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New Delhi: As the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, infection rates around the world fluctuated and most of the countries imposed restrictions with an aim to control transmission and prepare for responding to the pandemic, in terms of public health infrastructure. In the past nine months of the pandemic, the world has lost more than 10.4 lakh lives and over 97.6 lakh people are still fighting the infection. During this time, there have been many learnings globally. The major thing that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has taught us is the importance of the environment and the fragile relationship human beings share with the environment and other species. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly stated the link among health, hygiene and sanitation and environment and has reinstated the concept of co-existence with nature. At the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India’s #SwasthyaMantra telethon on October 2, experts discussed the learnings from the pandemic and what can be done now to fight.
There Is A Direct Connect Between The Diseases In Humans And The Environment
While talking about the history of pandemics and how these are related to the health of the biodiversity, environment journalist Swati Thiyagarajan listed the following pandemics that occurred over the past years:
• Outbreak of leprosy in the 11th century
• Plague in the 14th, 17th & 19th centuries
• First cholera pandemic in early 19th century
• A total of 7 cholera pandemics in 150 years
• Fiji measles pandemic at the end of the 19th century
• Spanish Flu in 1918
• Asian Flu in 1957 and 1958
• More than a million global deaths due to Asian Flu
• The advent of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)/AIDS (Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) in 1981
• 35 million HIV deaths globally so far
• SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), Nippah, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Zica, Ebola over the last decade
• 1.5 million people killed by TB in 2018
According to Ms. Thiyagarajan, 70 per cent of the diseases in the world are zoonotic. Zoonotic diseases are those that jump from animals to humans. She said,
There is a direct connection between the diseases and the environment that we live and of the biodiversity. The minute the health of the biodiversity goes down, it’s like the planet loses its immunity and this will automatically hurt humans. Because there are just so many of us around the world. We live so much closer and are connected and all it takes for a virus to just get on one person before it spreads everywhere.
She further said that the COVID-19 has reminded humanity again about the fragile relationship between humans and the environment. She added that as per scientists, we have a window of time, from the year 2020 to the year 2030, which is extremely crucial as whatever the human do during this decade the course of human survival as a species.
While talking about the link between human health and the environment, Indira Nooyi, Former CEO, PepsiCo said,
Environment is at the core of this COVID discussion. We tell people to wash their hands regularly with clean water, yet in many parts of the world, there is no clean water available. That is a way is a reflection of the environment because we don’t have Monsoons and rains and freshwater in these areas. We are never going to have enough water for the people living in these areas and so water is a core issue. COVID-19 affected those in even worse ways to those who have comorbidities like asthma, diabetes, and others. Asthma particularly comes in because of the bad environment- smog in the air, impurities in the air and COVID has assured us that if you do not have smog in the air, you can actually see the Himalayas, blue sky and stars. COVID-19 has told us that we need a healthy environment, clean water, clean air, more trees and we actually need to go back to the first principles to think about how to protect the planet.
She also highlighted the faulty relationship humans have with animals and how there is a need to rethink and fix it in order to avoid future pandemics. She said,
We mistreat animals. We treat them badly before we kill them and then eat them after they are treated with antibiotics and other drugs which weakens the immune system. We need to make sure that animals are not the source of viral outbreaks. So this is not a time to wait for the proof of climate change. Environmental catastrophes are staring us in the face and if we don’t do something about this, COVID would just be the tip of the iceberg.
The Pandemic Has Provided Us Lessons On Strengthening Social Support Systems For the Poor
According to Abhijit Banerjee, another major learning from the pandemic is that there is a need for a better, more flexible social support system for the poor and the needy. He said,
One of the things that were hit directly during the lockdown was the structure of the social support system. In India, we have a social support system that is domicile based which means that you will get social support typically only if you are rural and you live in your village. In rural areas, you can get benefits of NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005) and PDS (Public Distribution System). In cities, you can get only PDS. But in cities, this social support completely failed during this pandemic. So the most striking thing that we learn from this pandemic is that if want to impose a lockdown, we need to think about what’s going to happen to the people who would immediately lose their jobs and have to find a way towards survival. We have all been a witness to the tragedies that have taken place in the past months. So, major learning from this pandemic is that we need a much flexible social support system and not based on the assumptions that everybody lives in their own village.
Another thing that Mr. Banerjee noted was that there is a need for supporting livelihoods of the people, especially those who can lose their livelihoods immediately in the event of a pandemic induced lockdown. He said,
I think that we are still learning that this is one of those moments where people need to come forward to support people’s livelihood. While the United States of America and Europe have started this, in India people are still hesitant to do this. If we had done this, we would have transitioned in a much better way. The fact that people suddenly found themselves with no money has shortened the demand and hurt the economy which is seen from the fall of 24 per cent in the GDP. I think we would have transitioned much better. Now as we are opening up, we are going in the opposite direction and doing it too much. I don’t understand the need for opening movie theatres right now.
The Pandemic Response Could Have Been Undertaken Much Earlier: Indira Nooyi
Continuing the discussion on the global learnings from the pandemic, Ms. Nooyi highlighted that the global response to pandemic could have started immediately after the outbreak occurred in order to suppress the transmission of the virus. She said,
The biggest lesson we can draw is from the Spanish Flu of the 1980s. In America, the first thing that we would have done was imposing a lockdown and then figuring out how we should behave as we slowly come out it. That happened a little late. Secondly, we didn’t have enough PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) available which caused a disruption in the supply chain globally. I think that suppression and slowly coming out if it requires ample availability of masks, protective gears for the hospitals and our frontline worker and we were falling short of that. The third major learning from the pandemic and the whole response process is that responding to the pandemic is like organising massive crisis management efforts. And for that you really need the federal government and the state governments need to organise in the same way so that there is a docking station from the federal government to the state governments in terms of testing, PPEs and tracking and tracing along with other necessary things for a response.
