The University Grants Commission (UGC) on Thursday issued new guidelines to reopen universities and colleges after a nearly seven-month lockdown in institutions for higher education across the country.
However, no institution should have attendance of more than 50 per cent of students. Online classes will continue for all programmes except science, technology and research.
Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ said, “The Ministry of Education is ready to meet these new challenges. The UGC has formulated new guidelines for reopening of its premises keeping in view all options and alternatives. These guidelines have also been approved by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Ministry of Home Affairs.”
According to the new guidelines, students can prefer to stay at home and continue with online classes. A limited number of hostels can be opened. More than one student cannot be allowed to stay in a hostel room.
Before reopening any educational complex, it should be ensured that the concerned central or state government has declared that area safe for opening educational institutions.
In view of the spread of Covid-19, state and union territory governments have been consulted on opening of universities and colleges outside containment zones. Educational institutions across the country can be opened in a systematic manner after consultation with the state, Union Territory governments. It will be mandatory to adhere to UGC guidelines for re-opening educational institutions.
The head of central-funded higher education institutions will have to be satisfied before the reopening. All heads of institutions have been given the freedom to take decisions on re-opening of classes.
Classes will be conducted in all higher educational institutions as per the decision of states and Union Territories. These include state universities, private universities, deemed universities and colleges.
It will be mandatory to maintain social distancing and wear masks. Universities and colleges can open campuses in a phased manner using a variety of protective measures. This includes administrative offices, research laboratories and libraries, etc.
Necessary steps have been taken for research students. Postgraduate students can participate in science technology and research courses. Since the number of people involved in research is comparatively low, social distancing and preventive measures can be easily implemented in these institutions.
Since education is directly related to employment, final year students can also be allowed to join the classes with due permission of the head of the institute.
Institutions can evolve a plan for international students who have not been able to attend courses due to international travel ban or visa problems.
With IANS inputs
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WE DID OUR BIT IN REMOVING STIGMA AROUND COVID-19 TESTING, SAYS MEDALL CEO ARJUN ANANTH
In an exclusive conversation with NewsX as part of NewsX India A-List, Arjun Ananth, CEO of Medall, spoke to us about his company and the work they have been doing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Medall CEO Arjun Ananth started by talking about the journey, significant initiatives and achievements of Medall over the years. “Medall started 11 years ago and it was funded predominantly by a private equity fund called People Capital. When an entrepreneur called, Raj Venkataraman approached the fund with an idea to consolidate radiology diagnostic assets predominantly in the South. Medall did around 26 acquisitions, rolling up various radiology assets. In around 2015, the company entered the pathology business. Soon after, they won a large contract with the Andhra Pradesh government, to manage the public-private partnership in the state, which gave a huge boost to the blood testing and pathology business. That’s how the company evolved,” he said, adding, “It is still owned by People Capital. Somewhere towards the end of 2018 and early 2019, the erstwhile promoters and CEO decided to take a backseat. Since I was quite familiar with the company and had been on the board for four years prior to that, I decided to step in as the full-time CEO of Medall. This happened sometime around November last year.”
Speaking about the presence of Medall in the country, Ananth said, “Medall is definitely present in the five states in the South—Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh—with a presence in Pondicherry. In the North, we have a large presence in Jharkhand and have just entered Uttar Pradesh”. Regarding expansion plans, he added, “Going forward, most of our expansion will be in the South. Personally, I see a lot of opportunities and our strategy is to go deeper compared to wider, so you’ll see us aggressively expanding in the South”.
Talking about collaborations with industry bodies, Arjun said, “Medall has collaborated with various institutes. Right now, we are collaborating with an artificial intelligence firm, where we are pushing for some AI initiatives in radiology. During the height of the pandemic, we were involved with the Siddha Institute and all four of their branches. Essentially, we were being used as a diagnostic company to test the efficacy of Siddha drugs for treating Covid. From what I’ve heard, they were fairly instrumental in Tamil Nadu in a big way, in preventing the widespread of Covid.”
The company CEO then gave details about testing with Medall. “We got our ICMR approval in May to test for Covid. We have done over 350,000 tests till date. We were the largest testers for Covid in the South during the pandemic. We were the last to enter but became the biggest in a short span. Having tested over 350,000 samples, a couple of weeks ago, we took a fairly sizeable step where we said, ‘let’s make this whole business consumer-centric. Let’s encourage people to come and test.’ People don’t want to get tested because they’re scared of the result. We said, ‘let’s remove cost as a major factor’ and reduced our prices to less than Rs 1,000 per test, whereas the competition is still at Rs 2,400-2,500. We said, ‘let’s just go ahead and do something for the people’.”
