1 May 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis
1) Religion and freedom: On India and communal violence-
Religious freedom is of paramount importance, not because it is about religion, but because it is about freedom. The characterisation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) of India as a country of particular concern, in its annual report, is not entirely surprising, considering its dim(unclear) and known views about sectarian violence and aggravating(worse) governmental measures over the last year.
The Indian government not only repudiated(refuse to accept) the report but also ridiculed(dismissive language) the USCIRF. The autonomous, bipartisan(involving the agreement or cooperation of two political parties that usually oppose each other's policies) commission’s influence over any U.S. executive action is limited and occasional but its presumption of global authority appears amusingly expansive(extensive).
Whether or not the U.S. government acts on its recommendation to impose targeted sanctions(threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule) on Indian government agencies and officials depends on American strategic interests.
The U.S. has used arguments of freedom, democracy, tolerance, and transparency as tools in its strategic pursuits(tracking), but there is no proof of any uniform or predictable pattern of enforcement of such moral attributes(regard something as being caused by).
EMBRACING AND REJECTING:
The process can be selective and often arbitrary(vague) in spotlighting countries. Mirroring this pattern, India selectively approaches global opinions on itself, embracing and celebrating laudatory(praising) ones and rejecting inconvenient ones. The frantic, and relatively successful, efforts to raise its Ease of Doing Business ranking by the World Bank is a case in point.
Many of these reports have a circulatory life — the USCIRF report quotes U.N. Special Rapporteurs to buttress(focus) its point on the discriminatory outcome of the National Register of Citizens in Assam. Overall, such reports contribute to the construction of an image of a country, and the Indian government is cognisant(aware) of this pattern. In March, the Indian government told Niti Aayog to track 32 global indices and engage with the bodies that measure them, to advance reform and growth.
(TRIVIA- The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register of all Indian citizens whose creation is mandated by the 2003 amendment of the Citizenship Act, 1955. Its purpose is to document all the legal citizens of India so that the illegal migrants can be identified and deported. It has been implemented for the state of Assam starting in 2013–2014. The Government of India plans to implement it for the rest of the country in 2021)
India advertises itself as a multi-religious democracy and as an adherent(follower) to global norms of rule of law. It also aspires to be on the table of global rule making. For a country with such stated ambitions, its record on religious freedom as reflected through events of the last one year is deeply disconcerting(dissatisfying).
The catalogue (complete list of items) of religious violence, incitement(provoke) and wrecking(destroying) of the rule of law in several parts of the country remains an unsettling fact. The partisan(bias) nature of the ruling dispensation(party) is also difficult to wish away.
Reputation is important for a country’s economic development and global standing but beyond that instrumental perspective, rule of law and communal harmony are essential for any functioning democracy. India must protect its freedoms, and come down heavily (take strong actions) on religious violence.
2) The making of the modern public intellectual-
This article is based on fundamentals of a just law. Law is not the source of its own moral authority and legitimacy.
A SETBACK TO DEMOCRACY:
Centuries later, M.K. Gandhi reiterated(repeated) that a law is binding only if it satisfies the unwritten codes of public ethics. He spoke in the context of colonial rule. Surely democratic regimes ought to respect the right of citizens to dissent(disagreement).
In today’s India, however, holders of state power refuse to tolerate ideas, reflection, debate, and discussion. Two years ago, the government arrested eminent(important) members of civil society on charges that were clearly produced by conspiratorial(relating to or suggestive of a secret plan made by a group of people to do something unlawful or harmful) imaginations.
On April 14, two of India’s well-known scholars/activists, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, surrendered before the National Investigation Agency. In early April, an FIR was filed by the Uttar Pradesh government against the editor of the news website, The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan. The charges in these cases are flimsy(weak). It is obvious that intellectuals are being penalised for taking on the government.
The arrests are a depressing commentary(state) on the nature of the present government. Sophisticated(having, revealing, or involving a great deal of worldly experience and knowledge of fashion and culture) societies respect intellectuals because they subject the present to historically informed investigation, interpretation(explanation), critique and prescription. This is integral to the idea of democratic politics as self-critique.
Politics establishes rules that govern multiple transactions of society. It cannot be its own defendant, judge and jury. If politics is, as Aristotle put it, the master science (science for Greeks is knowledge), it has to accept reflective and critical activity. Politics is too important to be left to politicians alone.
