The absence of credible research for sustainable conclusions before being put out in the public domain can have its risks

Some day, when this pandemic is over and the world begins to heal from the Coronavirus’ impact on the health and global economy, some researcher might seek to do a content analysis of the newspapers, magazines and journals being published in India and around the world. S/he might decide to discover the themes which captured the imagination of the world and received the maximum coverage at the end of 2019 and in 2020. Predictably, Covid-19 will dominate the word count, progressively rising from a limited percentage in December 2019 to almost a crescendo by mid-2020 and beyond. Every other theme in the world would have been edged out, almost as if nothing else existed during this period. The statistical tool box will be open and graphing, scaling, analysis by percentage and analysis by regions and much more, will follow.

However, there will be very little data available on how many people actually suffered due to the lack of adequate medical care because of an overwhelming preponderance of the Covid-19 theme. There will be negligible data available on people who suffered mental agony and fear because of this neglect and also false “flu” symptoms. One of the dominant themes in the subject area is the sheer ubiquitousness of “non-symptomatic” carriers. If anything was close to raising paranoia, the phenomena of “asymptomatic patients” is a good approximation.

Reportedly many are nursing anxieties if they could be the next victim of this dreaded pandemic because they are asymptomatic. To put it simply, anxiety and threat perception is hurting nearly as much as the actual disease itself. So long as the Corona virus continues to mutate in one or another manner, there can be no real hope of a vaccine. In the meanwhile, there are many claims afloat of the so-called effectiveness of the indigenous Indian healthcare systems or remedies originating from ayurveda and also from the alternate system of medicine, homeopathy. The allopath and the pharmacologist is quick to debunk these claims because s/he does not see adequate clinical trials/research to back up the claim.

To resolve these contradictory positions between scientific validation of solutions, and no action till evidence is produced, is difficult. Several wise men in the policy domain are conspicuously silent on this front, perhaps because there are no methods to resolve this kind of hiatus. The long and short of it is that the way forward is not clear.

The current Chinese claim of having eliminated Covid-19 was dismissed by an internationally-acclaimed doctor with multiple fellowships in medical sciences from British institutions. When asked about the reported claims of the Chinese published in newspapers, he had a one-line reply, “Since when have you started taking seriously all that is said in the media?” Who can blame him for his circumspection when the news channels and social media are abuzz with multiple and at times mutual accusations of fake news and worse.

Amid this global obsession with the pandemic, one woke up on May 7 morning to the news of the terrible gas leak tragedy in Vishakapatnam. There was a muted reference in some news channels to the cause being rooted in the way issues and maintenance of the plant were handled during the lockdown period. If any responsibilities are in the process of being fixed, nothing significant has been shared in the public domain yet. There were tears shed and comparisons made to the Bhopal gas leak. What the learnings of the Bhopal gas tragedy were and the way it was handled by the then Government, both at the State and the Centre level, has over the last three decades become a non-issue.

We, as a country, never tire of flattering ourselves on how we are a free nation and how the freedom of expression is so central to our polity. It is a legitimate pride and clearly a cherished virtue. There is obviously a need for a study to assess the achievements of this free expression, the instruments that are used to deal with it and the social class which practises it. If any such study is available, it is one of the better-kept secrets of research institutions. Surely, every instrument must be assessed for its efficacy and for the price it extracts to keep it going.

This column began with some prognostics of possible future directions of research and meandering through the thoughts of the text, the relevance of valid analysis based on verifiable data, has kept reoccurring. The time has come to incorporate concerns of applied research as a policy tool without which the opinion of a dominant group in a system tends to transmute into a policy frame. It has its strengths, flaunted often as “quick action.” It has its Achilles’ heel where often excessive discretion and judgement is handed over to functionaries with little orientation and lesser knowledge of the consequences of their action over the lives of individuals who would not even know how to protect themselves. The absence of credible research for sustainable conclusions before being put in public domain can have its risks.