Medall has contributed a lot to the country during Covid. Talking in depth about that, Ananth said, “We were very closely involved with the government in helping them test. Tamil Nadu was amongst the top three states in total testing. Medall played an instrumental part in partnering with the government and testing those samples. One of the unique features of the core program in Tamil Nadu was the fever clinics that they ran. They set up fever clinics in small localities, where they identified people with a symptom and had them tested for Covid. Medall partnered with the government in helping them set up these fever clinics as well. So, Medall has been closely involved with the government and people. As they learn more about Covid, they realise that it’s not only the RT-PCR test but also the CT scan which is important to understand the extent to which Covid has affected a person. Being an integrated diagnostic player, we had packages where a person could have the RT-PCR test, a chest CT scan and a group of blood tests. We have made it easy for hospitals as we don’t want to waste time when people are rushed into them. They had a package of information which was readily available at the time of admission. We innovated around some of the aspects and played a role in removing some of the stigma around testing.”
Ananth also spoke about the Chennai Reference Lab. “Our Chennai Reference Lab is a state-of-the-art lab. It was set up around four years ago. It is virtually capable of doing every test that is required on the blood testing side for an individual. We have multiple departments in the lab: biochemistry, dermatology, microbiology and so on. We have experts who have joined us from various other organisations, who work with us very closely in the lab. Anyone who has stepped into the lab has gone away mightily impressed and it’s something that we’re extremely proud of. Recently, we enhanced the test menu of the lab. Today I can confidently say that whatever test a person needs in this part of the country, it is available with us.”
Talking further about the range of tests offered by Medall, Arjun Ananth said, “We offer over 1,000-1,500 tests. We recently launched a package that’s aimed at pregnant women. We designed the package to help women know what tests to get done, when and why they should be done. It’s like planning for the nine months so you don’t have to worry because you can get a reminder of the tests and we will come home and do it for you. That’s something fairly unique and we are proud of it. Besides that, we do all the advanced tests that any hospital or medical practitioner may require.”
Lastly, Ananth spoke about what sets Medall apart from its competitors. “What makes Medall different is the fact that it is an integrated diagnostics company. I’ll give a few examples. Most of our competitors offer only an X-ray, CT-scan, MRI or they offer all the blood tests. Medall offers both. I think, as consumers think about preventive health checks and wellness, integrated diagnostics has a huge role to play. For example, if you have to do a master health check, it’s not sufficient that you just do a panel of blood tests. It’s important to do an ultrasound to know whether there’s something wrong structurally inside any organs. For a woman, it’s very important to do mammograms once they’ve gone past a certain age. Those are very specific radiology modalities. In addition to all the blood tests, it’s important to do ultrasounds, mammograms, echocardiograms, TMPs and so on. Medall has all these facilities under one roof. It’s a one-stop shop for all preventive health needs.”
REAL ESTATE AND INFRASTRUCTURE HAVE HIGH HOPES FROM BUDGET 2021
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, millions are looking for new jobs and livelihoods, which can be generated by the real estate and construction sectors. However, these two sectors need special attention in the upcoming Budget.
“A leader is a dealer in hope.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
India has rolled out the Covid-19 vaccine and a million people will have received the first shot by the time this article is published. On 20 January, India also gifted the vaccine to its neighbouring countries, including Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Within the next two months, India will vaccinate almost all its citizens above fifty years of age and all the corona warriors. These vaccines have been developed indigenously and the Prime Minister has visited all three facilities involved in the process. India could do so much because of the inspired leadership provided by PM Narendra Modi. Though there have been occasional lapses in the machinery, we have to give credit for all the achievements to the PM and his team along with the lakhs of healthcare workers, police personnel and government employees who worked hard through the pandemic while risking their lives.
The country is returning to normalcy gradually and business is down but ticking. As people are looking up to the leadership in these testing times, a monumental challenge which lies ahead for the government is the creation of millions of jobs for the skilled and unskilled workers who lost their livelihoods during the pandemic, many of them the sole breadwinners for their families. The manufacturing sector has its limitations and won’t be able to provide new jobs immediately. But it is time for the government to create opportunities in infrastructure development where there is immense scope.
Our infrastructure does not stand in comparison to that in other developed nations of Asia. The sector is also reeling under a crisis—it was hit badly by the slump after demonetisation and GST implementation and Covid-19 worsened the misery. Thus, it is the right time now to pump money into the sector and build world-class infrastructure for roads, railways and air travel. Remember, the Great Depression in the 1930s made the US what it is today. It is a perfect example of turning a crisis into an opportunity—an art which has been mastered by PM Modi.
As the Budget Session is about to begin, here are a few points which can be considered for revamping real estate and infrastructure projects to help companies generate employment. Infrastructure is the second most employment-centric industry after agriculture. Companies are under the immense pressure of liquidity as salaries and establishment costs during the pandemic have squeezed them dry. The government needs to help them with special packages to get out of this slump and consider the following points:
One, the cost of all raw materials has risen by 30-40% because of Covid-19 protocols and production cuts. The production cuts have increased the costs of steel, cement, PVC and HDPE resins which have directly increased the capital and cost of finance. This situation has brought a severe crisis for infrastructure companies. The government needs to consider the cost fluctuation as per market conditions, not with the RBI basis points. Otherwise, many contractors will face bankruptcy and many will lose jobs.
Two, low interest, easy finances and subsidies in direct and indirect taxes could be a good option for construction companies and real estate developers.
Three, a project like DMIC can play a vital role in generating employment. These projects can be put on the fast track to generate employment and pump in the liquidity required for a dried-up system. It will help migration in a big way too and the ultimate purpose of DMIC will be achieved.