While authoritarian societies breed(give birth) court historians, mature democracies appreciate critical scholarship. But today intellectualism is dismissed contemptuously(feeling that a person or a thing is worthless) as elitist. Not only does this attitude foster(develop) a culture of mediocrity, intellectuals who hold a mirror to the state are hounded and arrested. This is a setback to democracy, because it forecloses(prevents) engagement with structures of power. Without its public intellectuals, democracy slides into authoritarianism.
The first public intellectual was, of course, Socrates. The modern notion of the public intellectual is, however, fairly recent. It took shape in the tumultuous(disturbed) days of what has come to be known as the ‘Dreyfus affair’ in France in 1894. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Army officer, had allegedly handed over important government documents to the Germans. He was convicted of treason(crime of betraying one's country) amidst a roar of revolting anti-Semitism(hatred towards jews).
When Dreyfus was stripped of his medals, the crowd shouted ‘Death to the Jew’. The atmosphere was charged, mob mentality ruled, and sane(good) voices were drowned in the din(dark). Scholars, artists, and novelists could hardly keep away. They had to summon(recall) their knowledge to reflect on citizens’ rights, the irrational(without sense) behaviour of crowds, the ugly slogans that stereotyped(targeting entire community) an entire community, and the unholy glee(pleasure) with which crowds watched the humiliation of an army officer.
The incident propelled(forced) Paris-based intellectuals into the mainstream of French politics. This was the time when scholars came out from their ivory towers(luxury chairs) and took sides, despite massive crowd hysteria(excessive emotions) that broke bounds(limits) of civility.
INJUSTICE, PREJUDICE AND INTOLERANCE:
Dreyfus was later exonerated(absolve (someone) from blame for a fault or wrongdoing), but the affair split the French intelligentsia wide open. Emile Zola wrote an open letter, J’Accuse, in support of the beleaguered(under attack) army officer. Zola attacked injustice, prejudice(bias) and intolerance. He reserved for the intellectual the function that Socrates had reserved for the philosopher: stand by the universal in the quest for truth and in the fight against injustice. Julien Benda, a noted Jewish intellectual, argued that the duty of the intellectual is to defend universal values over and above the politics of the moment.
COMMITMENT TO TRUTH, REASON AND JUSTICE:
But other scholars propagated(supported) anti-Semitism. In 1942, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote an account of the anti-Semitism directed at Dreyfus by right-wing intellectuals in France. Intellectuals who upheld(supported) Republicanism and basic rights were too weak to confront the power of the mob. Mobs are fickle(changing frequently, especially as regards one's loyalties or affections), their rhetoric is blood-curdling, they hate debate, detest(hate) institutions, and hero-worship leaders.
When intellectuals follow the mob or, worse, the leader, they pave the way for fascism, the destruction of institutions, the emergence of the hero, and pogroms(mass massacre) of the minority. When intellectuals fail to live up to codes of public ethics, they uphold injustice. Their commitment to truth, reason and justice lapses; they become partners in injustice.
MORAL CONSCIENCE OF SOCIETY:
The Dreyfus affair legitimised(strengthened) the idea that a public intellectual has to denounce injustice despite the power of the mob. Since then it has been held that intellectuals are not defined by what they are — professors, writers, artists or journalists — but by what they do. Intellectuals have to be competent in their own field, otherwise they will not be taken seriously by anyone.
But there is more to being an intellectual. Scholars have to be public intellectuals. They have to cast their scholarly gaze(look) on issues that cause explosions, sift(screen) out the details, analyse, evaluate, and take a position. An intellectual has to be involved in public affairs.
Public intellectuals are the moral conscience of society, simply because they think. To think is to question, to call for freedom, and to invoke the right to disobey. Our intellectuals have to be reflective, philosophical beings, philosophical in the sense that they think about issues, addresses contemporary social problems and see them as the legacies of previously unresolved issues of social injustice.
It is precisely the unresolved issue of social injustice that has been taken up by Mr. Teltumbde, Mr. Navlakha and Mr. Varadarajan repeatedly and insistently. All three of them have battled the reproduction of injustice in their own ways.
