ATMANIRBHARTA IN PANDEMIC TIMES

The COVID has made steady progress since its inception. On 11 January 2020, 41 confirmed cases of COVID worldwide were reported. The one-millionth death was marked on 28 September 2020. According to WHO estimates (May 2021), global Covid pandemic death toll is ‘as high as 8 million’. This is 2-3 times higher than official figures. One of the determinants for the success of the implementation of protective measures is the design and production of vaccines. We have so many vaccines in the race. Developers and fundraisers are laying the groundwork for efficacy trials to only a handful of vaccines. Then there is ‘human challenge’. Large scale trials are necessary to determine safety and efficacy. In addition to vaccines, dozens of drugs are in various phases of development. In such situations, a diversity of opinions emerge. In India two vaccines were released on 16 January, 2021 and administered on healthcare workers and doctors in India. Both the vaccines were mired with political controversy. There are scientific challenges and commercial rivalries. And there is a toxic political atmosphere. Ours is a country where politics is larger than the nation.

The pandemic has exposed our fragility on several fronts. In the COVID world, there is a tussle between living and livelihood. There are issues regarding subsidy and charity. There are issues of health vis-a-vis wealth. There is the possibility of a tussle between ideology and reality. We are expected to learn new ways to treat the planet. Community life experiences resurgence. Mindful behaviour is needed to avoid a breakdown of the system. To live in a liveable world, we will need to create a new order. We will have to form a new normal to live in the world. In the post-COVID world, we will have many contradictory expectations. We will want remote digital learning, and at the same time, we will want to keep student mobility and interaction. Economists and planners are not ready to deal with the emerging situations. They are expected to walk the extra mile, and that too ahead of time.

We are good at playing blame games. COVID is no exception. We blame modernity and going away from nature for all our ills. We are advised to learn to live as ‘humble wanderers’ and not as ‘conquerors of the world’. By unlearning modernity, we think, we can resolve many of our problems. History says we are experts in facing catastrophes and disasters. Backed by a strong technology base we hope to do this time also. Some think we should have begun our preparations to deal with the virus much before their arrival. Some think we couldn’t hear the warning signals in time. We also know that few things are easier said than done. Few things are said for political reasons. The question is - What should we do at the individual level, at the group level, at the country level, and at the global level to deal with the pandemic? Is the present crisis so powerful that it can change the world so much that we will have a ‘new normal’? This pandemic has the potential of worsening the situation unless we are extra alert. We must act before it is too late.

The good thing is that a lot can be done to reduce the impact of the crisis. That will require, besides infrastructure, a lot of efforts of the society, the government, and of course the major stakeholders. All the strata of the society will be affected, middle-income and poor-income groups more. If we are careless we will allow inequalities to amplify. We must minimize the differences in opportunities, as much as possible. It is time we put our dysfunctional strategies behind. We need to train the ‘locals’. We need to train students for jobs because of the uncertain future. We are observing a change in our attitude. Thanks to the crisis, an attitude of help is coming back.

We are social species. Social distancing, therefore, is not a natural phenomenon for us. Quarantined, we are expected to avoid large gatherings and close contact with others. We are expected to suppress our ‘evolutionarily hardwired impulses for connection’. It is not easy, but it is the requirement of the time. ”Social distancing prevents infections, but it can have unintended consequences.” Social isolation can increase the risk of a variety of health problems. At the same time, social contacts buffer the negative effects of stress. The ability to handle social isolation and stress varies among individuals. “Someone who is already having problems with, say, social anxiety, depression, loneliness, substance abuse, or other health problems is going to be particularly vulnerable.” ‘Collective effervescence’ (sharing emotional excitement with people) magnifies the sensation that you’re something larger than yourself.

General psychological symptoms include emotional disturbance, depression, stress, low mood, irritability, insomnia, post-traumatic stress symptoms, anger, and emotional exhaustion. Stressors include longer quarantine duration, infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma. Confinement causes boredom, frustration, and a sense of isolation. Inadequate basic supplies can be the source of frustration, anxiety, and anger. Shortage in public health supplies and inadequate information from public health authorities are some reasons for dissatisfaction. Lack of clarity, lack of transparency about the risk, clear guidelines, and quarantine protocols are some of the predictors of post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Financial problems and loss of work are key post-quarantine stressors. Financial reimbursement is an issue that doesn’t make anybody happy. Work-from-home is still not an acceptable concept in many countries. The stigma of quarantine is an issue. Participants, in several studies, reported that others were treating them differently: avoiding them, withdrawing social invitations, treating them with fear and suspicion, and making critical comments. General education about quarantine helps in the reduction of stigma.

“The biggest psychological experiment in history is running now,” is how the COVID crisis has been described. The emotional and financial reverberations are audible. The metaphor being used is ‘twisted out of shape’. We only hope that it does not break and soon comes back to shape. The deaths by suicide of health care professionals who had been on the medical front lines are powerful reminders of the risks. Every individual is different. The impact of the crisis is different for each individual. Their time of return to a normal state from the disturbed state is different. Their capacity for resilience is different. Studies made by resiliency experts show that around two-third will maintain relatively stable psychological and physical health, one-quarter will struggle temporarily, and around 10% will suffer lasting psychological distress. It is sad, studies indicate, the strength of emotions in older adults diminished during the COVID. This is due to the likelihood of higher chances of getting sick and of losing loved ones. Leading a normal life helps. Belief in the self helps to cope better.

