To maintain an environment of calm, peace and wellbeing, is very important.

Governance has taken a hit.

For people who cannot afford medicines that would cost as high as Rs 50,000 and still see their loved ones wither away, this will have a mental impact on these people.

The Judges

Alok Rai: Most of the debates are around the medical infrastructure like oxygen, beds, ventilators etc. This discussion focused on a preventive system which is refreshing. It spoke about the need to educate, use of masks etc and also physical and psychological well being. A comprehensive perspective of rural India was needed which was missed in this discussion.

I would have liked if the learning was segregated in three aspects at individual level, institutional level and at society level. This is my summarisation and views for what we have seen.

I would like to say we did learn. But did we learn enough?

Praveer Sinha: The discussion was divided in two aspects -- one at individual level and another at community level.

Individuals are becoming more caring and responsible. This is the biggest learning of the pandemic. The learning is lagging among the authorities who are able to learn from past experiences like the Spanish flu, SARS and other pandemics. During the discussion, it was pointed out how the government of today could not address the changing requirements of the communities. It is not just governments but bureaucrats and multilateral agencies (at the global level) have failed. In some cases, there was some learning around governments, but in most cases they haven’t learnt.

The village aspect was not brought out by the panelists. I would like to add Tata Power works in a lot of rural areas in the country. We have found that their ability to undergo changes and transform themselves is much faster compared to people in urban India. Everyone in the city is complacent as they think bad events will never happen in cities. Thus, people in the villages have been able to tackle the pandemic in a much better way compared to cities.

When we plan such a disaster the learning that is already there from a previous similar disaster should be used.

Everyone did point out what was learnt and what was not. So, the speakers covered both sides of the discussion.

Harit Nagpal: Last year when the pandemic started, experts predicted the cases will go up to 400 million if India does not act on time. We didn't have health infrastructure to handle that. We stopped all forms of movement by closing international movements, inter-state movement, stopped gathering of people etc. During that time western world was reporting death in thousands, our numbers were low. They had not restricted human movement the way we had. We chose life over livelihood. We picked temporary inconvenience over permanent damage.

Despite putting migrant people on the streets, we ended up saving lives. But we learned nothing from our positive experience and negative experience of others.

In February, when the cases were rising in some districts in Maharashtra, we did not implement anything that we had learnt in the first wave. This year we may have saved livelihood, but lost lives.

When the third wave strikes, our actions hopefully will be guided by combining learning of the previous two waves.

The Verdict

Geeta Rao: "Covid has taught us some things -- an awareness of systemic rot, gratitude for the comfort of strangers and stories of personal transformation. But is that enough? We did not touch upon the economy as a vital facet of the pandemic.

Behavioural change has taken place but not on the scale needed

The verdict: We have certainly learned some lessons from the pandemic. But have we learned enough?"

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