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‘This pandemic will not be over until it is over everywhere’

Chinmay Tumbe, faculty member of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and author of India Moving: A History of Migration, has written a brilliant book that takes us down memory lane to what happened in past when plague, cholera and influenza devastated humankind.

The noted academic offers insights on how to understand COVID-19 and its effects on human race. The Age of Pandemics 1817-1920: How they shaped India and the world is encyclopedic guide to know and absorb the phenomenon while living in the age of pandemics. Gulf News spoke to Chinmay Tumbe. Excerpts of the interview:

What were the biggest motivating factors to write this book?

When the WHO announced COVID-19 as a pandemic in March 2020, it seemed that not many in India were aware of how serious pandemics can get. Between 1817 and 1920, over 70 million died in the pandemics of cholera, plague and influenza, with over 40 million deaths in India alone.

Yet, there was a surprising amnesia about this period. The intention to write this book was to revive that memory, which could also be important to tackle today’s pandemic because we have been through much of this before.

From historical perspective how different is COVID-19 if compared to cholera, the plagues and influenza?

Cholera and plague are bacteria-based diseases and because of the development of antibiotics in the mid 20th century, we have made huge advances against those diseases. Viruses, like influenza and COVID-19 are trickier to deal with.

Even then, the most remarkable aspect of this pandemic in contrast to the previous ones, is how fast scientists were able to develop a vaccine against it. The other is the widespread usage of stringent lockdowns around the world as a way to curtail disease transmission, missing in previous pandemics which had less stringent quarantine mechanisms in place.

How has mankind fought pandemics in premodern centuries in comparison to our response now?

Prayers, superstitions and flight were the classic responses. In some cases, traditional wisdom could prove to be handy. For instance, during plague in India, it was said that if you saw rats dying, it was best to leave the place for some time and sleep in camps outside the village or town during the night.

This was actually a very effective strategy against plague, and later also shown to have a scientific basis. It is only after the bacteriological revolution from the late 19th century, that systematic investments in science and technology began to be employed to understand and curtail pandemics.

In this “coronavirus versus humans’ war, we have the upper hand given fast-developing vaccines, medicines and global unity. Do you agree?

There was definitely collaboration on developing the vaccine, but we need more collaboration in its dissemination. Global vaccine inequity will be the big concern for the next two years. Governments, WHO and private manufacturers should actively work towards addressing this concern.

If we take right lessons from history, how best we fight this pandemic?

As I write in my book, with ‘patience and humility’. Patience is required because this pandemic will not be over until it is over everywhere and humility is required to admit that we still don’t know everything about the virus. Trust in science and technology and proven vaccines will take us through much better.

A monitoring of basic nutrition levels is also important because in spells of lockdowns, livelihoods get affected, opening up new vulnerabilities to diseases, COVID-19 or otherwise.

Chinmay Tumbe Image Credit: Chinmay Tumbe

The tendency to hide deaths figures has been noted in many countries including India. How do you look at it?

The richer countries are showing underreporting factors of 1.5-2, which is about the same as what Mumbai showed during the first wave in 2020. Unfortunately, the second wave in India was devastating and the underreporting factors are going to be much higher. My estimate for the state of Gujarat for April 1-May 10 using the excess-mortality method is 11 i.e. actual deaths are likely to be 11 times more than what was reported.

One should compare COVID-19 deaths across regions, not based on reported numbers, but only after due adjustment for underreporting factors.

Under-reporting is happening primarily by showing deaths due to comorbidities rather than COVID-19 and because of limits to testing capacity in India, especially in rural areas. Governments have an incentive to underreport so as to not look bad. But by doing so, we do not realise where the pandemic is actually hurting us, and is thus counterproductive in the longer run.

What kind of permanent changes is COVID-19 likely to make in our lives?

Unlike past pandemics, this pandemic is likely to have a bigger economic impact than a demographic impact because of the widespread usage of lockdowns. In places where there is a substantial demographic impact, you can expect wages to rise as labour supply is squeezed.

But more generally, on current trends, it is the economic devastation that has set back many countries and millions have become poorer because of the pandemic.

Government debts have also soared. All this will lead to tough policy choices for governments around the world in the years to come who will want to support livelihoods but may find little fiscal space to do so.

After going through records of past pandemics what has amazed you the most?

The resilience of the people and the good-heartedness of common people to come out and help others when the public health system collapses.

If we had WhatsApp messages and Twitter this time to relay frantic SOS calls for oxygen and medicines, a century ago, people were writing in letters to the editors of newspapers asking for voluntary associations to reach their remote districts. The famous Indian social activist, Savitribai Phule, in fact, died due to the plague, after opening a clinic for plague patients.

What kind of lessons should we learn from COVID-19?

Pandemics can come in anytime and we should be better prepared next time around. That requires systematic documentation of the current pandemic and institutionalising best practices in pandemic management.

Ultimately, we should invest in developing collective memories so that we don’t forget them. The migration crisis in India in 2020 and the second wave devastation in 2021 need not have happened if we had known our tryst with past pandemics.