COVID-19, the pandemic that has shaken the world, will perhaps change our lives forever. Often, we now talk of a ‘pre-COVID’ world, where business was as usual, and a ‘post-COVID’ world which is the new normal. While the disease, caused by a tiny virus, has affected millions, it has also brought to fore some often-ignored challenges and opportunities to build a better tomorrow. Science has been in the forefront, driving these monumental changes across the world—from understanding the virus and designing a vaccine, to throwing insights on how we could prepare for and prevent the next pandemic.
In India, at the time of publishing, 4,40,214 cases of COVID-19 and 14,011 deaths due to it, have been reported. With these numbers poised to grow, the country is not only reeling under a stressed healthcare infrastructure but also witnessing humanitarian challenges of unprecedented levels. How do we emerge successfully from this crisis? How can science and its practitioners help in our recovery and be our guiding light into the future? These are questions a set of experts from the EChO Network hope to answer.
The consortium, which primarily consists of scientists from a diverse academic background, is steered by the Office of the PSA. Its founding partners include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hindustan Unilever Limited, RoundGlass, India Climate Collaborative, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP). It bets big on science to drive India’s recovery from the pandemic.
“Science helps us measure, assess, and analyse our planet, and technology can help us to live better in our world,” says Prof Shannon Olsson.
She is a professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, and a member of the Steering committee of the ECho Network. “Science and technology innovations have the potential to drive positive social, economic, and environmental change. Interdisciplinary research incorporating our lands, our lives, and our livelihoods together will ensure that this impact is sustainable and equitable,” she argues.
In a recently released report, titled India’s Journey Beyond COVID-19, the consortium highlights some critical challenges, focus areas and immediate actions for the country to sail through the pandemic successfully.
“While this pandemic has caused enormous upheaval in every possible aspect of our lives—land, life, and livelihoods, it also offers an opportunity to pause and rethink how to move forward towards a better future,” opines Prof Olsson.
Putting science at the steering wheel
The report identifies thirteen challenges exposed by the pandemic, which needs immediate redressal. These include hygiene and sanitation, risk of future disease outbreaks, lack of healthcare and social protection, inequality, economic turmoil and unemployment, among others. It highlights how science and technology can be our only hope in addressing them successfully.
Four focus areas, encompassing the above challenges, have been identified, where science and technology can play a vital role. The first is building a preventive and responsive public health system, which urges for research funding on OneHealth-based programme. OneHealth is a concept that examines the outcomes of environmental factors like climate change and habitat destruction, on the health of humans, animals (including wild and farmed) and environment, and responds to these as a whole. The report calls for careful diagnostics of disease outbreaks through scientific methods and addressing the gaps in our healthcare and health systems through intersectoral action.
India witnessed unparalleled humanitarian crisis during the pandemic with thousands of livelihoods, especially of those who had migrated to the cities for work, destroyed. The inequality and marginalisation of some communities were brought out amidst the pandemic, highlighting the need for social security. The report suggests developing an evidence-based public service delivery and distribution. With climate change expected to increase migration and poverty, the need for a societal safety net is paramount. Investments in growing crops that can withstand the vagaries of climate and restoring damaged ecosystems like the mangroves and forests can also provide sustainable livelihoods.
The report also calls for safeguarding our environment through compliance with existing laws, scientific interventions and traditional knowledge to prevent its degradation. Science-based environmental policies, increased funding in research and adoption of technology in agriculture are other areas of focus and action. It is ironic that during the pandemic, which many think is a result of such environmental degradation, India has approved many infrastructure projects in eco-sensitive areas.
“Our white paper is intended to be a starting point for further discussions. It does not provide solutions, but recommendations that require more targeted conversations”, explains Prof Olsson.
Starting July, the EChO Network is hosting a series of interactive sessions beginning, where the thought leaders will answer queries from the public.
“This effort is a starting point for deeper discussions on strategies, knowledge gaps, and goals for research and exploration that can direct future targeted science and technology efforts in India from a multidisciplinary standpoint and real-world focus,” she elaborates.
The seeds of this consortium were sown in 2018, when Prof Olsson stressed the need to bring science and society together through collaborative research, in a casual conversation with Prof VijayRaghavan, the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India. It was eventually initiated in December 2019, with a goal “to bring science into the conversation in classrooms, boardrooms, courtrooms, and living rooms alike,” says an emphatic Prof Olsson.
“Despite its urgent need, there is perhaps no precedent for such a network anywhere in the world. We are the architects of a new platform to change how science is embedded in our modern society. Our methods are, therefore, as important as our results,” she signs off.