ICT and COVID-19

As part of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) project at CSD, we are currently engaged in several different studies relating to COVID-19.

In the first study, we focus on ICTs and Public Health in the Context of COVID-19. The globe is currently gripped by the deadliest and most widespread pandemic it has faced in over a century. Confronted by accelerating death tolls and widespread fear, societies around the world have also been forced to acknowledge points of stress in their economic and social fabrics that had long gone overlooked. In the midst of this turmoil, ICT has played an essential role in facilitating the safe relief and treatment of affected populations. ICT has also shown itself to be essential both to bolstering long-term resiliency against future pandemics and to resolving the secondary challenges that emerge within a socially distanced environment. However, involving ICT in in pandemic relief and prevention carries with it its own set of challenges involving transparency, accountability, and privacy. Governments which apply ICT must ensure that far-reaching crisis measures do not become permanently entrenched in society, and that measures which are taken are deemed fair, proportional and just.

In the second study, our focus is on ICT initiatives in India to combat COVID-19. The great loss of life and economic damage COVID-19 has wrought across the world has not left India untouched. In these tough times, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has emerged as a key means of both resolving challenges caused by the pandemic and responding to the new reality of the everyday. Government at the central and state levels has actively engaged with the private sector to develop ICT solutions, particularly identification, isolation, contact tracing, and treatment, to deal with the evolving situation in the country. Of particular benefit have been the growing number of mobile applications and Artificial Intelligence (AI) based tools which have emerged during this time. However, the use of ICT involves its own set of challenges, especially concerning privacy safeguards. Governments must ensure the use of ICT is fair and proportional not only during the times of pandemic, but also in the post-COVID19 era. Countries like South Korea and Hong Kong illustrate emergent best practices for the use of ICT in such crises.

In the third study, our focus is on The COVID-19 Economy: Building a Sustainable Future in the Shadow of a Crisis. As the global economy has continued to suffer from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, pressure has mounted for local and national economies to reopen despite the danger of disease. Unfortunately, before robust medical precautions are implemented, any such reopening will eventually prove futile, doing more harm than good. Areas which reopen must at the minimum have universal testing schemes and the capacity to identify and quarantine all arrivals from outside. Without this, new outbreaks will spring up without advance warning, forcing economies to close down again. Even if such mitigation measures are successfully adopted, latent fear will prevent many from returning to the patterns of everyday life until a vaccine is successfully developed and adopted. Until such a vaccine is produced, countries will have to introduce policies to shelter both people and businesses from the potential permanent impacts of a lengthy period of shutdown.

The policies needed to respond effectively to the coronavirus, if successfully implemented and maintained, would yield the kinds of substantial advances in governance, social welfare, business development, and workforce adaptation that would move adopters well along the path of sustainable development and an inclusive embrace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). For instance, governments would have the means to provide rapid economic support to their most vulnerable groups, while ensuring that key social services such as health and education were provided at a high and equitable standard. Groups once excluded from the halls of power could make their voices heard through advances in e-governance which include them in policy and decision-making processes. Advances in remote work and the sustainable design of cities could reduce inequalities and promote decent standards for employment while dramatically slashing pollution in urban spaces. Finally, the partnerships which have emerged between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, if maintained, could develop into sources of strong, practical solutions to the full spectrum of challenges which will face society in the 21st century. Countries, in effect, have a binary choice between shielding their populations and preparing for their economic futures or maintaining status quo arrangements which will result in depression, unnecessary death, and lost competitiveness.

In the fourth study, our focus is on COVID-19 in India: Issues, Challenges and Lessons. COVID-19 has not left any part of the world untouched and India is one of the worst affected countries in the world. The cases in India are rising steadily with each passing day. As of August 10th 2020, India has over 2.3 million (the second million coming in exactly three weeks since the country hit a million infections on July 16, with 42 percent of the new cases coming from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar) confirmed COVID-19 cases and 46,188 reported deaths. The worst affected states of India include Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Another growing concern is that interior parts of the country are emerging as new hotspots. Four states in eastern India, namely, Odisha, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal are increasingly reporting positive cases. The two main reasons being reported for this surge in cases in rural areas are the returning migrants from major cities who did not undergo screening or were asymptomatic and the poor healthcare infrastructure in the rural settings. Out of a total of 739 districts in India, 13 districts (across 8 states and a union territory) account for 1 in seven Covid-19 deaths.The 13 districts are: Kamrup Metro in Assam, Patna in Bihar, Ranchi in Jharkhand; Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, Ganjam in Odisha, Lucknow in UP; North 24 Paraganas, Hooghly, Howrah, Kolkata and Maldah in West Bengal, and Delhi. These districts account for nearly 9 percent of India’s active cases and about 14 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Over the spring and summer, the COVID-19 situation in India has really deteriorated and could get much worse on the current trajectory with around 60,000 cases being reported per day and around 900 daily deaths.

Lockdown and travel bans due to COVID-19 have impacted almost every sector including tourism, hospitality, and education. To deal with the coronavirus crisis, the central government has undertaken various initiatives like monetary relief package under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, Uttar Pradesh Rojgar Abhiyaan, Atma Nirbhar Abhiyaan etc. The state governments have also undertaken various initiatives like Operation SHIELD, 5T Plan, Mission Fateh, Snehar Paras etc. We describe these briefly. Some regions in India have successfully contained COVID-19 like the state of Kerala, the district of Bhilwara in Rajasthan and the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai.

