As the pandemic hit, governments all over the world imposed severe lockdowns, clamping down everything to naught. This was a mega experiment of making people sacrifice their freedom of movement, right to livelihood, and right to learning in order to save their lives. Did community transmission help in checking the spread of the virus? We have no conclusive evidence of that. Did it help in developing immunity from the virus amongst a large section of the population? We can’t say. If there was some immunity amongst some people, was it lasting and reliable? We don’t know. These were all experiments conducted on people who were treated no better than guinea pigs.
Ever since the COVID-19 Pandemic hit the world, we, the 7.9 billion people of the world have been subject to a series of experiments with our lives, livelihood, and learning.
As the pandemic hit, governments all over the world imposed severe lockdowns, clamping down everything to naught. The movement of people was banned. They were put under the confines of their homes if they had a home at all. Factories, retail outlets, malls, and shops were shut down. Entertainment centers, eateries, hotels, and restaurants were declared out of bounds for people. The schools, colleges, and universities were closed down for their students, staff, and teachers.
Barring a few nations, the whole of humanity across the globe was, thus, put under the severest kind of house arrest that the world had seen ever before at such a large scale. Why? Because some believed that this will insulate people from infecting and getting infected by others. This was a mega experiment of making people sacrifice their freedom of movement, right to livelihood, and right to learning in order to save their lives.
Those with accumulated wealth and a steady source of income had no difficulty. Developed economies with deep pockets began to dole out assured income and thus could also save their people from hunger and poverty. In a good part of the developing and underdeveloped world, people were left high and dry to fend for themselves. They were denied any steady financial support.
In some cases, governments chose to support trade, commerce, and industry rather than individuals and families hoping or pretending that the benefits would percolate down to the poor. Loss of livelihood effectually proved as bad as, if not worse than, the loss of life for the most vulnerable sections of society.
Did these measures help? We do not know for sure. Were these experiments a success? Did the benefits of these trial and error methods outweigh the social and economic costs that people suffered? We can’t answer either way with a fair degree of certainty.
What we know for certain is the fact that most governments could not afford to sustain such measures beyond a point. As their economies nosedived, they had no option but to open. Some opened gradually in a phased manner, others chose to lift the lockdown totally in one go. Then there was the third type. They announced severest lockdowns sans regard to the ground realities and, as a result, could not impose the restriction. This forced people to travel long distances hungry and thirsty either on foot or using even unthinkable means of transportation which eventually led to massive crowding of people.
Which of the three worked well? We are in dark. Did community transmission help in checking the spread of the virus? We have no conclusive evidence of that. Did it help in developing immunity from the virus amongst a large section of the population? We can’t say. If there was some immunity amongst some people, was it lasting and reliable? We don’t know. These were all experiments conducted on people who were treated no better than guinea pigs.
In many countries, people dug out their ancient pasts to discover recipes and concoctions and marketed them through social media. Some claimed that they were preventive. Others went a step further to claim that they cured coronavirus disease. The smarter ones took on their sides the governments and their representatives in their marketing drive.
Did they help? No one knows. There are indications that many caused more harm than good. Was any action taken against any one of them for endangering previous human lives through such experimentations? It may take much longer to know the full extent of the damage that they may have caused.
Why only alternative medicines and therapies? We are now being told that many medicines, including some of the expensive ones, administered to patients were given only on a trial and error basis. We are also being told that most of them did not work at all. Many caused unmitigable side effects.
Amongst those who had to be hospitalized, some survived, but many succumbed as the drugs did not prove effective. A whole lot of others are still suffering from the side effects of many of those medicines and treatments that were administered to them. The grapevine has it that in many cases the COVID-19 treatment exacerbated many different kinds of illnesses.
As the pandemic worsened, country after country, with support from global health organizations started giving approvals for administering vaccines on an experimental basis for emergency use. Even as of now, there is hardly any COVID-19 vaccine that has received final approval as all other vaccines developed in the past do.
Have these vaccines worked? Apparently, yes. How long would they remain effective in providing protection? No one tells. Within a year, most countries have subjected their people to double or triple vaccinations to boost the efficacy of the vaccines. No one knows how effective would these vaccines be and for how long. They have indeed checked the spread of the virus and thus contained the pandemic to a significant level, but what would happen when their efficacy declines or disappear?
As vaccination picked up, the virus also started mutating with no one knowing, with any degree of certainty, as to how to handle the pandemic or how long will the pandemic continue. Different countries continued experimenting with stricter lockdowns, restriction on mobility, and recurring travel bans. Some felt that weekend and night curfew would check the spread.
Do we have any scientific evidence that such measures would work? The community is silent. Even two years into these experiments, we hardly have any clue about the pandemic. Not even about its origin as to whether it was spread by natural causes or was an experiment that had gone awry. Now nobody is talking about these issues and seems to have reached the conclusion that it would be an exercise in futility.
Strangely, while the travel bans were eased, the regular trains continue to remain stranded. Instead, special trains were launched with higher fares and lower services. It defies all logic that regular trains would spread the virus while the special trains would not.
Interestingly, bars and casinos were allowed to restart on regular basis, many countries took much longer to allow their schools, colleges, and universities to return back to their normal ways of functioning. They are, in fact, yet to become fully functional. Schools would be directed to open with due consent of the parents of students and often upon signing an undertaking that they would not hold schools responsible if their children caught and suffered from the virus. Besides, the schools were often the first to be closed down at the slightest pretext. Things are becoming somewhat more stable now than before. Critically, the colleges. universities and other higher educational institutions are becoming functional only now.
We know a little bit about the adverse impact of school lockdowns and the learning loss that they cause. But most of us are absolutely in the dark about the learning loss or gain arising out of online and remote learning in higher education. While students and higher educational institutions are wary of the methods and their impact, the EdTech companies are all gaga about the new possibility. They have, in fact, already written down the future of brick-and-mortar universities across the world.
Governments seem to be in two minds about these companies. Many have raised concerns about their exploitative tendencies and are warning of stricter regulation or code of conduct. At the same time, they are proactively popularising them by urging students to take a portion of their courses online from these institutions. They are facilitating the process by putting in place the necessary enabling frameworks. In some cases, they are also offering coupons to their students to help them afford courses provided by the EdTech companies.
The more we think about the issue, the more baffled we become about our present and future. Being at the receiving ends of these experiments. It is we the people who shall have to finally bear the brunt by suffering the consequences of such trial and error and hit kind of experiments, both in the name of science and saving our lives.
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About the author
Dr. Furqan Qamar is a former Advisor (Education) in the Planning Commission of India. He has been the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Rajasthan and Central University of Himachal Pradesh. Dr. Qamar is currently the Professor of Management at the Centre for Management Studies (CMS), Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), New Delhi.