With COVID-19 ‘over’, applying the lessons learnt

Source– The post is based on the article “With COVID-19 ‘over’, applying the lessons learnt” published in “The Hindu” on 8th May 2023.

Syllabus: GS2- Issues related to development and management of healthy

Relevance– Issues related to epidemics

News- World Health Organization, on May 5, 2023, declared that COVID­19 was no longer a public health emergency of international concern.

What are the lessons learnt from the COVID management?

Misinformation– There have been knee­jerk and unscientific responses to spikes in COVID­19 cases. The most recent example is the response in March­-April 2023, when there was a rise in viral flu and SARS­CoV­2 cases.

It led to the closure of schools in some Indian cities and States. In some schools, mask wearing was made a mandatory condition for children to attend classes. This, in some instances, happened without a formal government directive.

It was not supported by scientific evidence. There was misinformation, and social media influencers were shaping the public discourse.

Neglect of local contexts– In outbreaks and epidemics, policy interventions and preventive advice need to factor in the local context. The context determines the epidemiological pattern, spread of disease and proposed interventions.

China faced a wave in December 2022. Switzerland, in April 2023, decided not to continue with any more COVID­19 vaccination. Countries have made decisions based on the local context. However, that does not mean every other country should do exactly the same thing.

Approach of influencers– An extremely worrying trend has been the dogmatic stand adopted by self proclaimed experts and influencers. They selectively and use emerging evidence and published literature to support their stand.

A few influencers have positioned themselves as ‘super reviewers’ of scientific studies. They have used social media platforms to find limitations and criticise even the most robust studies. They often fail to factor in that no scientific study is ideal.

In late April 2023, the not for profit Foundation for People ­Centric Health Systems Analysed the trends and stance of influencers and experts on social media platforms and in newspaper reports on the COVID­19 linked mask enforcement for school children.

Those based out of India were analysed into three sub­groups: trained or practising public health experts and epidemiologists; other medical doctors  and super­specialists; and everyone else.

The fourth group was of those who had had an opinion about India but living abroad, irrespective of their education.

In the subgroup of trained public health experts and epidemiologists, there was near consensus that schools should not be closed, and  there was no role in making mask wearing mandatory for children.

Most clinicians and infectious diseases were a bit more supportive of masking, but very few supported universal masking for any age group.

In the sub­group of super­specialists, there was greater endorsement of mask wearing for children and of school closure.

Experts’ and influencers living outside India were making stronger arguments for school closure and mask wearing for children in India.

COVID foreverers– There exist  groups of ‘COVID­ foreverers. They keep insisting on the enforcement of restrictions such as universal masking.

What is the way forward for a sound approach on epidemic management in the present context?

COVID­19 has ‘officially’ transitioned from a population level challenge to more of an individual health concern. It is time for calm assessment, to shift the gears and also apply the lessons from the last three years.

The government should offer formal training courses on the principles and practice of epidemiology to prepare India for more nuanced responses to outbreaks and epidemics and to curb misinformation.

The government needs to integrate the COVID­19 response to general health services. There is no role of universal measures against COVID­19 to be enforced.

India’s response to surges, outbreaks, and epidemics should be guided by a nuanced understanding of epidemiology and not unduly derailed by ‘social media influencers’.

Therefore, in future, schools should not be closed for a COVID­19 uptick. Wearing masks in order to attend school should never again be made mandatory.

It is time to drop the COVID­19 fixation and move on to tackle other more pressing health challenges in the country.

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