“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key,” famously remarked Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill in his historic 1939 radio broadcast about the likely Russian action amid World War II.
Today, as the world battles a war of far more ghastly circumstances and fatal consequences, Churchill’s words ring truer than even before, albeit in a different context, that of the Covid-19 pandemic. The battlefronts of this hugely perplexing world war are homes ahead of hospitals, and the troops are doctors and nurses, not soldiers. This virus is nothing but a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. No wonder, no country has got it right yet. Even the WHO seems unsure about the assessment, largely mulling over the crisis all this while, unable to offer a clear strategy to cope with the virus, forget countering it. And no one is to blame, for our helplessness is not the outcome of any lack of effort, just that the sheer enormity of this unprecedented crisis has rendered the globe helpless and hapless.
Hence it is important that we consider a few critical facts to put the pandemic in its perspective, rather than simply bemoan the depressing scenario. One, let’s acknowledge that this is a social virus, it absolutely loves mingling. Two, it is more adept than us at hiding itself, which means if we presume lockdown is the silver bullet to escape its wrath, we are sadly mistaken. It hides way better than us. Three, the virus has a crude fatality rate of 3.5, which means ignorance would be anything but bliss if we choose to belittle its impact in any way.
These facts prompt a couple of bigger questions: One, how do we compare this crisis with past catastrophes? The Spanish flu of 1918 killed 200 lakh Indians, with a crude fatality rate of 2.5 and with less than 50% of the social norms of today. This benchmark gives us a fair idea of what we are dealing with.
Two, initially, we held on to the premise that the pandemic scene is not the same across the globe, that India is different from the US. Now, we claim that even within India, states are grappling with different situations: Karnataka is different from Maharashtra and so on and so forth. This is not a correct assessment. We must know that this virus has about seven forms, of which three are more lethal than the rest. But sadly, none of the variants have turned less virulent over time. That is the harsh reality and worse, we do not have a credible cure yet — whether drug, vaccine, or treatment. It will take a minimum of six months to come closer to reach that much-awaited milestone.
So, in the interim, the virus will continue to hang dry, even as we explore ways and means to counter it. Having said that, amid the gloom and despondency, we must pay attention to what Covid-19 has taught us, essentially through hardship and misfortune. These life lessons need to be comprehended and deliberated upon for serving a larger cause rooted in public awareness.
Among other things, Covid-19 has highlighted the need for better preparedness. To give a crude but comprehensible example, imagine the prospect of fighting a Karate black belt opponent by looking at a Youtube video the night before? You need to learn karate, going through the grind well in advance. Ditto for Covid preparedness!
We also need to appreciate how science has evolved during the course of this pandemic. Science has also significantly contracted during this phase, thanks to the fusion of innovation, research and lab effort which has created a new clinical hyperloop. By bringing the bench closer to the bedside, Covid has fundamentally transformed the status quo of science.
In the course of our personal mission to counter this crisis, working hand in hand with a crossfunctional team of experts across different spheres, we made an interesting discovery. This happened in the light of India’s significantly low mortality vis-à-vis the West. Digging deeper, we concluded that much before humans played host, stray dogs and cattle in India were already harbouring coronavirus. As the ACE receptor in canines is similar to that of humans, and the Spike protein of Human virus is similar to that of canines, an interspecies transmission might have occurred, which perhaps gave us partial immunity, and may also give us a strategy for developing a vaccine going forward. That India is home to about three crore stray dogs and about 15 crore cattle now seems a blessing in disguise in hindsight. Covid-19 has indeed changed the way we look at some of our nation’s defining features.
One keyword that corona has almost made the new normal is collaboration between a diverse set of professionals and activists: entrepreneurs, men of science, gaming professionals, animal lovers, innovators, academicians, social activists, celebrities, and commoners, thereby dethroning the erstwhile cut-throat norm led by competition.
Last but not the least is the paradigm of “Reverse Learning” that Covid-19 has thrust upon the world. The pandemic has made us value agility more than ability and maturity. The bigger, stronger, and older stakeholders have been invariably found short of the agility that Covid demands—whether in the context of people, business, country, or economy.
Covid has forced us to re-examine some of our deep-rooted conventions and beliefs, thereby making us address crucial questions: what grandparents and parents can learn from kids, what the poor can teach the well-off, how conglomerates can emulate the startup model, why the developed nations need to value the developing nations, and last but not the least why humans need to respect animals, not merely showcase their love for pets.
In this ongoing war against this ruthless virus, let us together disprove the prevalent notion that humanity is behaving like a virus while corona is akin to a vaccine. Amid the diverse warring tribes unfurling the clarions calls of socialism, capitalism, corruptionism and communalism, let us hope and pray that humanism emerges victorious.
The writer is the Regional Director, Head Neck Surgical Oncology and robotic surgery and the Associate Dean for Centre of Academic Research at HealthCare Global (HCG) Cancer Centre, Bangalore.