In the year 1858, Charles Darwin published his path-breaking book, ‘Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.’ The long title, summed up his revolutionizing theory, which has even more relevance for us. Darwin asserted that humans like all other living beings are constantly evolving and mutations that favored natural selection have enabled our survival on this planet.
But humans did not have the genetics to survive the ravages of pandemics like the Bubonic Plague, syphilis, cholera, scarlet fever, leprosy, smallpox, polio, meningitis, AIDS and the many marauding pandemics. We triumphed because we developed science that enabled us to overcome our genetic incapacities in fighting diseases.
The vaccine for smallpox is the story of the genesis of the control of pandemics. Smallpox was as old as the Egyptian civilization. It had ravaged down the ages through every continent killing 300 million. Being no respecter of human hierarchies, it even killed the heir to the throne of England, in 1702. It was Edward Jenner who studied that milkmaids who used to contract cowpox were immune from smallpox. Thus came about the discovery of the world’s first vaccine against smallpox in 1796. Today, smallpox stands eradicated with the vaccine being administered to every newborn on this planet. India, thanks to interventionist governments have eradicated smallpox.
Even more remarkable was mankind’s battle against polio, a late entrant virus in the 20th century. It infected the spinal cord leading to paralysis. The Inactivated Poliovirus Vaccine (IPV) was developed by Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh and the American researcher Albert Sabin. By 1955, mass immunization programs were carried out by the World Health Organization through governments. By 2011 there were only a few score cases. India is polio-free.
Likewise, we have conquered with modern medicine and interventionist governments, influenza which killed 50 million, Bubonic Plague which killed 25 million, and tuberculosis which killed 1.4 million in 2019 alone, AIDS which killed 7,70,000.
When governments become science deniers
The role of government in reaching science to the masses is now received unchallenged wisdom. But inexorable march of modern medicine with government intervention is dented when quackery gets promoted from official circles. It does not behove a modern democracy like India, battling a surging pandemic, to have Cabinet Ministers attending the launch of an unevaluated herbal drug with untested results. It also creates further disillusionment with science, when doctors turned deniers of modern medicine are conferred with the highest government awards.
Our conduct also displays a callousness when the man who successfully took on the battle against the deadly AIDS virus in Africa and brought it to heal with affordable retroviral drugs is not on a single panel advising the government. His name is Dr. Yusuf Khwaja Hamied, Chairman of CIPLA.
It is this kind of science denial, combined with popular prejudice which delayed immediate timely action against the AIDS epidemic with devastating effect. In 1991, only 8,00,000 people were infected with AIDS. But by 1999 it rose to 25 million and by the end of 2004, there were 39 million cases worldwide. Prejudice and administrative apathy caused the deaths that 50,000 in the United States alone in 1995.
Similarly, the government of South Africa, reeling under an AIDS epidemic, under President Thabo Mbeki, treated retroviral drugs against AIDS in 1998, as a confidence trick by agents of Western medicine. His health minister Tshabalala-Msimang, instead, advocated the use of garlic, beetroot and lemon juice as a treatment for AIDS. The neglect led to 20% of South Africa’s population is infected with the AIDS virus. It was only after the defeat of Mbeki in the 2008 election, that retroviral drugs were brought into wide circulation.
The state cannot abdicate
The present pandemic has ruthlessly exposed our Achilles’ heel – our grossly neglected public health care systems that have exposed our people to the present macabre medieval death rates. The fact that countries like Cuba and the state of Kerala, with well developed universal health care systems, were able to effectively control the pandemic and control consequent deaths, should have signalled a course correction. There were lessons from Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, Japan, Korea, Israel immediate proactive scientific responses. Both systems were ignored.
It is also telling that some of the worst affected were some of the richest countries in the world. They had one thing in common – neglected public health care systems and science denial. Our response was exactly similar. A science-denying President, managed to put the USA on the top as the worst affected country in this pandemic.
The newly elected President Biden’s challenge to vaccinate the entire population of the USA is a signal that governments can no longer abdicate.
Presently, we have no escape from the deadly clutches of the Covid 19, but to immediately, be it at the Center or in the States, to repopulate institutions and policy organs with men of science resolute in finding solutions with the rigours and discipline of scientific methodology. It goes without saying the governmental retreat from public health care should be arrested and the debilitating imbalance of a neglected public sector health care system be redressed. Otherwise, there will be no respite from this accelerated death toll, and we will continue to fumble along with this most terrifying chapter in our history.
We will do well to remember what Charles Darwin had to say on natural selection:
“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learn to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
With 18 million cases and 2,05,000 deaths, our time is running out.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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