Four, circle rates of land must be revised to current market rates in urban and rural areas. The gap between circle rates and market prices is 1:20 in ratio. It will help wipe out black money and multiply the stamp duty collection for the government exchequer. The real cost of land will help the developers get adequate finances from legitimate sources to fund their projects.
Five, activities of land use regulation and permission are the main causes for delay in real estate projects. The process should be fully digitalised and timely clearances of permissions should be ensured. It will minimise the interest cost on capital as both real estate and infrastructure are capital intensive businesses.
Six, RERA has brought great credibility to the real estate business, but it should not go the GST way just because of the complicated system. The process and standard compliances should be simplified. Each sector should have specific standards. It has the same format for open plots, residential buildings and industrial plots right now, although all of them have separate characteristics. They should be dealt with accordingly, not with a common format.
Seven, the subsidized affordable housing scheme is a great success under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. We can put more funds into these projects to boost the economy and achieve the target of Housing for All by 2022. Provision for greater subsidies will mitigate the impact of the raw material cost increase on these projects and more people will tend to buy. More such projects will create more jobs as well.
Eight, more projects for the interlinking of rivers and conversion of open water canals to pipelines should be proposed. It will help conserve water and generate employment in rural areas.
Nine, Expressways connecting landlocked state capitals to seaports should be proposed. Foodgrains from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar can fetch good prices by export if they have good mobility and access to ports like Kandla, Mundra and Nhava Sheva on the western coast and other seaports on the eastern coast.
Since real estate caters to a basic need of humans, it needs to be affordable. The high cost of raw materials has destroyed all the equations between developers and new buyers. The infrastructure projects are EPC projects; hence, the rise of the raw material costs will halt progress and put the agencies in a fix. If the government does not intervene timely, many of them might even withdraw from the projects and file for bankruptcy, which will not be good for any stakeholder, be it the company, the government, bankers or workers.
The above issues can be managed by the government if it wishes to do so. Moreover, the abolition of the GST for two years will see a seamless completion of existing projects. Ease of doing business also needs upgradation of technology in government departments and will give great dividends to all the stakeholders, including the government. The real estate and infrastructure sectors are looking up to PM Modi and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, hoping for timely and needed help. May good sense prevail.
The writer is Research Scholar, Sardar Vallabhbhai National Institute of Technology, Surat. The views expressed are personal.
I NEVER KNEW THAT I COULD EVER BE IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA, SAYS ACTOR SHIV PANDITT
NewsX was recently joined by actor Shiv Panditt for an exclusive conversation as a part of its special series, NewsX A-list where he talked about his film ‘Khuda Haafiz’, learnings from the pandemic and more. Speaking about its TV premiere, Shiv said, “the film premiered on 27 December. I don’t remember the rating agency but I saw somewhere that for that week from 24to 31 December we topped the charts in terms of viewership all across the board. We are elated about that.”
Talking about his role in the film, the appreciation and a possible sequel, he remarked, “It was unprecedented. One was hoping for a theatrical release but around the time of the release, we felt that we should be grateful for what we are getting while there are so many problems outside. We’re happy that we got a release but what followed was unprecedented as the adulation we received from all across the board was something we did not expect and very happy about that. Our little labour of love got so much love and appreciation in terms of a sequel being announced by our producer. Only because it was an economically viable proposition and did well for the producer that he’s going ahead with part two now.”
When asked about his learnings and takeaways from 2020, Shiv replied, “The biggest learning was that we can do with a whole lot less in life whether it is materialistic things or comforts. I survived initial months of the pandemic on two pieces of clothing as I had gone to Delhi for a day for my mom’s birthday and immediately as soon as I got there the lockdown was announced and nobody in that house had my size. So until July or mid-June when the shops started opening and delivery started happening in Delhi, I was surviving on two or three pieces of clothing which I used to wear one and keep circulating amongst themselves. What I realised was that who my friends were, who are the people I wanted to reach out to and speak to. I feel in life we sort of get carried away with the rat race and materialism. But I think this pandemic has taught us to figure out what is near and dear to us.”
New Year’s resolutions are not his cup of tea. “My record of actually keeping a resolution has been three hours, I have literally broken New Year’s resolutions within three hours so I’ve stopped keeping resolutions.” Asked about how Shiv managed to exercise during the lockdown and stayed fit, he replied, “In my bedroom, there was a small little four by four kind of a corner which I used to exercise. I used resistance bands or some sort of weight at home doubled up as workout weights and a lot of these fitness websites started online training and that was pretty helpful as me and my friends worked out together. Being connected online was a big help and a big boost because otherwise without the internet, this pandemic would’ve been a whole lot worse.”
Talking about his game-changing films, Shiv said, “There have been about three or four such instances and I’ve never really realised going into the project that this would be a game-changer. It’s so funny that for the films you have a feeling ‘this is the one’ or ‘this is the role which is going to take me to the next level’, somehow, those projects have never been the ones to take me one step forward. It has always been the surprising ones that come out of the blue and people love you for them. For me, it would have to be my debut ‘Shaitan’, ‘Khuda Haafiz’ and the Netflix film ‘Loev’ and the show ‘FIR’ that I did back in the days.”
