Universities across the world — from Johns Hopkins to Harvard to Tsinghua University — are playing a proactive role in the battle against the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic. With research findings, general information and resource centres, universities are contributing to public good. But in India, there is a curious silence.
What world universities are doing
The interesting thing to note in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic is that much before it broke out, two biologists at the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Poland, in a detailed scientific study, had forewarned of the strong possibility of such an outbreak. This is one of the important functions of a university.
Another early instance of a very effective and vital response has been from the Peking University in China that worked in collaboration with the Pasteur Institute in Shanghai. In March 2020, they produced scientific evidence that there was not one, but two strains of the novel coronavirus that wreaked havoc in Wuhan. The information is critical to finding cures.
One of the problems that delay a vaccine is the duration the entire process takes. So, the stratagem being adopted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US is very refreshing. They are working on a treatment based on the use of blood-derived antibodies from infected patients who have recovered from the novel coronavirus. This technique is more than 100-years old but has immense promise. The advantage of this method is that it takes about two weeks to develop and deploy.
Meanwhile, a team of leading researchers from the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London has been working hard to model the spread of the disease from well before it hit the UK. They are also working on developing a vaccine and have also provided a free online course on various scientific facets of the virus so that researchers and the public alike can be brought up to speed.
These instances of responses emanating from university systems in different parts of the world highlight the crucial role that a university plays in society, particularly in crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost all the websites of universities in Europe and the US that I randomly checked have issued general but highly informed advisories for the public – that serve to reassure people on how to handle the situation and share with them the news about the work being done to tackle the crisis in hard scientific and technical terms.
The Indian picture
It will not be out of place to see how Indian universities have reacted to the COVID-19 crisis, with the infected number climbing to 107 Sunday.
I visited the website of the University College of Medical Sciences, Delhi, which is ranked amongst the leading medical institutions of India and is a University of Delhi institution. On the home page, it says prominently that the website was last updated four weeks ago. In addition, there is a section on the home page that displays ‘important notices’. These ‘important notices’ deal with tender documents and the like. There is no mention of the coronavirus.
The same is also true of the website of the MS University of Baroda’s Medical College. The Savitribai Phule Pune University, too, does not fail to disappoint. The website of its School of Public Health has no mention whatsoever of the coronavirus. The University of Delhi has issued a sort of advisory whereby, in addition to the suspension of teaching, it has emphasised the virtues of frequent washing of hands. Ironically, the university seems to have failed to notice that several of its taps in its restrooms are dry.
I must add that this does not imply that all universities and medical colleges in India are not geared for or paying attention to the potential crisis at hand. But it does give a fairly general picture of the lackadaisical attitude of our universities when contrasted with global ones.
It is necessary and relevant to also examine the attitude and preparedness of Indian universities in the larger context of disaster management.
Some years ago, Delhi School of Economics professor Anu Kapur had written a paper on the vulnerability of Srinagar to flooding. Her arguments were very rational and based on much data. A few years after her paper was published, she may well have acquired a Nostradamus-like persona, since the disaster, as predicted by her, did occur. The unfortunate part is that her work was never brought into discussion before or after the actual occurrence of the disaster.
She also authored a seminal book called Vulnerable India that is replete with scientific and rational analyses based on hard data and scientific facts. The book studies in great detail the vulnerability of India to disasters. Her own university did make a token effort of incorporating parts of what she has had to say. This was done in the form of a blackboard oriented learning programme with little or no effort to incorporate the much-needed practical aspects of her insights.
More worryingly, the attitudes of the venerable institutions set up by the government for handling disasters seem to imply that disasters, in general, are occurrences of nature and mankind has very little to do in them. This betrays a cavalier attitude and a lack of real understanding of how the human race plays a significant role in making such disasters. The COVID-19 crisis is a very strong assertion of this fact.
The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.