A jab can’t sort out Covid

A Srinivas | Updated on March 01, 2021

Not enough attention has gone to the many lifestyle issues

The pandemic has resurfaced in pockets in India. This will push up the demand for the vaccine among the well-to-do in the metros. The fear of being killed by the disease will ebb; the vaccine is expected to mitigate the severity of Covid — even if it cannot fully immunise people from getting the disease. The return of confidence will restore warmth in human interactions, replacing the pandemic of anxiety and mistrust that has filled our lives.

But there’s a disturbing aspect to the thrust on vaccination: it could detract from a host of questions we should be asking ourselves on how we got here in the first place.

A year after the havoc wreaked by Covid, we know little about why it has been lethal in the Western countries and less so in other parts of the world. The experience reveals some broad patterns that need to be probed by interdisciplinary research: it is an urban disease the world over; it seems to thrive in cold weather; it has been kind on populations that spend time outdoors rather than indoors; and it could be linked to dietary preferences.

Let’s begin with the rural, or sunlight factor. Covid was quite absent in the three-month-long farmers’ agitation on the outskirts of the Capital. It is hard to believe that lakhs of agitators are free of co-morbidities. Nor is it easy to explain how the election rallies in Bihar before the Assembly elections did not evidently lead to a surge in the pandemic.

Covid seems to have spared those who get their share of Vitamin D by working in the fields, on the high seas or on roadsides selling their wares. It has been less kind on the upper and middle classes, filmstars and politicians, many of whom prefer to stay indoors. However, the urban poor which lives and works in dingy spaces has been badly affected, as in Mumbai’s Dharavi.

Indeed, Covid has also been harsh on countries and spaces where air-conditioned offices and homes are the norm. This trend raises questions about the government’s blanket advise to be indoors to stay safe.

Lifestyle and industries

Covid also seems to be linked to urban lifestyles, where ‘eating out’, or out of processed food packages, is the norm. Since it is pretty clear that the pandemic takes a nasty turn in those with co-morbidities (read non-communicable, lifestyle diseases), its link with dietary habits is clear.

The pandemic should turn the spotlight on at least two very large industries: air-conditioning and food processing.

The silence so far on the role of air-conditioning is surprising. An IISc paper published last September, titled ‘Redesign of Covid-19 ICUs to save the Corona warriors’, flags the role of air-conditioning in turning these spaces into virtual death zones. It notes: “Unfortunately, almost all the ICUs are air-conditioned and the same air is recirculated through the air-conditioner and it does not effectively get filtered for viruses of smaller size. Of course, some companies do have products with HEPA filters of those capabilities, but most hospitals do not have these models installed today.”

What holds true for ICUs, where the concentration of infectious particles in the air is very high, applies to a lesser degree to spaces such as aircraft, malls, theatres, railway coaches, offices and air-conditioned homes. If “ICUs for taking care of patients with highly infectious diseases need a completely different design,” as observed by the study, the same should hold true for other hermetically sealed spaces as well.

Covid calls for an integrated response, involving urban planners, architects, environmentalists and nutritionists — besides the medical fraternity. The air-conditioning industry must be compelled to upgrade technologies.

Buildings and urbanisation

The Covid crisis could prompt a relook at architecture that relies more on ventilation and light. What is energy efficient should be seen as essential to sound health as well. The designs and materials pioneered by Laurie Baker should be reviewed seriously.

Economists and urban planners should accept that urban spaces are turning unhealthier by the day. The wholesale shift of rural populations to large, congested urban swathes has never been a great development model. This is surely not stating the obvious; one has only to revisit numerous official reports and documents by agencies such as McKinsey that blithely equate development with urbanisation. As Gandhiji feared, we have created an urban dystopia, made worse by our refusal to recognise it as such.

Covid should urge planners, environmentalists, economists and architects to evolve new models of work and living. Seeking solutions to Covid cannot be left to the medical fraternity alone. The pandemic is a lifestyle disorder that a mere jab cannot sort out.

Published on March 01, 2021

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