Practices which are now considered routine were prompted by our drastic behavior change in the past to curb the spread of infection and even plague.
We need to start building our Covid capable world. The pervasive fear of a third wave exists when the second wave wanes. We have been here before; long months have passed since the last “unlock” which marked the beginning of the second calamitous wave. Is there a way to get back to normalcy without unleashing the horror of a third wave?
It is now evident that the coronavirus is here to stay. There is no miracle drug in the pipeline. Vaccination programs will take some time to cope with the dual challenges of a rapidly changing virus and a large and susceptible population. Humanity, for its part, will have to get out of it.
Mankind has shown a remarkable tendency to survive despite adversity. Never having been the strongest, the fastest or the most immune, humanity has managed to win by simply being the most adaptable. There is no innate resistance to the trials of nature, just quick adjustments through social, behavioral and scientific engineering.
This is easily seen in our response to past epidemics. The bubonic plague, which has caused three deadly pandemics, has been brought under control through improved housing, sanitation and hygiene. The disease was eliminated by protecting rats from homes, filling holes in homes, and adopting better food storage techniques. Drainage and sanitation have been improved. City-wide quarantines have been strictly enforced. The records of vinegar used as a disinfectant date back to the 17th century.
A similar adaptation was observed in our response to HIV. Practices that are now considered routine were prompted by a drastic change in behavior to curb the spread of the infection. The universal testing of blood products in blood banks has been launched. Single-use needles and syringes have been put into use. Universal precautions have been introduced in hospitals to protect healthcare workers. Safe sex practices were encouraged. Despite the pervasive stigma, screening for all pregnant women has been introduced to prevent mother-to-child transmission. Awareness campaigns on how to break the chain of transmission have helped slow the spread of HIV / AIDS. Four decades after the discovery of this virus, we are in the process of developing effective drugs to control and perhaps one day “cure” HIV. During this time, the company has learned to live with the disease.
Tackling the Covid-19 pandemic will require the same courage and the same commitment to behavior change. This is already evident in healthcare facilities, where all patients are tested for Covid-19 on admission. Healthcare workers also wear Level 2 masks and PPE in non-Covid wards. UV air purifiers and HEPA filters are being installed and ventilation in the wards is improved. Even in non-Covid wards, attempts are made to keep beds a safe distance from each other, assuming any of these ‘negative’ patients can turn out positive for Covid no matter what. day. Droplet and aerosol precautions are repeatedly stepped up and online awareness courses are provided.
Similar changes are needed in the community because, after all, Covid patients don’t just exist in hospitals. They come from the community. A strong response on all fronts – domestic, social and professional – is needed to make our society capable of operating with the threat of Covid infection.
The universal face mask, social distancing, and regular hand washing have already become the norm. However, to err is human, and thus, these precautions are forgotten when meeting with our loved ones. To ensure the safety of the Covid, meeting habits must change. Large parties held in closed rooms should give way to smaller gatherings under the light of the stars. Gatherings at the gazebo in the garden are back, family picnics are planned and we say a sad farewell to the kittens at the club.
In large corporations and apartment buildings, elevators, stairs and parking lots are centers of infection. This needs to be reinforced with large signs reminding people to wear masks in these potentially infectious sites. Over time, these areas can be better ventilated to reduce the viral load. The same caution should be exercised in shopping complexes and shopping centers. Regulated customer entry and “sanitation voids” every few hours can reduce overcrowding. Our buying habits will have to change. The local “kirane wale bhaiya” is expected to experience a dramatic increase in importance as movement becomes limited due to the risk of infection. Telemarketing paved the way for tele-banking, teleconsultation and tele-OPD.
The metro and public transport must be restarted, but with limited capacity. Mandatory masks, the use of face shields, and hand sanitization can protect commuters. Railways and airlines will need to develop sophisticated air management techniques, which will lead to increased travel costs. International travel will be restricted until vaccination rates increase.
Office work will change forever as working from home becomes more and more acceptable. Intelligent automation and robots that target reduction of mechanical stress will be used to reduce non-vital human contact. Working from home, however, will highlight new societal challenges. Employers will need to become more sensitive to the pressures people face at home. This will require more flexibility in terms of schedules and productivity metrics.
Stereotypical gender roles will also be challenged as husband and wife participate in household chores, childcare and family financial stability.
The pedagogy of education is called to undergo a paradigm shift. Online education and digital libraries will invite more flexibility in higher education – students can choose their own courses, teachers and schedules. Field experience and lab learning will take place on campus, while homework can be assessed online. Learning management systems and webcams will pave the way for online exams. Blended online and offline learning will provide a path for the much needed overhaul of our education system.
Traditional entertainment such as running, jumping rope, Kho-Kho and ‘pithu garam’ will be relaunched with strict attention to respiratory hygiene (regular hand washing, sneezing in the elbow and covering the face in coughing).
Religious holidays and fairs have been the subject of much controversy in recent times. They can be discouraged but not abolished. Limited entry and social distancing will be key to improving safety on these occasions. The wisdom to avoid such events in actively spreading places and postpone them in subsequent waves will have to be exercised by our religious gurus and enforced by our regulatory authorities. Promoting appropriate Covid behavior by local spiritual guides and political leaders can take a long time. way to make religious centers safe against Covid.
The rural exodus is a reality and an economic necessity. The pandemic has worsened social inequalities and worsened the living conditions of the economically weaker layers. State-led interventions providing safe and decongested housing for the rural labor force in cities and slums will be vital to revive development activities.
Elections are the backbone of our democracy. They cannot and should not be deleted. However, they can be reinvented using the latest technology. The allocation of slots for EVM voting and the increase in the number of voting centers can be done immediately. In the future, people will be able to vote through their devices linked to Aadhaar after verifying their identity at polling stations. The counting of votes can be done electronically with remote supervision via CCTV cameras. At the same time, political parties must stand up for the safety of their constituents and use different means of conversing with voters. Social media campaigns are already all the rage. Political rallies need to be redesigned with a deeper engagement in smaller groups while discouraging large-scale events.
Monika is an IAS agent from lot 1989 to UP. Prerna is a resident (medicine) involved in COVID management at AIIMS, Delhi. The opinions expressed are personal.