Corona pandemic: A lesson for preparedness in future

[ Tosa Dodum ]
On 11 March, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed Covid-19 as a global pandemic. An emphasis on hand-washing and social distancing made its way into our communities. There have been more than four lakh deaths and 74 lakh confirmed cases in the world, and 8000 deaths (and counting) in India due to Covid-19.
This global phenomenon has transcended from being just a virus to creating an avenue for people to ponder and reflect on the social structure. The social and economic lives of people have been tremendously affected. In other words, it has taken a huge toll on the civilians.
On 25 March, 2020, with the nationwide lockdown, we experienced a ‘new normal’. As social distancing came into effect, ‘work from home’ has been one of the initiatives that have been adopted for the safety of the employees and the community. Some experts believe that this trend will last for a longer duration. At this time of crisis, it is important to understand that humankind is not just susceptible to physical health issues; mental health also needs to be accounted for in the community.
According to the WHO, an estimated 204 million people suffer from depression and anxiety. From the economic point of view, mental health problem alone causes a loss of productivity which is worth Rs 65.39 trillion annually. India stands at 18 percent in terms of global depression. The death of Papum Pare district disaster management officer Tsering Yangzom due to tremendous work pressure, as reported by The Arunachal Times, is a crying testament to how we take mental health at workplace for granted. Likewise, there are several healthcare workers who are caught between their professional obligation to be at the forefront of this battle, and the pressure from their families, who disapprove of their commitment to their jobs. Facing such an ethical dilemma can lead to fear and anxiety.
As told by Dr T Kena, senior psychiatrist at the TRIHMS, though fear and anxiety are a normal response to such a situation as it alerts the people to their safety, it also has tendency to quickly escalate to a level where it takes a toll on mental health.
Mental health should not be brushed off as mere feelings that fade away with time. Although there is a provision for psychiatric consultation in the form of a helpline, employers should build a culture of mental health in their workplaces by encouraging the employees, giving frequent breaks, having stress buster sessions, and through management practices that promotes wellbeing. Most importantly, the stigma attached to mental health problem in the community should be addressed by starting a conversation/dialogue, curating awareness programmes and understanding it as a disorder.
According to reports, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has confirmed that there are 157 crore learners and students across the world who have been affected by the global pandemic. In India, the postponement of entrance and board exams has affected 33 crore students in schools and colleges. Fortunately, in this era of technological advancement, the state’s response to the crisis was manifested through online education or e-learning.
The concept of online education is an unfamiliar territory for numerous establishments in India. Although it seems to be the only solution at the moment, the question is whether it is accessible to all. There are educational institutions in urban areas which are privatized; therefore they are better equipped with facilities, infrastructure and means to conduct online classes. On the contrary, in the rural and tribal areas, there are schools and colleges that do not share the same privilege. In such areas, these resources are equivalent to a far-fetched idea.
According to a recent report, there are approximately 451 million people in India who have access to the internet. This means that 60 percent of the population does not have internet connectivity. Based on a 2017 survey report, 35 percent population of the northeastern states of India, comprising 8600 rural areas, are devoid of mobile connectivity. In Arunachal, 2805 villages are yet to be covered by mobile connectivity, which is recorded as the highest number of villages without mobile connectivity among the northeastern states.
In addition, it is important to note that education is meant for all, irrespective of caste, gender, and language. The India Internet Report 2019, published by the IAMAI, shows that the national male-female ratio in internet usage is 67:33. It shows that the number of female users is less than half of the total number of male internet users. We have to keep this number in consideration as the socio-economically marginalized sections are deprived of their basic rights due to the digital division.
The Indian government has been hurtling to address the problems attached to the pandemic by sanctioning various measures and funds for the welfare of the state. Swayam Prabha is one of the bold initiatives taken for an inclusive education system. It is a group of 32 DTH channels devoted to telecasting high-quality educational programmes on 24 hours basis free of cost. However, digital education requires basic command on the English and Hindi languages in order to comprehend the lessons. It is also designed in some regional vernacular languages like Malayalam, Marathi etc. It tends to exclude students who struggle with language barrier problems. In some rural areas and most of the northeastern states of India, students who are not well-versed in English and Hindi might face this problem.
What about students who don’t have televisions in their homes? In India, television is regarded as an entertainment piece; how will students navigate their academic learning through a medium that is primarily reserved for visual indulgence? Hence, this pandemic should teach the education reformers to reshape the idea of teaching and learning; to have risk management strategies in place in order to mitigate barriers of learning; and to make learning fun.
Covid-19 has given birth to a new kind of terror and havoc because it does not have a direct cure or a vaccine. As a result, is has instilled a sense of insecurity, anxiety and fear among people. Furthermore, this has created hostility filled with prejudice, which is strengthened by the misleading information disseminated through social media. In India it has led to inhumane treatment of infected persons and those who are believed to have been infected. There is racial discrimination against people based on their features, with accusation of bringing the virus (Chinese virus) into the country. People from the Northeast and Ladakh are facing discrimination in the mainland. There have been attacks on healthcare workers, and there is a hostile attitude towards people belonging to a single religion community (Nizamuddin case).
These instances serve as a reality check for the policymakers to make an inward critical analysis of the social structure. Are we really a developing nation?
The restrictions on international export of food and pharmaceutical stocks mandated by countries around the globe in an effort to flatten the curve is a pressing concern. According to the United Nations, there is a high probability that the food chain might be disrupted if the quarantine continues in the coming days. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly stated, the most important lesson we have learnt from the pandemic is the need for self-reliance (Atmanirbhar Bharat). Indeed, the major takeaway from all this chaos is self-sufficiency.
Along with the mentality of empowerment, it is necessary to imbibe lifestyles such as learning how to grow our own vegetables. Gardening and growing plants should not be confined to being domestic chores. The education system should not be restricted to classrooms; creative arts therapy such as dancing, reading, literature, gardening, poetry and writing should be enhanced; extra-curricular activities through student engagement should be prioritized and mathematics should not be confined to learning about numbers but should include financial aspects, such as how to be smart with money.
When a pandemic hits, the economy stops and recession sets in; therefore, it is important to have enough savings to make ends meet. A great healthcare administration with leaders who can render effective suggestions is mandatory. Prioritizing the vulnerable sections of the society, like the daily wage workers and migrant labourers, should be in the agenda. To maintain accountability and transparency, the leaders should address the people frequently about the affairs of the nation and the state. An inclusive government body with female voices in the decision-making process is a dire need.
Lastly, it is important to teach children to normalize a life with minimalism, to not take anything for granted, to value family system, to not give into prejudice and stereotype, and to be empathetic towards people who have tested positive. As Dr David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy for Covid-19, said: “Respect the virus; learn to live in a world of Corona. It is going to be the new reality for everybody. When there will be a vaccine, probably 18 months from now, we can reassess.”
Therefore, it is important that we learn to live in a new world with solidarity, mindfulness and communal harmony, because we are all residents of the global village. (Tosa Dodum is pursuing MA in applied sociology at Christ University, Bangalore, Karnataka.)