Mr. Teltumbde is a fine chronicler of the injustice that has been heaped(meted) on the Dalit community. Mr. Navlakha has fiercely(strongly) castigated(formal expression of disapproval) violations of civil liberties. And Mr. Varadarajan has exposed the horrific crimes committed by the merchants of hate.
None of them has advocated(supported) violence, none of them has asked the Indian people to revolt against the elected regime. All they ask for is that the provisions of the Constitution be honoured by our leaders.
Leaders wield the scalpel(knife used by surgeons), they ought to be the healers. Their touch should nurse the wounds in the body politic. Public intellectuals are the conscience of our country. They should be respected because they speak out against injustice wherever it occurs, not be subjected to punitive(inflicting or intended as punishment) action.
Public intellectuals are of value because they bring the sane, cool voice of reasoned reflection to bear on contentious and stormy public issues.
3) Plasma therapy is no silver bullet-
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented(never happened before) challenges to governments, health professionals and the general public at large, around the world. Every response, administrative, social, economic or medical is being subjected to intense public scrutiny(examination), as it rightly should be in the spirit of mature democracy.
The therapy involves infusing(inserting) patients suffering from COVID-19 with plasma from recovered patients. In theory, the antibodies of the recovered person may help that patient’s immune system fight the virus. While showing great promise, it is a line of treatment that is yet to be validated(approved) for efficacy and safety and cannot be deployed widely without caution(safety). The current evidence to conclude anything about the true benefits of this therapy is very thin.
(antibodies- a blood protein produced in response to and counteracting a specific antigen. Antibodies combine chemically with substances which the body recognizes as alien, such as bacteria, viruses, and foreign substances in the blood)
Scientific research in medicine is the only means to overcome novel and complex diseases such as COVID-19 and that too thrives(rests) on the same spirit of debate and criticism. The difference, however, is that the standards of evidence required, to generate consensus and arrive at the most optimal(approved) protocols, are far more rigorous(painful) and time-taking than in most other walks of life.
So is the case with the convalescent plasma therapy, that is being currently studied by the Indian Council of Medical Research, through open label, randomised controlled trial to evaluate it for both safety and efficacy. Already, four patients have been enrolled in Ahmedabad and the study will be rolled out in 20 hospitals by the end of this week and at more centres over the next month.
NEED FOR MORE RESEARCH:
The most important principle in medical ethics is “do no harm”. The transfusion of convalescent plasma is also not without risks, which range from mild reactions like fever, itching, to life-threatening allergic reactions and lung injury. To recommend a therapy without studying it thoroughly with robust scientific methods may cause more harm than good.
Till date, there have been only three published case series for convalescent plasma in COVID-19 with a cumulative of 19 patients. Given the very small number of patients involved in these studies and a publication bias in medicine, we cannot conclude the therapy will work on all patients all the time or even believe that the convalescent plasma was the only reason for their improvement.
RANDOMISED CONTROLLED TRIAL:
To say with certainty whether a drug is truly effective or not, the gold standard in medicine is to conduct a randomised controlled trial, where half the patients get the experimental drug and the other half do not. Only if patients in the first half show substantial improvement over those in the second half, it indicates the drug is beneficial.
Further, convalescent plasma therapy requires intensive resources, healthy COVID-19 survivors to donate, a blood bank with proper machinery and trained personnel to remove plasma, equipment to store it and testing facilities to make sure it has an adequate amount of antibodies. Too much focus on one approach can take away the focus from other important therapeutic modalities like use of oxygen therapy, antivirals, and antibiotics for complicated hospital courses.
To overcome the pandemic comprehensively, we should focus on strengthening health systems at all levels, including referral systems, supply chain, logistics and inventory management. We need to work on protecting our healthcare workers, improving prevention methods, promoting cough etiquettes(behaviour), effective quarantining and accurate testing.
Even these times of collective uncertainty are no reason to lower scientific temper. While it is good to be hopeful, the fact remains there are no real silver bullets(simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem) in medicine and health outcomes are a result of not just a few pills or therapies but a complex set of factors.
Science should be driven by reason and evidence with hope as a catalyst but not by either fear or populism. Pushing one or the other therapy without evidence or caution can only set back our larger fight against COVID-19.
(The Scientific temper is a way of life which uses the scientific method and which may, consequently, include questioning, observing physical reality, testing, hypothesizing, analysing, and communicating. "Scientific temper" describes an attitude which involves the application of logic.