In order for a strategy of containment and recovery to succeed, it is vital to keep using public health measures to suppress the epidemic, that is to drive R < 1. Besides the infection rate, it is vital to closely monitor the positivity rate and the case fatality ratio (death rate) and rely not so much on the recovery rate which is what seems to be happening currently. Eventually, in all likelihood, as the pandemic subsides, close to 97 plus percent cases are likely to recover implying a 2 or 3 percent death rate. India needs a epidemic control strategy to be developed and put in place to control and contain the spread of the infection in the country, something that is not being done currently. Due to COVID-19, while most countries are facing the twin crises of public health and the consequent economic downturn, India has an additional challenge to deal with, namely a massive migrant workers crisis. While it is hard to say what long-term impact this home migration might have, but some trends were quite clear so we made a few recommendations to the government in May that we list along with some lessons for India to learn from elsewhere. On the economic front, a deep and prolonged economic slowdown is inevitable.

The focus in our next study is on COVID-19 and Pathways to Sustainable Development. The pathway to sustainable development is governed by six major transformations: the digital revolution; human capacity and demography; consumption and production; decarbonization and energy; food, biosphere and water; and smart cities. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the trajectories of each of these transformations around the world in both positive and negative ways. Countries which have successfully navigated the crisis have generally implemented policies which will accelerate these transformations in the direction of sustainability, while countries which have failed to rise to the challenge have reinforced patterns which will make sustainable development harder to achieve in the future. Following what the most successful countries have accomplished, policymakers elsewhere have at their disposal a clear set of tools for saving the lives of their citizens, preserving the health of their economy, and building the groundwork for a sustainable future.

Our next study focused on COVID-19 in Rural India. India is the second-worst affected country in the world by COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Government of India took various initiatives to curb the spread of cororna virus in the country which included a 3-week nation-wide lockdown to begin with (from March 25 to April 14) and which later was extended thrice up until May 31, 2020, increasing testing, setting up quarantine facilities, COVID-19 treatment facilities, contact tracing through Aarogya Setu application and many more, but these efforts fell short when it came to suppressing the pandemic. Especially, because of lockdown, when the migrant workers were forced to leave cities and travel back to their homes in rural areas, the COVID-19 infection which predominantly affected the urban areas until then also reached rural areas of the country. Overtime, the proportion of COVID-19 cases in rural areas has risen. Rural districts in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Assam witnessed a significant rise in COVID-19 cases. Many factors pose a big challenge for rural India in dealing with COVID-19. These include scarcity of medical staff, equipment and health facilities, social stigma, fear of ill-treatment at the health facility, fear of losing income on being quarantined etc. Post-COVID complications are also emerging as a new threat in dealing with the current crisis.

Health and Wellness Centres (HWCs) under Ayushman Bharat and Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers can play a crucial role in dealing with COVID-19 in the rural areas. ASHAs are involved in conducting house-to-house visits, reporting symptomatic cases, carrying out contact tracing, maintaining documentation, monitoring the situation and creating awareness about COVID-19 in the community. But, ASHA workers are facing many challenges such as increased work load, lack of protective equipment and training, they are underpaid, stigmatization, caste discrimination, domestic violence etc. India needs to develop a strategy specific to rural settings to deal with the COVID-19 situation.

We believe that at a time when the federal and state governments are dealing with the challenges emanating from the Covid-19 pandemic, this crisis should be seen as an opportunity to strengthen the public health system in India. This would entail, among other things: 1) a much higher level of public health spending; 2) comprehensive training, effective control and oversight and timely and adequate payments for the ASHAs; 3) an effective and efficient management structure for the health facilities at the village, block and district levels; and 4) commensurate physical infrastructure and human resources in the sub-centers and the Primary Health Centers with the growing needs of the regions

Our next study focused on COVID-19 in India: Disease Burden, Managing the Second Wave and Innovations. The second wave of COVID-19 caused havoc across India. It was twice as severe as the first one. More than 400,000 COVID-19 cases per day were being reported. The worst affected states were Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh. The spike in cases was largely assumed to be the result of leniency in COVID-19 appropriate behavior, such as people were not wearing masks, resumption of economic activity, gathering in large numbers e.g. in marriages, political meetings, rallies, IPL matches, religious gatherings like Kumbh Mela etc.

67 percent of India’s population above the age of six years has been exposed to COVID-19 according to a national serological survey conducted by ICMR, the findings of which were revealed on July 20, 2021. The survey was conducted during June and July across 70 districts of 21 states. These are the very same districts where three earlier rounds of sero surveys were conducted during May-June 2020; August-September 2020 and December-January 2020/21.

On January 16th 2021, India launched the world’s largest vaccination drive and as of July 15, more than 391,340,491 vaccine doses had been administered across the country. The vaccine has been administered in a phased manner with the initial focus being on priority groups like health workers, frontline workers like the police workforce, municipal workers, defense personnel etc., people above 60 years of age and those between 45-60 years with co-morbidities. From May 1, 2021, people between age group 18-45 were also eligible for vaccination. But, until a substantial proportion of the population is vaccinated, precautionary measures like wearing masks, sanitization, regular hand washing and physical distancing must remain the mainstay.

Inter-departmental coordination has been the cornerstone in dealing with COVID-19 situation in India. Various departments such as Health, Tourism, Defense, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Finance etc. took various initiatives in collaboration with other departments to deal with the pandemic. Challenges posed by COVID-19 also sparked a wave of innovations across sectors in India. A host of new interventions were implemented by various departments, such as health, agriculture, education, police, railways etc.

This document is based on secondary data collected from government documents and websites, news reporting, media interviews, newspaper articles, various national and international journals and private websites. The present paper discusses current scenario of COVID-19 in India, COVID19 vaccination drive, innovative approaches to address vaccine hesitancy in India, interdepartmental coordination and innovation across sectors in dealing with COVID-19 situation. We also put forward recommendations to deal with the surge in COVID-19 cases in future and to scale up innovations and undertake research studies to identify gaps and address challenges.