Shiv revealed the reason he became an actor. “I actually got fired from a job, was living off the severance fee and having a ball in Mumbai. Soon my money was running out and one of my colleagues from Delhi, who I had known from the theatre circuit and had become an Assistant Director in commercials, called me out of the blue and said, ‘I saw you the other day, you’re looking exactly like what we need just come and audition’. I never knew that I could actually ever be in front of the camera. I went for that audition and got that part. Shooting for the commercial was my first time facing the camera and it was such a heavily front-loaded commercial because the director was Amit Sharma, who has directed ‘Badhai Ho’. Vinod Pradhan was the cinematographer and Nitish Tiwari, the director of Dangal, was the creative head on that commercial. I had such a great experience facing the camera and realised that I have been wasting time all my life and this is what I need to do.”
When asked if not an actor what career would he most likely to pursue, Shiv replied, “trying to become an actor but if not that I don’t know what I would be, maybe just lounging around watching movies.”
What is he looking forward to in 2021? Shiv answered, “With me what happened was that I had done 4 or 5 projects in 2019 which are gearing up for release. There is a film called ‘Sher Shah’ which is close to my heart and is coming out with Dharma Productions. It’s the story of Captain Vikram Batra which is being played by Sidharth Malhotra. Maybe this year one would get to see this film. A web series of mine is also coming out in which I have worked with Prateik Babbar, Simran Kaur Mundi and Ashish Vidyarthi. It will be out in January or February.”
Sharing his success mantra and giving a piece of advice to upcoming actors Shiv said, “I would certainly like to help as many people as I possibly can because when I was climbing the ladder there were people who helped me, guided me, and took my phone calls. So, what I would like to tell the people who want to become actors is that keep the faith alive, believe in yourself and go out there to achieve something. Don’t get deterred and keep moving forward. I can’t even count the number of times that I have failed but I’m here today because I kept going.”
BUDGET SHOULD KEEP IN MIND THE PROMISES OF AATMANIRBHAR BHARAT
Due to the remarkable efforts of the Centre and the RBI, the projected growth of -12.50% for FY 2020-21 has been revised to -7.5%. However, the upcoming Budget should announce reforms in tune with the Aatmanirbhar Bharat package to uphold PM Modi’s vision of a self-reliant nation.
The annual Budget of the Union government, presented in Parliament by the Finance Minister, is a comprehensive estimation of the receipts and payments by the heads of important departments from each and every ministry. The figures include the current account balance and debt portion of the government for the financial year. In this process every year, the Union Finance Minister obtains information and requisitions from various sources as inputs prior to preparing the Budget and then it is passed in Parliament. The main aim of the government is to assess finances in order to provide for the needs and aspirations of all segments of the population with the available but limited resources.
The application of the available funds and the transparency of this function is mandatory for the government every year prior to the commencement of the financial year. Every Budget Session is considered special for everyone in the country and the Union Budget for 2021-22 is particularly significant as it will set the tone for the post-pandemic times. The post-Covid budget will consider not only the estimation of receipts, payments and debts, but also the behaviour of the people and the structural changes in consumption, investments, government spending on infrastructure and its implications on employment generation, along with the direct and indirect taxes collections which have been adversely affected during the pandemic. Looking at the Financial Year 2020-21 is vital as both indigenous and exogenous factors, the behaviour of the people and the governments in every country in the world, followed an unorthodox pattern due to the prevailing pandemic and the uncertainties it brought.
Preparing the present budget has to be sensitive to three important aspects which need to be linked carefully without failing to adopt PM Narendra Modi’s flagship Aatmanirbhar Bharat Package as a reality, which has been assumed as assistance for the poor and build a productive and self-reliant India. In the process of preparing the final budget for 2021-22, the Union Finance Minister may first consider the structural reforms adopted in the banking sector, reforms in FDI, reforms in the automobile and textile sectors and NBFCs. The Budget 2020-21 hadn’t shown results as per expectations due to the lockdowns. Secondly, in her Budget 2020-21 speech, the Union Finance Minister had announced Rs 100 lakh crores worth of infrastructure for the next five years in a PPP method with the participation of State Governments in designated infrastructure projects as per policies defined by the Union Government. These included roads, transportation, irrigation and drinking water, power, Digital India, etc. It was meant to take our country to a $5 trillion economy in the next five years. The third factor to be considered in the Rs 21 lakh crore Aatmanirbhar Bharat Package, which was announced by the Finance Minister in the Unlock phase for augmenting the economy and its sustainable and inclusive growth. Thus, while gathering material and information from various stakeholders in the country this time, the Union Government should pay significant attention to adopting these measures in addition to the general perspective of the Budget.
