Why govts cannot be blamed for not taking 'the right step' in containing Covid-19
In the scenario of continually evolving knowledge, we see the steps undertaken to contain the pandemic being labelled anything from insufficient to draconian.
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Of late, there has been much debate and discussion on what is the appropriate strategy to deal with the Covid pandemic. While on the one hand, lockdowns have been criticised for wrecking economies across the world by economists and common people alike, the risk of keeping the country running has been equally criticised for putting lives at risk, given how people have died in thousands in several countries to reach a certain stage. In neither case have governments been spared, as the continually evolving situation makes it worse to decide. Even in India, continued lockdowns have faced scathing criticism, and the government has been accused of ruining lives and livelihoods in the process of controlling the pandemic. This, despite other countries recognising India’s achievement in managing to keep its fatality rate low, even as easing restrictions has led to a steep rise in infection rates.
However, there is never a perfect solution to a new problem. The answers to scientific problems can never be entirely addressed by the policy establishment. Through his paradigm of risk society, in the early 1990s, sociologist Ulrich Beck had brought out the sharp contrast in the disconnect that often takes place between emerging knowledge and the catch-up that the policymakers have to engage in all the time. This age of ‘Reflexive Modernisation’ has resulted, according to Beck, in a scenario where there is new knowledge emerging each day. Policymakers have to adjust to the realities as they emerge, as their decision-making has to be rooted in sound scientific knowledge. Risk aversion is important; however, in a society where newer and newer risks are being identified, it becomes extremely difficult to understand and come up with the best response. The problem is compounded further when there has been asymmetry in the sharing of information from initial responders, leaving many slopes to climb on the learning curve for everyone simultaneously.
Lockdowns have been criticised for wrecking economies across the world. (Photo: Reuters)
Consider the shifts that have taken place in knowledge understanding over the Covid pandemic. On the issue of human-to-human transmission, the evidence shifted from no evidence at the initial stages in China, to confirm the same over a few months’ time. However, the policymaker response was catching up on the same as seen by the responses on the usage of masks across several countries.
Initial responses were driven by experience with outbreaks of recent times like SARS and MERS — the two cases, as Igor Rudan, Professor of International Health and Molecular Medicine, University of Edinburgh pointed out in June this year, where “we were lucky.” Rudan had also pointed out that unlike Covid, “both SARS and MERS spread to other people only after the onset of the symptoms of the disease,” thus making it more difficult to contain. Experiences from the SARS and MERS were limited to essentially fewer countries, particularly East Asian and Southeast Asian, and even though this is a new disease, the protocols and procedures activated to respond to the disease across this region surfaced as the best responders to Covid pandemic as per many observers and analysts.
Then came the idea of the lockdowns being the most effective tool to curb the spread of the pandemic. However, Sweden’s strategy of not going into lockdowns has become a debatable issue with extreme arguments coming from both sides, even as studies now indicate that there were fewer deaths than expected while Denmark’s approach has also been under the scanner. Moreover, multiple conflicting studies over the appropriate treatment protocol, that also saw false studies due to the still ongoing scientific knowledge and consensus building over the disease, the policymakers are reduced to figuring out for themselves the right way forward.
If you recall the time of the lockdown, treatment protocols were yet to be standardised across the world, and drugs and plasma therapy were under examination for utility and effectiveness. Given all these circumstances and the continually evolving paradigm over the disease issuing mixed signals, policymakers were essentially pushed into a situation that made them opt for the only solution understandable and in their control — lockdowns. Therefore, it is important to understand that Covid-19 has essentially brought out the risk aversion among our policymakers, including in India, and compelled them to opt for a draconian solution in the absence of clear information.
Further, as knowledge over Covid has improved, there has been a change in response to the pandemic globally. This can be seen in India’s gradual unlocking, which has been accompanied by improved medicare facilities in several parts of India, lowering of fatality rates, and standardisation of treatment protocols through the identification of relevant medicine options. We also witnessed the perpetuation of this paradigm wherever healthcare facility and delivery capabilities remain limited due to various socio-economic and geographical reasons. Asymmetry of knowledge sharing and information dissemination across certain states and regions also contributed to policymakers continuing with what they understood and identified was the best way to deal with the pandemic, thus perpetuating their risk aversion tendency.
Therefore, it is imperative to highlight that governments across the world, including in India, cannot be blamed for ‘not taking the right steps’. ‘The right step’ is a fluid entity that changes shapes and evolves continually, and in the scenario of continually evolving knowledge and understanding against any pandemic, it is not surprising that we see the steps being undertaken which are labelled anything from insufficient to draconian. The step is a response to the general aversion to risk that society possesses, and is merely being reflected in its leadership — the policymakers.