1) China’s zero: On China’s lead in containing coronavirus
In a remarkable turnaround, China had zero cases of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) on March 18-20, including in Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic.
This comes three months after the first case emerged in Wuhan. But on March 21, Guangdong province had one instance of local transmission from an imported case.
NUMBER OF CASES:
As on March 22, China reported 314 imported cases. As the instance on Saturday shows, more number of fresh cases from local transmission can show up, turning the zero cases reported on three consecutive days into nothing but a blip.
At the peak of the epidemic, mainland China reported thousands of fresh cases and hundreds of deaths each day before the total number reached 81,054 which is nearly 26% of the global case load of 3,16,659 as on March 22.
The total mortality from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in mainland China stands at 3,237, which is less than the deaths reported from Italy (4,825).
The initial signs of the epidemic beginning to wane were visible when the first makeshift hospital in Wuhan was closed in early March after all patients had recovered and there were no new admissions.
The turnaround in China comes at a time when the virus is galloping in Europe and is spreading in the U.S.
Shutting down Wuhan and a few other cities on January 23 and many more in the following days placed nearly 60 million in China in lockdown.
In retrospect, the drastic measure sharply reduced the chances of a rapid spread of the virus within China and onward to the rest of the world.
It gave Europe and the U.S. the much needed time to take measures in preventing the virus from gaining a foothold.
Unfortunately, both Europe and the U.S. seem to have squandered that opportunity.
What was once considered undoable outside China is now being played out in Italy — the entire country is locked down.
Putting the rights of the community ahead of the individual, many countries have been adopting tough measures akin to China’s —
banning mass gatherings,
cancelling important events
shutting down educational institutions and;
entertainment in a bid to cut the transmission chain.
Even as China’s success in containing the epidemic is in the spotlight, its cover-up of the outbreak until mid-January, nearly a month after the first few cases showed up, will remain a stain hard to erase.
Worse, its refusal to inform its people even after notifying a cluster of cases to the World Health Organization on December 31, 2019 and gagging doctors for raising an alarm show that not much has changed since the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002.
The only solace is that China did not unduly delay informing WHO about the novel virus unlike in the case of the 2002 SARS outbreak.
Also, it quickly sequenced the whole genome of the virus and made the data public just days after informing WHO; it has since shared 126 sequence data.
Scientific papers published by Chinese researchers have given their peers across the world a head start in understanding the virus and the disease.
The rest of the world might have to follow China’s lead in containing the virus.
2) Stealing a mandate: On Madhya Pradesh crisis
The impending change of guard in Madhya Pradesh is on the back of a disgraceful betrayal of the popular mandate of 2018 when the Congress defeated the BJP that was in power for three consecutive terms.
Jyotiraditya Scindia’s vault from the Congress to its antithesis, the BJP, set the ball rolling for the unravelling of Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s government earlier in March.
With the resignation of 22 of its MLAs from the Assembly, the Congress was reduced to a minority, with 92 members.
HALF WAY MARK:
The resignations brought down the halfway mark to 104 and now, the BJP, with 106, can claim a majority as it is doing right now.
The BJP legislature party is expected to elect former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan as its leader who is likely to form the new government this week.
Mr. Nath tried to salvage his government by buying time to woo back the defectors but the Supreme Court ordered that a floor test be held on Friday.
His decision to submit the resignation before forcing a vote in the Assembly was appropriate. Luring back the defectors by dubious means would have been no less dishonourable than the defections.
The total strength of the MP Assembly is 230 in which 24 seats are now vacant.
MORAL AND POLITICAL LEGITIMACY:
Although the BJP is within its rights to stake claim, in the interest of moral and political legitimacy, it could have waited until after by-elections are held to these seats and either of the parties establishes a clear majority.
But a disturbing new mechanism of usurping power that is not won through an election, perfected by the BJP in recent years, has no such restraint.
The party engineered the resignations of Congress and JD(S) MLAs and returned to power in Karnataka last year.
The BJP took power on the claim of majority in a truncated legislature, and had the advantage of being the ruling party when the by-elections were held.
It had used the same strategy earlier and there are indications that it might be tried in some other States too in the coming weeks.
This route by-passes the Anti-Defection law but the financial and moral corruption involved in this is only far too evident.
While the top court did the right thing by asking for an early floor test in M.P., the larger question the power tussle in the State has thrown up, which is the claim of majority in a legislature that has a considerably large number of seats vacant, remains unresolved.
The recurrence of this model across States makes this an unhealthy pattern and a fresh challenge to clean politics.
