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Life in extremistan: Managing both pandemic and panic

Better leadership and governance at all levels of decision-making are crucial, rather than over-concentration of power and pervasive mistrust of one another

Published: 28th April 2021 07:26 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th April 2021 07:26 AM   |  A+A-

What is crucial in this second wave - some have called it tsunami - of Covid-19 is panic management, as much as pandemic management. This means not just the media, but politicians, especially those who belong to the opposition parties, need to exercise restraint and responsibility. This is not the moment to score political points or extract that extra mile of political advantage from a national crisis.

Rather than sensationalising infections, deaths, cremations, oxygen shortages or overcrowded hospitals, the media, too, can focus on the more positive and constructive steps taken to alleviate the situation. Such as the increase in the capacity to manufacture or procure oxygen, including emergency airlifting of tankers on an unprecedented scale from abroad. Also, even more important in the longer run, the ramping up of vaccine production and delivery to all sections of the population. 

If we cannot help, we must at least not harm or alarm by constantly harping on bad news or ratcheting up anxiety and distress. Endless circulation of negative news is bound to adversely affect both our mental health and, eventually, immunity, and should be avoided as much as possible.

I am not saying that we should turn a blind eye to the government’s lapses, such as they might be. For instance, the inability to predict and prepare for the second wave. But if the government failed on this score, I can’t think of who predicted such an eventuality accurately. That is why we need to recognise that no government is perfect or has all the information necessary to take the right decisions. What we must, instead, ask if the intentions are right, if the commitment to do the best remains intact, and if course-correction is demonstrable after missteps are documented.

This becomes all the more clear when we acknowledge that there is so much about this pandemic, as of the virus that causes it, which remain unknown. Is it any surprise, then, that we were prematurely lulled into believing that we had the upper hand in the fight against Covid-19? Both the infection and mortality rates had declined dramatically, making us much more careless in observing social distancing and mask etiquette. Large religious and social gatherings, political rallies, farmer protests—all contributed to the second, more transmissible, surge.

When the pandemic began, over a year ago, we thought that infected surfaces spread the disease. We started disinfecting like crazy. A world leader even reportedly wondered, much to the horror of experts, whether the ingestion of sanitisers was an antidote. After every case of Covid-19, offices were closed for 48 hours to enable a thorough disinfection of the premises. In the initial stages, masks were not even recommended, let alone mandatory. Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta did not think they prevented infection. As we knew better, masking up has become compulsory. 

But from the notion that large droplets, against which masks are more effective, are the primary cause of the disease, we now believe that the virus travels through aerosol spray. That is, tiny particles of infection that remain in the air breathed out by those infected. Especially in closed spaces, with recirculating air, the virus is most easily transmitted. It is still not clear how much virus is required to cause infection, why it varies in severity, why some carriers are asymptomatic and why, all of a sudden, younger people are dying from it.

It is true that leading global influencers like Bill Gates, Laurie Garrett and Nassim Nicholal Taleb had warned us that pandemics were not only predictable, they were inevitable. Yet, what we cannot deny is that no one could forecast the exact course they would take. Taleb, in a paper co-authored with Joseph Norman and Yaneer Bar-Yam, had presaged as early as January 26 last year that increased connectivity would render a “non-linear” spread of the virus. What this implies is a “fat-tailed” output, disproportionate to inputs then discerned.

Taleb had famously quipped that governments “did not want to spend pennies in January; now they are going to spend trillions”. But with lack of exact knowledge of incubation times, mutations, degrees and modes of transmission, the exact trajectory of the pandemic was hard to foretell. For many countries, it was a costly learning process rather than killing the monster “in the egg”.

In his celebrated bestseller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, originally published in 2007, Taleb, offered a curious topic header: “How Extremistan is not the best place to visit, except, perhaps, if you are a winner.” Extremistan? Yes, it’s a neologism coined by Taleb. 

“Extremistan is where we are subjected to the tyranny of the singular, the accidental, the unseen and the unpredicted,” he explains. Today, with the Covid-19 pandemic spiralling out of control, India, more than usual, resembles Extremistan.

How to live in Extremistan? To answer in Taleb’s own terms, it is to learn to be anti-fragile. The anti-fragile thrive, not merely survive, in dire straits, when unpredictable and asymmetric calamities strike. But a lot of hard work needs to go into making us anti-fragile. Better leadership and governance at all levels of decision-making are crucial, rather than over-concentration of power and pervasive mistrust of one another.

More immediately, the vaccine rollout for those 18 and above, some 600 million Indians who will overnight become eligible for inoculation, must be carefully planned and decentralised so as to mitigate pandemonium and chaos. The last thing we want is a vaccine run on our hands. Unfortunately, good advice is hard to come by in difficult times, but even harder to take when people are in no mood to listen.

Makarand R Paranjape

Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Views are personal

(Tweets @MakrandParanspe)



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