Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash
The COVID-19 pandemic has given a rude shock to the world; none of the countries was prepared to face an outbreak of this scale. While the developed economies have provided their people with some social support to wade through the crisis, most people in developing economies are left high and dry. India, which has the second-highest number of cases in the world and has recently crossed the one-lakh death mark, has been witnessing its health system falter despite imposing a draconian lockdown meant to contain the spread. The truth, after about ten months into the pandemic, is that the return to ‘normalcy’, as we knew it, would never come, and preparing well for a post-pandemic world is our only hope. But how best can we do that?
In a recent study, researchers from the Population Council, New Delhi, have calculated district level ‘vulnerability indices’, for aiding government policies in preparation for life beyond COVID-19. With India still under an elongated first wave of COVID-19 infections, this makes it a crucial time for devising political strategies for ‘disaster management’. The study was published in the journal The Lancet Global Health.
A vulnerability index is a measure of the exposure risk a section of the population faces and its consequences, to a disaster. Conventionally, social vulnerability indices are used to identify and provide relief to people impacted by climate disasters. However, when the concept is applied to a viral disease, the parameters used to arrive at such indices, change. For example, a group may not be vulnerable initially but can become so due to the incompetence of other people, or negligence in implementing and following the necessary guidelines.
“Our vulnerability index is for preparing ahead of the epidemic. That means the index will help allocate resources and to decide priorities to prepare a particular district for the epidemic management and response,” says Rajib Acharya, the lead author of the study.
The researchers used publicly-available survey data from the National Family Health Survey 2015–16, Census of India 2011, Rural Health Statistics 2018, and National Health Profile 2019. They calculated the vulnerability indices of 640 districts across 30 states and six union territories. They arrived at a district-wise ranking on five parameters. These include the socioeconomic status of the people in these districts, its demography, hygiene standards, health system infrastructure, and epidemiological factors like prior presence of diseases or unhealthy habits like smoking.
The study identifies people of nine large states — Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Odisha, and Gujarat — as having the maximum vulnerability to COVID-19 and its consequences. Districts in the north-eastern states of the country were found to dominate the lower rungs of these indices and paint a comparatively safer contrast, as compared to the rest of the country.
India is predicted to race to the numero uno position in the total number of COVID-19 cases very soon. Many of the districts, identified as vulnerable in this study, did not have many COVID-19 cases back then. However, based on their social and infrastructural standing, they still run a severe risk, and the numbers can begin to sky-rocket any moment and jeopardise them. That brings us to the question that has been haunting the collective consciousness of our country: will another lockdown help?
“Once the disease is widespread, it becomes challenging to trace the source of the infection for a particular person and all its contacts. We are at this stage now, and another lockdown will not do any good. It will not bring the same benefits as the first one and should be avoidable,” says Rajib. With India’s economy plummeting to an abysmal low, it is now slowly opening up its markets, and a lockdown doesn’t seem feasible anymore.
Such circumstances make this study very well-timed, for influencing policy decisions by the government for a post-COVID life. The researchers recommend that the findings from this study be used to identify vulnerable regions at a district level and deploy mitigation strategies accordingly. The vulnerability indices presented in this study are relative scores, instead of absolute, and thus may help in guiding priority-based allocations when limited resources are available.
This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.