It would be ideal to analyse the current financial year (2020-21) actuals with the budgeted and revised budgeted key figures, although the fourth quarter of the year is still in progress. In this process, revised budgeted figures will be ascertained after measuring all the odds in the first and second quarters of the current financial year which adversely impacted the economy due to the unforeseen Covid-19 pandemic. The Union government had proposed to spend Rs 30.42 lakh crore in 2020-21 as expected receipts (other than borrowings) for Rs 22.46 lakh crore at an estimated fiscal deficit @3.5%, to project Rs 8 lakh crore debts during the year. But this debt may be raised to Rs 11-11.50 lakh crore since the fiscal deficit raised to 135% for the current financial year.
As far as collections are concerned, shortage in both direct and indirect taxes will be up to Rs 4-4.50 lakh crore, as expected, because of the weighted average of 12.50%, which indicates the pandemic leading to lower tax collections and impacting the economy adversely. Total indirect taxes had been anticipated as Rs 10.96 lakh crore for FY 2020-21, out of which, Rs 6.90 lakh crore were projected from net GST. However, GST collections had already been as low as Rs 1.30 lakh crores during the first quarter, and July and August registered even lower collections with Rs 26,000 crore. Compared to the previous year for the same period, in addition to this, a growth of 12% had also been anticipated in GST collections for FY 2020-21. This percentage is also a part of the shortage in collections as the month-wise year-on-year from April to August has not been achieved. Hence, GST collections alone may be registered by as low as Rs 1.75 lakh crore for the current financial year. Then, income tax collections, including corporate taxes, had been anticipated to amount to Rs 12.80 lakh initially. But there seemed to be a shortage in the net collection by Rs 3-3.50 lakh crore by 31st March 2021. There is a positive current account balance for the current financial year since there were much lower imports as compared to exports in terms of volumes and values. But this is the reason why the lower tax collections are vital for the revised estimated figures of FY 2020-21. It reflects the growth rate (at -7.5%, although a 5% growth had been anticipated). Apart from this, present conditions have also influenced the disinvestment targets, which had been anticipated to be Rs 2.10 lakh crore, but have reached only Rs 13.84 thousand crore in actuals till now.
The economy and finances of our country might have been much worse than what it is now if not for the timely Aatmanirbhar Bharat Package announced by the PM Narendra Modi-led Union Government. The package of Rs 20.97 lakh crore consists of Rs 3.75 lakh crore for the MSME sector, Rs. 1.19 lakh crores for collateral-free loans under the Credit Guarantee Scheme and Liquidity Measures, Rs 3.10 lakh crore in the first announcement for the poor, migrant labourers and farmers, Rs 1.50 lakh crore in the second announcement for the agriculture sector, Rs 8,100 crore in the third announcement for coal, mines and minerals, defence, airspace, power sector reforms and viability gap funding for social infrastructure, Rs 40,000 crore as MGNREGA additional funding for employment, Rs 1,92,800 crore for the Garib Kalyan Yojana providing financial assistance to BPL families, and 8,01,603 crore other financial and liquidity measures by the RBI to fight against the constraints forced by the lockdown. Though resources were limited, the Union Government and the RBI had a well-planned strategy to make a self-reliant Bharat with appropriate fiscal measures and incentives for different sectors and segments, which is almost 10% of our country’s GDP. Though there had been a projected growth of -12.50% for the current financial year, it has now been revised to -7.5% due to the remarkable and relentless efforts of the Union Government and the RBI. Now, the Finance Ministry should keep its eye on the Aatmanirbhar Bharat Package announcements while fine-tuning the upcoming Budget since it is the bridge between FY 2020-21 and FY 2021-22 via the periods of lockdown and ‘unlock’.
Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will have to pay more attention and assume greater responsibility while preparing the upcoming budget because this budget will pave the way for the future of our country in the context of a post-Covid global economy. The Union government has already commenced structural reforms in banking, FDIs, NBFCs, etc, during the cycle of global slowdown and recession and some more measures lie ahead to be implemented. Apart from this, infrastructure and other aspects like the new farm laws are also vital considerations for the upcoming Budget. As far as corporate taxes are concerned, they will be continued as per the announcements in the Aatmanirbhar Bharat package. There is also a demand made by small and medium-sized partnership firms to consider cutting the present income tax rates to sustain their business operations since there were no announcements made for them. As far as the GST is concerned, small scale industrialists and contractors are not in a position to pay it before collecting their sale and contract proceeds on the due date and it does consider positively as a measure of EODB for them. Finally, the Budget 2021-22 should be prepared keeping in mind the ambitious but achievable goal of becoming a $5 trillion economy in the next five years.
The writer holds a degree in commerce and works as an FCA.
NatHealth thought & leadership series: Discussing future of biotech and evolving global Covid vaccine landscape
NatHealth, as part of its Thought & Leadership series, presented a riveting session on the Future of BioTech and the evolving Global COVID Vaccine Landscape on January 21, 2021. Moderated by Dr. Sudarshan Ballal, Chairman, Manipal Hospitals, opening remarks by Preetha Reddy, President Nathealth, Vice Chair, Apollo Hospitals, closing remarks by Mr Siddhartha Bhattacharya, Secretary General at NatHealth and special remarks by Dr. William A. Haseltine, President, Access Health International, the session centred around the novel-coronavirus Covid-19, its impact and ways to tackle it. It provided a holistic and well-rounded approach to the topic at hand. In addition to discussing the ongoing pandemic, the panel also significantly focused on the way forward and spoke about the various vaccines, their types and consequences.
