By Kiran Mazumdar Shaw
The seismic events unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic will change our world in ways we have never imagined. We are now realising that economic revival will not happen by pressing the ‘pause’ button and then hitting ‘play’ when the threat from this virus recedes. Covid-19 is the ‘reboot’ button that will trigger a system-wide overhaul, transforming how we live, work, and use technology.
Risk consulting firms that craft strategic risk mitigation plans should have prepared the world for a ‘black swan’ event like this pandemic. Not a single one did, even though the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak and 2014-15 Ebola outbreak had carried portents of what’s to come. While these firms were preparing businesses against cyber threats from malware, the Sars-CoV-2 virus sneaked in and decimated the global economy.
This outbreak is a lesson that technology being besotted with only one application of computational science is dangerous. Over the past decade or so, our definitions of technological progress have been confined to Information and Communication Technology (ICT), which evolved at breakneck speed by attracting billions of dollars of funding.
This progress has, however, happened to the detriment of life technologies. We need a multi-disciplinary approach to advancing science and technology, combining biotechnology, biomedical technologies, biological sciences, and environmental sciences.
Epidemiologists, virologists and healthcare workers are emerging as national heroes. Virologist and National Institute of Virology director Priya Abraham has been working 24×7 evaluating a plethora of indigenously developed PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and antibody-based testing kits to address the growing national need for Covid-19 testing. Similarly, doctors, nurses and others on the frontlines are getting due respect for putting their lives on the line in caring for patients – even as we learn about stray, deplorable cases of health workers reportedly being attacked in Indore, Hyderabad, Surat, Moradabad etc.
In the mad scramble for a panacea, scientists are going back to basic biology to seek insights into the human immune system’s ability to fight pathogens. Drugmakers are attempting to repurpose old medicines — from the river blindness drug ivermectin, to a malarial drug like hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) — to treat Covid-19. They are also studying a potential connection between Covid-19 and BCG (Bacillus Calmette–Guérin) vaccine used to immunise infants against tuberculosis (TB). Epidemiological research is finding its rightful place in biological sciences, aided by the advances made in genomics and data science.
The US, Spain, Italy, France and Germany are now home to the most number of Covid-19 patients. So far, the pandemic seems to have hit the developed, industrialised nations the hardest. Do frequent exposures to small-scale viral outbreaks make populations in the developing world more resilient to pandemics? Have ongoing immunisation programs for TB and other infectious diseases boosted immunity against coronaviruses among these populations? A huge amount of epidemiological and genetic data needs to be collected to answer some of these critical questions.
Covid-19 will also cast a long shadow on our social and cultural lives, too. Perhaps, social gatherings will resemble masquerade balls, where guests accessorise their masks with their outfits. Handshakes could be a thing of the past, and namastes, aadabs and elbow bumps becoming the favoured form of greeting.
The concept of mass congregational prayers may undergo a major transformation, with churches livestreaming Sunday mass, temples screening evening aartis online and mosques asking the faithful to offer Friday prayers at home. Sports events could be held in empty stadia with fans preferring to watch online.
Technology has been thrust upon us and we are all finding out that the critics of online learning, virtual meetings and online retail are now converts. Zoom, which IPO-ed last year at a valuation of about $9 billion, has seen its market cap zoom to over $36 billion. Despite a GoI warning about data privacy concerns, it is now the preferred video conferencing platform for schools, colleges, startups and large businesses, overtaking entrenched old timers like Skype. Post-Covid-19, work from home models are likely to continue, and virtual meetings may become the norm. Mobile and internet banking have also seen a surge since the viral outbreak.
Travel in the post-Covid-19 world is likely to look very different, with passengers having to undergo rapid coronavirus blood tests as well as produce immunity certificates along with other identification papers. What we find on the ‘other side’ is unlikely to look like the ‘normal’ we have grown accustomed to over the years.
Ultimately, the greatest lesson Covid-19 can teach us is that we are all in this together, that what affects a single person anywhere affects everyone everywhere, that we need to think and act unitedly, rather than worrying about ethnicity, nationality, religion, economic status, and such groupings.
The writer is chairperson, Biocon