The scale and the fury of the destruction overwhelmed the public health systems. It strained the already wobbly supply chains of essential medical supplies.
By Dr Milind Padalkar,
The pandemic’s second wave was a bad dream. It came when the nation was just coming out of the first wave lockdowns and starting to resume normalcy. It started in early March, and then exploded over the next six weeks to wreak havoc. The scale and the fury of the destruction overwhelmed the public health systems. It strained the already wobbly supply chains of essential medical supplies. The shortages of oxygen and life-saving drugs caused deaths and inestimable financial losses.
The pandemic’s second wave appears to be waning. However, its Delta Plus variant is reportedly more infectious and is already on the rise in Southeast Asia. Experts have issued warnings about the emergence of the third wave by August. This begs two pertinent questions. First, what have we learnt until now to prepare ourselves better for the third wave. Second, what can educational institutions do to work in tandem with the governments’ efforts to deal with the pandemic emergencies
The answer to the first question is simple. After nearly 15 months of active pandemic experience, personal hygiene, masking and distancing, and vaccination are the only known lessons. The lockdowns cannot prevent the spread of the virus or its mutations. They only buy time for the public health systems to be equipped for beds, ventilators, inventories of oxygen and essential medicines etc. And they retard the infection rates so that the hospital capacities are not overrun by the inflow of emergency-care patients. The spikes of the pandemic cannot be managed without creating adequate capacities in medical staff, facilities, equipment, and supplies.
Through the first two waves of the pandemic, the educational institutions have remained in lockdown and have been playing a passive-responsive role, limited to complying with the governments’ guidelines. A few institutions have stepped up to contribute food and essentials to migrant workers, conduct vaccination programs on the campuses, or provide counselling to those in distress. But these have been unstructured efforts and do not leverage the full potential of an academic institution. A coordinated program that stitches the academic institutions together with the governments’ efforts could do just that – it could augment significant firepower in our fight against the third wave. To see how this can unfold, let us look at the several ways in which an academic institution can be resourceful in this fight.
First, the most important resource that an educational institution has is its students. Young and restless in their homes, the students have the energy, ideas, and networks that can be effectively marshalled during the wave. During the second wave, many students took the initiative in creating information networks to help patients searching for oxygen cylinders or hospital beds. Such efforts can be augmented by teaming, organizing and coordinating the execution of quick projects, app developments, idea challenges and social media networks. These efforts can be legitimized into the academic curricula to marry the practical experiences with the degree requirements. The science of supply chains tells us that when they break down, shortages and surpluses develop at different stages, and accurate and timely information can be a powerful remedy. This is particularly true for the third wave, as all pandemic emergencies are essentially local in nature. Collectively, a well-organized student base can be a powerful resource.
Second most important resource with the academic institutions is its faculty and research scholars. The deep and diverse expertise can be the springboard of ideas. The local government officers can be encouraged to build collaborations and idea conclaves with the academic institutions for solutions to specific challenges. Such government-university tie-ups have been tried sporadically through motivated efforts at the collector or district magistrate levels. But much more can be done.
Third, the academic institutions enjoy people’s trust. There are media reports of the faltering vaccination program due to distrust within the peoples’ minds. The academic institutions have a moral standing that makes them acceptable to all members of the civil society. If engaged creatively, their voice could help a stuttering vaccination program.
There can of course be other ways to leverage the aggregate potential of academic institutions. A broader, engaged discussion will be necessary at local levels, since almost all problems of public health are local in nature. Now is the time to do this. The virus has had a first-mover advantage. It went on to enjoy a second-mover advantage. We cannot let him be third-time lucky.
(The author is Pro Chancellor, The NorthCap University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)