Preetha Reddy, President at Nathealth and Vice Chair at Apollo Hospitals, she said, “The past 10 months significantly have been tumultuous for us Indians and humanity at large. Genomics has been the key word lately and has made a huge difference with vaccines. Bill Gates said that what we have done in two months could have taken two decades to achieve. We look forward to Dr. Haseltine telling us what would be the right thing to do, whether in the space of innovation, research, genomics or biotech. We can look forward to various solutions for healthcare. We should give credit to the hours of research, hard work, thought which had gone into producing the vaccines and predicting the future”.
Congratulating everyone at Nathealth for organising the leadership series,Chairman at Manipal Hospitals Dr Ballal further talked about how 2020 has been the worst year for us, everything went spiralling down and how we were battered by Covid. He then welcomed Dr. William Haseltine for his comments.
Dr. Haseltine, President at Access Health International, said, “We know this is a new virus, which probably started circulating as early as October of 2019. It manifested as an outbreak in the Chinese city, Wuhan in a demonstrable way in December. Once it was recognised, the Chinese authorities took very strong measures to control the spread. In a few months’ time, it was controlled because of instituting standard public health measures, which is a tribute for the Chinese government as they had sent people for 10 years to Harvard School of Public Health to understand how to control a pandemic. They understood that SARS not only destroyed lives but had the potential to destroy economies. So, they had studied in great detail about what to do and they implemented almost a textbook case of what to do and it worked in a spectacular way. China is the only country, apart from a few island countries, that instituted that kind of control and they managed to quarantine 11 million people. That should’ve taught the world a lesson but it did not. This virus could be controlled by public health measures alone, without the benefit of all the science. We are still minimising the danger. Taking India as an example, you reach the peak and see the cases decline, eventually leading to population immunity. I have argued since the beginning that this is a poor concept for coronaviruses. As a virologist, I’ve learned to look at what actually happens and what we think should happen. The lesson from SARS and MERS is that viruses are out there and can adapt to humans. We need to be careful because we dropped the ball globally, we didn’t do our research on those viruses and we weren’t prepared for the next one that came along. Scientists got everything done, the vaccines ready but the money wasn’t there. Another thing we should’ve paid more attention to is that coronaviruses aren’t new to us and each of us has it every year, we call it a common cold. They keep coming back, like the flu, which is why I said that don’t count on population immunity because it doesn’t exist for these coronaviruses.
He added, “As far as countries are concerned, I would say, if you’re afraid for your economy, you took some action. Chinese and East Asian countries knew that SARS could’ve destroyed their economy and they took rapid action after studying what to do. Other countries, western countries, India didn’t have this problem so they didn’t take the same kind of action. Countries, this is for the future, if we’re going to deal with pandemics, we need good political leadership, good governance and Heath system for communities and social solidarity, which is true for the whole world”.
Speaking about the path to the early development of the vaccine and the role of innovation and technology in its development, Dr. Haseltine opined, “I have different views from most people. Everyone is celebrating how great science is, how we’ve solved this but we haven’t. We dropped the ball in many ways- we didn’t need high science, if we had taken a simple route and not a complex one, as it is more convenient. These kinds of vaccines work and it still works today, for polio. Our emphasis on high science instead of blocking and tackling that needs to be done in healthcare, has led to some problems. For America, it has been a disaster to not rely on public health but high science. Same goes for diagnostics, we felt that we needed fancy ones whereas lateral flow anagen diagnostics work far better and the world still doesn’t have access to tests like we need. That was a fundamental mistake made earlier on but these vaccines are wonderful to have”.
Elaborating on how he felt that the testing for coronavirus could’ve been different, Professor Haseltine expressed, “In the early days of detection, the CDC tests didn’t work, they were PCR based tests. Once the virus was understood, what could’ve been done was to develop simple antigen tests, measuring the concentration of protein in saliva, nasal fluids. In a pandemic, during the diagnosis, you want to know if they’re infectious or contagious and take action. We relied on a test which broke down and is very expensive compared to other tests. Antigen tests are very simple and cheap to do yet, nowhere in the world do you have free, simple tests which can be self- administered and know who’s contagious. This should then be followed by making sure those people are isolated but this is difficult as people avoid this due to lack of economic support. I believe if the tests are done, you pay people to stay home and have a realistic policy. Simple tests, simple solutions. Pay people to stay home or ensure that the country’s social system works for everybody”.
Giving an overview of the types of vaccines, their safety, efficacy and which one he would choose if given a choice, Professor Haseltine said, “I would take the simplest one, the killed vaccine, because one, it has a huge safety record. Second, it’s a whole virus ,which changes when it’s trying to escape and how the body reacts. Like the mRNA vaccines are unreliable and we don’t know the full story and adverse reactions. If you have a chance to take any vaccine, take it, that’s the message I want to give. After this, I would prefer subunit vaccines, where you produce a piece of the virus and use it as the antigen. Indian companies make such vaccines at a large scale, like Hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine I would not prefer is, the adenovirus vaccine and the reason is that it’s usable only once”.