The legal and moral implications of mass resignations of MLAs to upend an electoral verdict need to be examined at the political and judicial levels.
BJP played by the book, but a new govt. will lack moral legitimacy without winning bypolls.
3) The perils of an all-out lockdown
As the novel coronavirus spreads, a double crisis looms over India: a health crisis and an economic crisis.
In terms of casualties, the health crisis is still very confined (seven deaths in a country where eight million people die every year), but the numbers are growing fast.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis is hitting with full force, throwing millions out of work by the day. Unlike the health crisis, it is not class-neutral, but hurts poor people the most.
INDIA SLOWS DOWN:
Migrant workers, street vendors, contract workers, almost everyone in the informal sector — the bulk of the workforce — is being hit by this economic tsunami.
In Maharashtra, mass lay-offs have forced migrant workers to rush home, some without being paid.
Many of them are now stranded between Maharashtra and their homes as trains have been cancelled.
The economic standstill in Maharashtra is spreading fast to other States as factories, shops, offices and worksites close with little hope of an early return to normalcy.
With transport routes dislocated, even the coming wheat harvest, a critical source of survival for millions of labouring families in north India, may not bring much relief. And all this is just a trailer.
This economic crisis calls for urgent, massive relief measures. Lockdowns may be needed to slow down the epidemic, but poor people cannot afford to stay idle at home. If they are asked to stay home, they will need help.
There is a critical difference, in this respect, between India and affluent countries with a good social security system.
The average household in, say, Canada or Italy can take a lockdown in its stride (for some time at least), but the staying power of the Indian poor is virtually nil.
TAP SOCIAL SCHEMES:
Since time is of the essence, the first step is to make good use of existing social-security schemes to support poor people — pensions, the Public Distribution System (PDS), midday meals, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), among others.
Initial measures could include advance payment of pensions, enhanced PDS rations, immediate payment of MGNREGA wage arrears, and expanded distribution of take-home rations at schools and anganwadis.
Some States have already taken useful steps of this sort, but the scale of relief measures needs radical expansion.
That, in turn, requires big money from the Central government.
It also requires the government to avoid squandering its resources on corporate bailouts: most crisis-affected sectors of the economy will soon be lobbying for rescue packages.
Meanwhile, there is a danger of people’s hardships being aggravated by a tendency to shut down essential services.
Public transport, administrative offices, court hearings, MGNREGA projects and even immunisation drives have already been suspended to varying degrees in many States.
Some of these interruptions are certainly justified, but others are likely to be counter-productive.
Remember, we are dealing not only with a health crisis but also with an economic crisis.
Even if discontinuing public services helps to contain the health crisis, the economic consequences need to be considered.
To assess the case for various precautionary measures, we must bear in mind the dual motive for taking precautions.
When you decide to stay at home, there are two possible motives for it: a self-protection motive and a public-purpose motive. In the first case, you act out of fear of being infected.
In the second, you participate in collective efforts to stop the spread of the virus.
Some people think about precautions as a matter of self-protection.
What they may not realise is that the individual risk of getting infected is still tiny — so small that it is hardly worth any self-protection efforts (except for special groups such as health workers and the elderly).
Four hundred thousand people die of tuberculosis in India every year, yet we take no special precautions against it.
So why do we take precautions when seven people have died of COVID-19? The enlightened reason is not to protect ourselves, but to contribute to collective efforts to halt the epidemic.
A similar reasoning applies to the case for shutting down public services as a precautionary measure.
Self-protection of public employees is not a major issue (for the time being), the main consideration is public purpose.
Further, public purpose must include the possible economic consequences of a shutdown.
If a service creates a major health hazard, public purpose may certainly call for it to be discontinued (this is the reason for closing schools and colleges).
On the other hand, services that help poor people in their hour of need without creating a major health hazard should continue to function as far as possible.
That would apply not only to health services or the Public Distribution System, but also to many other public services including administrative offices at the district and local levels.
Poor people depend on these services in multiple ways, closing them across the board at this time would worsen the economic crisis without doing much to stem the health crisis.
Keeping public services going in this situation is likely to require some initiative and creativity.
An explicit list of essential services (already available in some States) and official guidelines on coronavirus readiness at the workplace would be a good start.
Many public premises are crying for better distancing arrangements. Some services can even be reinvented for now.
For instance, anganwadis could play a vital role of public-health outreach at this time, even if children have to be kept away.
Many public spaces could also be used, with due safeguards, to disseminate information or to impart good habits such as distancing and washing hands.
