Turning to science and systems change in the face of the coronavirus

By Tikender Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, India

“Either we all are safe or none of us is.” This sentence in an article in the print media is apt in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that has spread to 177 countries and regions, has infected over 700,000 people, and has claimed more than 34,000 lives so far across the globe.  The sheer scale of the contagion presents a scary picture. Be it rich or poor countries, life in every nook and corner of the planet has been affected by the deadly virus. At the same time, there are reports of some improvement in the situation in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the Covid-19 virus was first detected and claimed more than 4000 lives, as no new cases are being reported. There is also a more concerted and coordinated effort to fight the pandemic in the global order. For instance, the United States is speaking to China; the Cubans and the Chinese have sent their doctors to Italy, and a conference of SAARC nations discussed the challenges in the South Asian region. These are positive developments, and soon there might be a vaccine to counter the virus, following concerted efforts between nations and groups of scientific communities.

However, the pandemic is already pointing towards three key lessons. The first one involves a systemic issue. It is clear that a ‘business as usual’ attitude cannot and will not sustain the planet and the human race for long. Compounding the impact of the pandemic is the challenge of climate change. I don’t want to venture into a discussion on the intrinsic relationship between the pandemic, which involves an evolutionary process of the virus, and climate change. However, one thing that is certain is the increasing frequency of life-threatening events, caused by both climate change and the emergence of virulent viruses, which were less frequent in the previous century. Hence, it is important to break our inertia and learn from these experiences; this is something that we all discussed in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, at the Habitat conference in 2016.  There has to be systemic change and that means revisiting the entire process of planning for the people and for the planet.

The second lesson is that only science can provide an answer to the unfolding disaster. As the fear of the pandemic spreads, more and more people are relying on science to find a solution. In India, there were initial reports of obscurantism being displayed to the hilt. Cow urine was suggested as a cure for Covid-19 by not just a few zealots, but also government leaders. The tying of a taweez (an amulet) around the arm was also claimed to be a cure. However, thankfully, these voices are falling silent, and there is increasing reliance on scientific values. Among the methodologies being practiced in several countries is social distancing to avoid contact and the use of masks.

The third lesson, a disturbing one, is of the risks migrants face across the globe, including South Asia. According to a report submitted at the World Economic Forum in 2019, nearly 750 million people (15% of the global population) across the globe would have migrated if they could, including nearly 272 million international migrants. What will happen to such a large number of vulnerable people, in the context of the pandemic? We cannot say with great assurance that all these migrants will be taken care of. We are already seeing how internal migration is being handled during the ongoing lockdown in India, with several thousand people having to walk long distances to reach their villages. The cities, where they had been working, have not been able to hold them back for even a few months. This shows the huge inequity that exists in the urban centres. Will this lead to a reversal of the process of urbanisation in South Asia, particularly in India? We might get the answer to that only in the months and years to come.

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