Talking about the logistics, production and distribution across the globe, as well as maintaining the extreme cold chain which the mRNA vaccines require, Dr. Haseltine said, “We know that in the global vaccine business, a cold chain is a problem. The two problems are- cold chains and multiple doses, that limit it. We’ve almost eliminated polio and smallpox, in that process we learnt the two big barriers to global vaccination were these two problems. Another important component is whether you can get it to every community and to work with community leaders who are trusted. If this lacks then people will be afraid to take it and so the whole process is important”.
When asked whether vaccines should be recommended for children, Dr. Haseltine said that it is not known yet and is being tested. He does hope that it will protect children because some news strains are popping up more in children.
Talking about the mutation of the virus, Dr. Haseltine said, “One thing we learned is that the cold coronaviruses come back every year, like flu. The two reasons you can get infected every year, one, the immunity drops and the second is that, the virus changes. In Covid, we knew that the immunity dropped but we didn’t know the virus changes and now both thus are going on. Natural immunity doesn’t last long for these viruses, especially mucosal immunity, the type which stops things from getting into you and you passing it on, that doesn’t last long. The Chinese were lucky because they got the weakest version of this virus, by February it mutated and transferred across the world. Over the summer, it changed again in different ways to become more transmissible. The mutations are escaping our immunity and becoming more infectious. Another lesson from is virus is, think of it as flu, more deadly so vaccines will have to adapt and vaccine companies are rushing to understand it. The vaccine is like a tree with branches, to deal with it, cut down the tree at the root with public health. This is a lesson we need to push pretty hard if don’t want to get hit again and again with this tricky virus”.
On being asked about the equitable distribution of the vaccine between the haves and have-nots of the world, Professor Haseltine said, “This is very important. Our world is connected like never before, the lesson of all these viruses is that, if don’t eliminate it everywhere, we don’t eliminate it anywhere. We cannot isolate ourselves from these diseases and have to help everybody and that’s what we need to do for this. India has a history of supplying these vaccines to the world because of heat stability, safety, cheapness. Vaccines can be as cheap as a rupee, it won’t be profitable but it could be subsidised. The world has now become small and we’re all connected but more people are required to help each other out and restrict their freedom to help others.”
Speaking on when we’ll be able to breathe easy, literally and figuratively, Dr. Haseltine said, “It’s going to be very spotty. I have teams of people in China who’re travelling, enjoying life but they can’t leave the country. Life in China got back within 5 months, other countries can do that but they don’t, because they’re not willing to put in the effort to control the pandemic through public health measures. Unless countries do that, they won’t get back to normal in the foreseeable future because the vaccine will not do it, there’ll be other variants which will do it over again. Medicine can help the problem but not solve it. To cut it off from the root, we need to combine public health with other measures so it doesn’t exist on the planet anymore, not just one country. We’re entering a period of vaccine euphoria, thinking it over but next year it’ll be back like the flu. We need to be vigilant and cut it off from the root, another lesson is to pay attention when nature warns us and not push it to the side. We’ll move from pandemic to endemic, something that will live with us. To get back to normal life, we need to do our best to take the institutions, our leadership, our governance, our social solidarity and science to tune them to their maximum efficiencies in order to have a normal life. Humanity will prevail, but let’s hope we’re happy while that happens”.
In his closing remarks, Dr. Haseltine told citizens across the globe, “Care for one another. The Bible says ‘Treat you brother as yourself’. If we take precautions, we protect ourselves, our family and everyone around you. This is a message at a country level, to make sure your country is disease free and help other countries who have advantages. India can now help other countries, which it does, so we need to join as a community and help our neighbors”.
Modesty of expression is required for the development of society
There are certain fundamental socio-economic, cultural, religious and ethical principles of development which should be well woven in the core fabric of a nation. Only then can a country become great. India has practised, preserved and evolved the mechanism of achieving greatness since ancient times. Ancient Indian scriptures well describe the harmonious relationship of man with man, man with other living beings and man with the environment. In the present time of advancement and development, we may criticise some of the principles and theories in these texts. After all, change is the law of nature and, as a result of that, old knowledge is replaced with the new. Traditions change not only because of the passage of time, but also for geographical, social and religious reasons. But only those civilisations and countries reach the heights of greatness which keep on developing constructive and appropriate knowledge systems and traditions for effective and harmonious socio-economic, cultural and religious development.
Ancient Indian people had created and developed a socially harmonious, culturally enriched and religiously united economic system and these principles were refined over the ages to match contemporary needs. The foreign ruling class of pre-Independence India damaged the Indian economic, social, religious and cultural fabric but the roots of the Indian civilisation were so deep that foreign invaders could not destroy it completely. When India got its independence, it immediately started efforts to reestablish its culture. The most appropriate example of this restoration and reestablishment is the creation of the Indian Constitution. The Constitution of India is a well-planned attempt to reinstate Indian culture in the best possible manner. The fundamental rights given by the Constitution to the citizens of India are part of a major attempt to restore ancient Indian culture. Among the fundamental rights, the freedom of expression is the best means to establish social development, economic progress, logical harmony and religious equality. The freedom of speech promotes scientific, logical and metaphysical thinking and is a useful factor in establishing social harmony and equality. But it needs to be investigated whether the Indian public is using this right for constructive development or misusing it.