The urgent need for effective social security measures makes it all the more important to avoid a loss of nerve.
The way things are going today, it will soon be very difficult for some State governments to run the Public Distribution System or take good care of drinking water.
That would push even more people to the wall, worsening not only the economic crisis but possibly the health crisis as well. This is not the time to let India’s frail safety net unravel.
If the poor must stay at home, they need income support and essential services.
4) Picking up the quantum technology baton
In the Budget 2020 speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a welcome announcement for Indian science.
Over the next five years she proposed spending â‚¹8,000 crore (~ $1.2 billion) on a National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications.
This promises to catapult India into the midst of the second quantum revolution, a major scientific effort that is being pursued by the United States, Europe, China and others.
In this article we describe the scientific seeds of this mission, the promise of quantum technology and some critical constraints on its success that can be lifted with some imagination on the part of Indian scientific institutions and, crucially, some strategic support from Indian industry and philanthropy.
Quantum mechanics was developed in the early 20th century to describe nature in the small — at the scale of atoms and elementary particles.
For over a century it has provided the foundations of our understanding of the physical world, including the interaction of light and matter, and led to ubiquitous inventions such as lasers and semiconductor transistors.
Despite a century of research, the quantum world still remains mysterious and far removed from our experiences based on everyday life.
A second revolution is currently under way with the goal of putting our growing understanding of these mysteries to use by actually controlling nature and harnessing the benefits of the weird and wondrous properties of quantum mechanics.
One of the most striking of these is the tremendous computing power of quantum computers, whose actual experimental realisation is one of the great challenges of our times.
The announcement by Google, in October 2019, where they claimed to have demonstrated the so-called “quantum supremacy”, is one of the first steps towards this goal.
Besides computing, exploring the quantum world promises other dramatic applications including the creation of novel materials, enhanced metrology, secure communication, to name just a few.
Some of these are already around the corner. For example, China recently demonstrated secure quantum communication links between terrestrial stations and satellites.
And computer scientists are working towards deploying schemes for post-quantum cryptography — clever schemes by which existing computers can keep communication secure even against quantum computers of the future.
Beyond these applications, some of the deepest foundational questions in physics and computer science are being driven by quantum information science.
This includes subjects such as quantum gravity and black holes.
Pursuing these challenges will require an unprecedented collaboration between physicists (both experimentalists and theorists), computer scientists, material scientists and engineers.
On the experimental front, the challenge lies in harnessing the weird and wonderful properties of quantum superposition and entanglement in a highly controlled manner by building a system composed of carefully designed building blocks called quantum bits or qubits.
These qubits tend to be very fragile and lose their “quantumness” if not controlled properly, and a careful choice of materials, design and engineering is required to get them to work.
On the theoretical front lies the challenge of creating the algorithms and applications for quantum computers.
These projects will also place new demands on classical control hardware as well as software platforms.
WHERE INDIA STANDS:
Globally, research in this area is about two decades old, but in India, serious experimental work has been under way for only about five years, and in a handful of locations.
What are the constraints on Indian progress in this field?
So far we have been plagued by a lack of sufficient resources, high quality manpower, timeliness and flexibility.
The new announcement in the Budget would greatly help fix the resource problem but high quality manpower is in global demand.
In a fast moving field like this, timeliness is everything — delayed funding by even one year is an enormous hit.
A previous programme called Quantum Enabled Science and Technology has just been fully rolled out, more than two years after the call for proposals.
Nevertheless, one has to laud the government’s announcement of this new mission on a massive scale and on a par with similar programmes announced recently by the United States and Europe.
This is indeed unprecedented, and for the most part it is now up to the government, its partner institutions and the scientific community to work out details of the mission and roll it out quickly.
But there are some limits that come from how the government must do business with public funds.
Here, private funding, both via industry and philanthropy, can play an outsized role even with much smaller amounts.
For example, unrestricted funds that can be used to attract and retain high quality manpower and to build international networks — all at short notice - can and will make an enormous difference to the success of this enterprise.
This is the most effective way (as China and Singapore discovered) to catch up scientifically with the international community, while quickly creating a vibrant intellectual environment to help attract top researchers.
Further, connections with Indian industry from the start would also help quantum technologies become commercialised successfully, allowing Indian industry to benefit from the quantum revolution.
We must encourage industrial houses and strategic philanthropists to take an interest and reach out to Indian institutions with an existing presence in this emerging field.
As two of us can personally attest, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), home to India’s first superconducting quantum computing lab, would be delighted to engage.