The Covid-19 pandemic has brought rare attention to science, particularly aspects related to healthcare, and India’s response has underlined its existing scientific capabilities.
The dreadful aspect of the pandemic is that it might not be the last one. Hence, the lessons that should be considered are:
- Atmanirbhar Bharat: If anything, the experience of this pandemic has made the government more convinced of the need for self-reliance, at least in the strategic sectors, especially science and technology. The fact that India was not even producing relatively simple things like ventilators shocked the government at the start of the outbreak. In the future, there is likely to be greater encouragement for laboratories and industries to support the domestic manufacturing of components and instruments.
- Promoting Start-Up Culture: During the pandemic, there were many start-ups that filled the supply gaps in medical equipment and instruments. The most reliable information management systems, providing crucial data about the epidemic, were set up and run by young entrepreneurs, students and researchers. A push from the GOI is expected for health sector start-ups in line with other sectors.
- Strengthening Collaboration: Pandemic has made governments believe that there is a need to give a ‘direction’ to scientific research, at least to the scientific output, that comes from our laboratories and industry. The space for institutionalised collaboration between the government, industry and the scientific community is already being created in several new missions, or technology hubs, that are being set up. In most of these missions, or hubs, the industry or academia is playing the lead role, while the government tries to facilitate an enabling environment.
- Infrastructure: The current pandemic should prompt a strengthening of the public health infrastructure.
- Dedicated surveillance workforce: A few states are already working on creating, or augmenting, a dedicated surveillance workforce that can detect similar outbreaks in future and help contain it at an early stage.
- Primary Healthcare: Greater empowerment of primary healthcare staff is required.
- Integrated Disease Surveillance Program (IDSP), set up in 2004: Scientists argue it would be more effective to empower the IDSP, rather than burden ICMR with a job that is not its core expertise.
- Vaccine Research: Though the existing vaccine manufacturing capacity is coming in handy, India has been found wanting in the development of its own vaccine. A country the size, and scientific capability of India should have been one of the front-runners in vaccine research.
- New Science Policy: A new Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy is in the final stages of preparation. It is expected to do to reform the science sector, heavily influenced by the lessons learnt during the pandemic.
It is the lessons learnt from this crisis that we could see guiding our science and technology policy in the coming years, not just in the health sector, but science in general. An event as disruptive as the Covid-19 pandemic invariably turns out to be a blessing in disguise for making systemic improvements, if those in command are willing to imbibe the lessons that have emerged.