Analytical evaluation of the use of the right to freedom of expression by the Indian society in the last several decades reveals that this right has been appropriately used and practiced. Consequently, its use has contributed to the creative development of the country. The assessment of the last 30 to 40 years clearly reveals that voices from several unheard, neglected and poor sections of Indian society have reached the government, non-governmental organizations and other institutions. Unheard and underprivileged people have shown not only their presence and participation by exercising the right to freedom of expression, but also achieved considerable success in generating development possibilities for themselves. An appropriate example is the case of Nirbhaya. The nation heard the voice of Nirbhaya and her family and received the message that whatever happened to her was a heinous crime and an act of injustice against women. People supported the voice of Nirbhaya and forced the supreme legislative body and the Parliament to deliver justice to women. Other suppressed sections of society have also raised their voices time and again, which had been impossible in the past, and it has reached the right ears and resulted in their growth, development and participation, and further, led to the economic and social development of the country. So, the right to freedom of expression has contributed constructively to the development of the country. However, it is also pertinent to mention here that this right is also used for harming others and for petty self-interests by engaging in unnecessary debate, accusations and counter-accusations.
The very first requirement for the use of the freedom of expression is that the user of this right should be restrained, disciplined and self-controlled. He should check whether there is a need to express or not. If expression is the utmost desired, only then one should express. It should be important to think seriously about when to speak and how much to say. The speaker has to take care that in certain situations he has to not speak at all, specifically when the expression is going against the interests of society and the country. In the past, the right of free expression in India has been misused many times by individuals and communities to exploit and harm other persons and sections of society, particularly by political parties to serve their political interests. Consequently, the nation has suffered various kinds of losses, spoiling the social, religious, political and economic environment of the country.
The current farmers’ agitation can help in the critical analysis of the use and misuse of the right to freedom of expression. Different stakeholders like the farmers, farmer unions, unorganized farmer›s groups, media persons and political groups are participating directly or indirectly in the agitation for their interests. An analysis of the type of language used by such participants for the expression of their thoughts clearly reveals that a majority of them are deliberately misusing their right. The parties involved in the agitation are misusing the right not only to support their interests, but to blame, demoralize and hurt their opposition.
Here it becomes necessary to describe the misuse of the right to freedom of expression. Misuse of this right can be understood as the use of indecent language, hostile expression and involvement in unnecessary debate by people for attaining their personal interests without giving attention to what is right and wrong. The job of the media, considered the fourth pillar of democracy, is to express responsibly and to provide an opportunity for expression to others. But it has been observed that prior to publishing or presenting news in print or electronic media, press reporters and media persons do not edit indecent or hostile language and other inappropriate expressions for the sake of increasing their TRPs and profits or to serve their political or other affiliations. This has become a common phenomenon particularly in the telecast/broadcast of electronic media.
The height of the misuse of the right to freedom of expression is when press reporters instigate people to misuse their freedom of expression for cheap publicity. This is attained at the cost of disrespecting people, communities, governance and the society at large. The limits of the freedom of expression are also breached whenever the press invites a person as a representative of the public or the government who has neither the knowledge of the subject at hand nor the basic etiquette of exercising the freedom of expression. Such a respondent usually does not have much to say and strongly emphasizes his personal point of view, often to condemn or undermine the point of view of the opponent. Such press interviews are an open and deliberate misuse of the right to freedom of expression, and disrespect people and groups or communities.
All sections of society are respectable and important parts of the country. So, before speaking against anyone in the media, people should observe certain necessary manners and have knowledge of the issue at hand. No person, class or community can be bigger than the nation itself. For the holistic development of the country, each of its sections needs to be respected and also held responsible for the protection of the interests of all. Members of the military happily sacrifice their lives for the cause of the nation, professionals from the medical, paramedical and other necessary services sectors protected many lives during the pandemic, farmers provide food to all and fulfil one of the most basic needs of human beings—people from all sections of society contribute significantly to the nation and no class or community is above the country.
India is a democratic country where everyone has the right to equality and, in case of injustice or discrimination, people have the right to raise their voices and protest. But as per the Indian Supreme Court and the Constitution, people should not affect the wellbeing of other sections of society and the nation while protesting for the protection of one›s community or personal interests. The government should also come forward immediately to address the problems of agitating groups as long-running mass agitations may be detrimental for all. But agitating groups should also think about the fact that every person, family, community and even the government has limited resources and considering their interests to be paramount, without worrying about the socio-economic situation, will only enhance the pressure on the nation›s systems, which will ultimately be borne by common citizens. So, it is important that we consider our nation as paramount and take care of ourselves and others by displaying appropriate expressions and making our contribution in its development.
The writer is Dean, Humanities and Applied Sciences, Shri Vishwakarma Skill University, Palwal.
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