Philip Ball in Nature makes a very vital statement: “There has never been a harder time to be a political leader.” Every political leader seems to be a friend of the common man. Interventions and financial hand-outs doled out by the politicians have greater chances of attracting criticism. Job patterns are continuously changing. People are groping in the dark. Lockdowns of this magnitude are a new experience. Politicians will be required to make some decisions in a hurry. These will lead to transparency issues. Pandemic has clouded our thinking. It also has shown us a new sky. It has shown us the relevance of care. It has inspired a new reverence for the human spirit. Technology is finding new ways of binding us. Schools are finding new ways of educating us. New business models are emerging. There is renewed zeal for collaboration and cooperation.

Pandemic will happen again. Bats are not extinct. The 8 billion people will not stop moving. What we need is a system to deal with it. It will depend upon sharing our responsibilities honestly. Alarms have been raised before also. Today we are better prepared for the next crisis. We don’t want to fail collectively. Together we can fight the menace. Those who made ‘old normal’ made it based on the requirements of the time. When we will make ‘new normal’ we will make it as per the needs of the present time. ‘Normal’ changes as time changes. While making the ‘new normal’ the scope of ‘collective’ will be expanded. The cost of maintaining a long shut down is very high. Parts of the world have already started to reopen some activities despite the risk of a second wave. The contagion will stop only when the herd immunity is reached. Relaxing social distancing with strict measures is a necessity. But society is not prepared to remain under lock down. On the other hand, reopening leads to resurgence. Identifying new cases will be crucial for the containment of this menace.

The pandemic has touched each of us in different ways. It has reaffirmed the importance of community, emotional and professional connectivity, and a sense of belonging for our wellbeing. It has renewed our interest in self-growth, reflection, and refocusing on new ideas and strategies. It has once again emphasized the need for finding time to reconnect with families. For some spending time with the family has been enjoyable, for some it has been whimsical and challenging, and for some stressful and isolating. Adjustment with the new situation will require flexibility, adaptability, and commitment among the people. Our collective behaviour has to change. We have to move from “ignorance, hate, and fear” to “curiosity, compassion, and courage.” If there is a need to maintain social distancing, there is also a need to open the heart and mind. Denial worsens the situation. Blame games don’t help. Trust is essential for any healing. Don’t feign blindness. Coordinate and collaborate. False propaganda is dangerous. Shift from ego to eco. We have to take a re-look at ‘essentials’ and ‘non-essentials’. We have to be careful not to delete some ‘non-essentials’ from the list. We must take responsibility for the situation we are in. This pandemic will follow another one soon unless we change our living pattern, and that includes trade in animal products. If we don’t do that we can’t stop ‘jumping of viruses from animals to humans’. It is not easy, and definitely, it is not cheaper, but we will have to do it.

Social media have to play a more positive role. Don’t create panic even if ‘death’ sells more than ‘life’. Reduce irrationality. Don’t take the responsibility for what is not your competence. Half-truths are worse than complete lies. Use scientific intelligence and rationale to deal with the pandemic. Desperation and the urge of self-promotion do not lead to the solutions we are looking for. Too much pessimism makes one incurable. Optimum optimism helps.

There is a need to reinvent the self. There is a need to reassess our priorities. We have to collectively take the responsibility for the changes that are good for us. We must care for our future, and we also must think about the plight of others. It is time for deep introspection and resurrection. We must get used to the minor inconveniences of life. We need to fill our needs first. Our wants can wait. Our feelings of gratitude improve our life satisfaction by several folds. Collective well-being is our default choice. Departure from the routine is not easy. Social bonds are more desirable than viral detachment. We don’t like cognitive and psychological dissonance. Sharing experiences through virtual social events are on the rise. A common threat helps in bringing a shared sense of togetherness.

The pandemic has affected our experiences over time. We are going through a feeling of being stuck in the present, combined with the inability to plan. We have to ‘trick’ time to plan our future. We need to understand that vaccine nationalism doesn’t help. The politics of Coronavirus doesn’t serve national interest. There is a need for global and equitable access to vaccines. Populist measures have always had a very low half-life. They can’t be used as the front of power, influence and vote bank. It is time to rebuild the ravaged post-pandemic world. Continue keeping faith in science.

The years 2020 and 2021 are the years of the pandemic. We are amidst the second wave. How have we managed the menace so far? Unfortunately, politics has played a big part. We are more interested in telling the countrymen and the world that our country is doing very well. There were elections, there was Kumbh Mela, and there is Kisan Mela, as if everything was normal. Notifications, clarifications and amendments on the do’s and don’ts are creating more confusion. The medical system is failing. Vaccines are in short supply. There is a shortage of oxygen. There are problems of variable vaccine cost. There are problems of responsibility and morality. We are running online classes in schools; most classes are being run by untrained teachers and unprepared students. Economy is contracting.

Atmanirbhar Bharat is facing its biggest challenge. The poor, both urban and rural, are the worst sufferers. For migrant workers, it is a partition like situation. It is a case of collective shame for the nation. Media has understood that the death sells more than the development. There is fight between the centre and the state. If one is callous, the other is insensitive. No one is feeling sorry for the state of nation’s affairs. Amidst chaos, some are violently celebrating success. Some are seeing in the success a glimpses of fear. Mind without fear is disappearing. Habits die hard. We are continuing with our blame games. We are forgetting that it is time for action, not claims, promises and exhortations. In any war the most important thing is to know the modus operandi of the opponent. This time, the country’s opponent is a miniscule virus. To win the war against the virus, we need strong combatants, as strong as the opponents are. We need to learn from the viruses the ethics of common minimum programme. Even if one is not part of a coalition, one must learn to live with others. For leading a atmanirbhar bharat, we need to understand the meaning of atmanirbhar more broadly. One must learn the computational tools that design minimum genome for the life to exist. Minimal genomes are minimum genomes containing only genes essential for life. They need a rich growth medium and no external stressors for their multiplication and growth.