Ms. Nooyi noted that the world did make some exceptional efforts like expediting the process of development of vaccines against COVID-19, increasing the availability of ventilators and personal protective gears. However she asserted,
People travel across the country but we have never practised for a pandemic. So, when the government system is not working as a fine-tuned machine, we are sort of feeling our way of addressing this pandemic. Upfront when it comes to suppression, we really did not know what to do and we are paying a price for it.
During A Pandemic Response, Communication Should Have The Capacity To Drive Behaviour Change
While talking about the response to the pandemic, Laxman Narasimhan, CEO, RB highlighted the importance of communication when it comes to the behaviour change required in order to fight the pandemic. He emphasised on the fact that the people look for evidences that they can trust in order to make any behaviour change. He said,
During this pandemic, there have been various changing and evolving perspectives and evidence has been a real question all through this. We need to communicate these evidences in such a manner that it drives behaviour change. We have tied up with medical professionals and scientists in order to be sure of evidences that people can believe. Like the importance of wearing masks, how can you ensure that your life changes, what to do, how to behave..because we need to do this in such a way that it also translates into behaviours that simple people can adopt.
We Need Stronger Human Connection And Acts Of Kindness Around The World: Expert
Since the start of the pandemic, the world has seen an equal measure of kindness among people as the tragedies that COVID-19 brought upon them. The experts on the panel at NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India’s 12-hour #SwasthyaMantra telethon rooted for stronger human connection and more acts of kindness to support those badly hit by the pandemic.
Todd Jacobson, Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility, NBA (National Basketball Association), spoke about how NBA family helped people during the Coronavirus pandemic. The NBA family undertook acts of caring like distributing food or dropping off groceries to the neighbour’s house. NBA also raised over 100 million dollars which helped in providing personal protective equipment (PPEs) to medical professionals and helping those in need. He said,
We wanted to make sure that we can help out..as the NBA family, we launched the NBA platform. It has four pillar- Healthy habits, social distancing, staying home if not feeling well, and wearing masks. Acts of caring like distributing food or dropping off groceries to the neighbour’s house. Connecting with communities- mental health exercises, we started junior NBA programmes, sharing what people do at home. the initiative raised over 100 million dollars which helped in providing ppes and helping those in need.
We Have To protect Our Medical Workers: Dr. Devi Shetty
Dr Devi Shetty, Chairman and Founder, Narayana Health brought light to the problems faced by the medical community and the dire need of protecting the existing medical personnel and producing more of them. He said that one of the positive things that have come up during this pandemic is that medical education has been transformed and now, any hospital that has sufficient patient load can become a graduate centre. He said,
This will go a long way for medical education.
He further talked about how simple behaviour change in the people can help doctors. He urged people to behave responsibly during the ongoing pandemic. He said,
I am sorry to say that we as citizens are behaving very irresponsibly. Why should you wear masks? You wear masks to protect your and more than yourself, you protect others. Most of the people are asymptomatic carriers. They go interact with so many people. They don’t realise that in the next few months, there may not be many doctor and nurses to take care of the increasing number of patients. The medical personnel are becoming tired and burn out because of the irresponsible behaviour of the people. I understand that you have to go out and the shops need to open, but the least you can do is wear a mask, practise social distancing and wash hands. Everyone must understand that beds do not treat the patients, the doctors and nurses treat patients and we need more of them. My request to every citizen is that now the ball is in your court. You are ones who will decide what future you want.
Dr Sudhir Bhandari, Principal, Sawai Mansingh Hospital, Jaipur reiterated the need for taking the pandemic seriously and behaving responsibly and thus keeping the medical staff from burning out or from catching the infection. He said,
People are taking COVID-19 very easily. They are not wearing masks properly and not cooperating with the authorities. Because of this, more and more cases are coming up which is exerting even more pressure on hospitals, doctors and other medical staff.
Dr. Ashutosh Raghuvanshi, CEO, Fortis Healthcare reassured people that those suffering from non-covid conditions should not postpone seeking medical care in fear of the COVID-19 infection and said that hospitals are implementing enough measures to ensure the safety of non-covid patients.
Vaccines Are Developing Fast But We Should Not Rely Solely Upon Those: Experts
While speaking at the telethon, Adar Poonawalla, CEO, Serum Institute of India (SII) said that after facing a minor setback when they had to shut the trials due to some medical issue with a trial volunteer in the United Kingdom, they are back on conducting the trial study. SII is manufacturing over a million doses of Covishield or AZD122 which has been developed by the Oxford University jointly with the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. Mr. Poonawalla said,
I am continuously in touch with governments at all levels to be able to roll out the vaccine in huge numbers and volumes across the country and that is a herculean task. So even though we’ll be licensed in December or January, by the time everyone gets it will be a while after that.
He further said that the vaccines being developed right now are early-on vaccines which are being made by expediting the whole process of vaccine development that usually takes about 10 years.
The discussion leaves us with a conclusion we can safely draw that the health outcomes in this crisis will not depend merely on what our governments tell us to do and not to do but will depend just as much on the choices we make about how to behave and how we treat the environment.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.