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Fighting COVID-like challenges? India's R&D expenditure 0.7%, one of the lowest


By J Harsha*
On February 15, India reported first COVID-19 case. Since then India’s COVID-19 strategy has focused largely on lockdowns and social distancing. On March 22, there was one day lockdown followed by three week lockdown beginning from March 24 with widespread campaign to adopt social distancing.
If one looks at the COVID-19 infection curve as on date, it appears that the infection curve has flattened to some extent, which means the lockdowns and social distancing have worked initially. But from April 1 onwards, India has witnessed steep rise in infections. The COVID-19 cases have risen sharply crossing 4000 along with over hundred fatalities.
This shows that lockdown and social distancing can be temporary solutions or a stopgap arrangement to mitigate the peak burden on limited healthcare by breaking the chain of transmission. The elderly and vulnerable populations can be protected through social distancing.
If the lockdowns and social distancing per se flatten the infection curve, as envisaged by governments’ COVID-19 strategists, then India should consider itself very lucky. But what if lockdown and social distancing fail and in such a case what is the permanent solution to overcome this pandemic?
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Wuhan, China in December 2019, at least 10 countries began finding a permanent solution such as vaccine or a drug or alternative treatment to eliminate COVID-19. Few of them are USA, European Union, UK, Japan, Russia, Australia, China, etc. Coincidentally, all these countries are technologically and economically advanced countries.
The genome sequencing of novel coronavirus by China at the time of outbreak in Wuhan has given advantage in finding a breakthrough to avert the pandemic.
Latest reports suggest University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine (UPMC) in USA have tested the vaccine on mice and results have found to be satisfactory. The vaccine is waiting U.S.FDA approval for human clinical trials. TASS reported on April 5 that Russians have started vaccine trials on animals and they are due to begin pre-clinical human trials from May.
But where does India stand in finding permanent solution to protect its own citizens? Or what is the status of research in India in finding the treatment to COVID-19? Whether any trials on animals have begun? There are no answers.
Until few years back, India was hailed as a rising superpower. India was considered an Asian giant alongside China. The past is so evocative. But a rising superpower should show signs of economic strength and technological advancement during this critical COVID-19 challenge.
Quite often, GDP growth and foreign reserves are projected as a measure of India’s economic strength. For example: The foreign reserves of over US $ 400 billion have been projected as a sign of its economic strength. Few months back, there was widespread euphoria that India would become five trillion economy by 2024. Government and its supporters were presumptuous. In fact as per government statistics, in 2018, Indian economy grew by 8% and then its GDP growth last fiscal collapsed below 5%.
But the attack of covid-19 has permanently changed all these perceptions about India in possession of great economic strength to fight the pandemic.
"The Times of India" on April 1 reported that some of the Indian states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, etc., have undertaken differential salary cuts for its employees for the month of April. On 5th April, Government of India announced pay cuts for all its ministers and members of Parliament.
Surprisingly, the prime ministers emergency fund, namely PM-CARES Fund has permitted acceptance of foreign donations.
Then, the World Bank, after a long time, has extended emergency aid to the extent of US dollar one billion to fight COVID-19 pandemic.
Lockdowns, social distancing, lighting candles, clapping can go on can only slow down COVID-19, not eliminate it
All of a sudden, the economic strength of India seems to be Machiavellian machinations of vested interests. That too against the backdrop of lowest oil prices in almost a decade.
India’s budgetary allocation all these years to scientific research and development has been meagre. According to the report published by the economic advisory council to the prime minister in 2019, the public expenditure on research and development for the last two decades has been stagnant at around 0.6 -0.7% compared to USA’s 2.8%, South Korea’s 4.2%, Israel 4.3% and China’s 2.1%.
The depredations towards research and development all these years are felt now during the ongoing COVID-19 challenge.
Hence the kind of scientific research and infrastructure that is observed in advanced countries is not found in India. So, it is obvious that India has no credible research found that is comparable to the level of research of advanced countries in finding permanent solution to fight COVID-19.
Despite seven decades after independence, boasting a high GDP growth for nearly two decades and comparisons with China, this lack of scientific temperament, chronic under-funding and lack of research infrastructure for finding vaccine or a treatment for COVID-19 is not only a surprise but also a big letdown for this country of 1.3 billion population.
Thus, COVID-19 has exposed the fault-lines within this Asian giant.
In these circumstances, how do we distract the unsuspecting people of India from this big letdown? Take refuge in religion, exploit the psychological weaknesses of people, perpetuate the superstitions in the name of lighting the candles and simultaneously promote vested interests! Do these antics eliminate the pandemic?
The middle class that consists of majority of the population in India is too embroiled in date-to-day nuances to meet their needs and therefore the failure of the country in finding cure to the raging COVID-19 is inscrutable for them.
So, it is unclear how long these lockdowns, social distancing, lighting the candles, clapping can go on when it is widely known that these attempts can only slow down COVID-19 but not eliminate it!
Already healthcare workers have started getting infected with the disease. Most likely, hospitals will face closure if the COVID-19 carnage spreads. It will only be lucky for India if COVID-19 shuts down by itself in a matter a few weeks.
Else, the lockdowns, social distancing, lighting candles etc., prove to be totally inadequate, if not fake.
At this point of time, the scenario in India is one of despair. Governments have now have little choice left except invest urgently and ramp up efforts to create necessary research infrastructure to develop a vaccine or medicine or any alternative treatment to eliminate COVID-19.
That should be the permanent and long term solution instead of waiting eternally for the elixir being developed and arriving from abroad.
For a country that was dreaming $5 trillion economy within few years, this wait for advanced country’s breakthrough in treatment against COVID-19 is not only a humiliation for rising superpower but also the acceptance of its technological backwards.
However, the failure by governments in this regard and the distraction of such failure can potentially exacerbate and lead to a humanitarian catastrophe in India of the scale not seen for generations.
---
*Hydraulic engineer, Chennai. Views are personal

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