A friend in Delhi suggested that the lockdown announcement was prompted by a global simulation model by Johns Hopkins University that made dire predictions for India beginning March 24. Many friends reiterated it. Statistics is not quite the strength of Indian medicine. The prediction may turn out either way, but not because of the simulation model. Such cross-section models using multi-country data are, at best, a good way of organising data to give informed judgements. It’s like fitting a straight line between illness numbers and some speculative “cause” numbers of information on Indian states, from Tamil Nadu to Arunachal Pradesh, and using that line to make policy decisions.
Incidentally as the date for the Hopkins simulation went by without any earth-shaking events, that professional body released a very useful “do-it-yourself kit”, with valuable insights: For example, the effectiveness of the fat content of the soap and washing away of the virus, and the air conditioning affecting the coronavirus as you sleep.
It is important to generate and have ready knowledge for one’s own country for such crises, rather than rely on global simulations where you are just a dot on a line. But we only look at information filtered by our corporates from their international collaborators for solving “local problems”.
Actually, the world is not a “big village”. This should become the first lesson of the lockdown. At the beginning of the 21st century, the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, had asked some think tanks in large countries (China, India, Indonesia, Russia) to look ahead at their problems of the millennium. It was clear that nuclear wars did not constitute a problem any longer — game theory showed that. Pandemics, on the other hand, were. But people were so scared of China that they predicted pandemics would originate from Africa! While some of us were professionally involved and policy-makers like the late B N Yugandhar were interested, governments generally cold-shouldered the idea. It is of interest that Rahul Gandhi has raised it now. He is becoming the Adlai Stevenson of Indian politics and has scored on a health minister’s somewhat ill-considered remark concerning government response to the pandemic — ironically, the minister is a doctor. More seriously, why can’t we keep knowledge-based files in a computerised decision support system, for quick decisions on such critical matters — a suggestion we had made in a professional piece decades ago?
At this time, it is important to go easy on shibboleths. So, the government should not insist on Aadhaar and bank account numbers and biometric identification for handing over that life-sustaining grain or income payment. Reform can wait, death does not. Leakages are inevitable at this time, but the part which reaches will be literally life-saving. Frankly, I find the concern on the economic downturn at this moment disgusting. As the governor of the Reserve Bank of India said, the crisis will pass, strong institutions will survive.
A part of the problem is the sheer anti-science beliefs that prevail in our society. Some viral trolls, for example, are still at the game of using religion or caste as a handle. That the coronavirus is quite comfortable with a Muslim, a Savarna, or any other caste “body”, woman or man, is an understanding that doesn’t come easy to men with untreatable doctrinal beliefs. That the skin, the heart and the lungs are the same in all Indians has to be the foundation not only of the fight against the coronavirus, but the body politic of India of the new decade. That message is critical now, and should remain so even after the lockdown is lifted.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 1, 2020 under the title ‘World is not a village’. The writer, a former Union minister, is an economist.
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