News & Events
In this section, we are presenting our readers/aspirants compilation of selected editorials of national daily viz. The Hindu, The live mint,The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Economic Times, PIB etc. This section caters the requirement of Civil Services Mains (GS + Essay) , PCS, HAS Mains (GS + Essay) & others essay writing competition.
1. Ask tough questions, learn: Why did the severity of India’s second wave take modellers by surprise?
The country is currently reeling under the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic. Our health infrastructure is stretched beyond limits resulting in many avoidable deaths. It is natural to ask if our scientific community could have contributed more in prediction and mitigation of this wave. Pertinent questions need to be asked, with the hope that these may help in dispassionate analysis and provide learnings for future.
For the scientists within the government: Could the decision-making on allocation of resources have been different? Specifically, could decisions on beds, oxygen and other health infrastructure have been made with foresight by utilising the guidance provided by various inputs including models for predicting future trajectory of the pandemic? While it is true that the inputs provided did not indicate severity of the wave, the key question is whether, even under the assumption of less severe wave, the resource allocation was done in a scientific manner.
Here, it is important to distinguish between necessity and sufficiency of models for decision-making. Models are necessary because the directional guidance they provide is invaluable in making forward-looking decisions on allocation of resources. Models, however, are not sufficient as such directional guidance must be vetted by the wisdom of policy makers, more so with extremely uncertain phenomena such as the pandemic.
The onset of second wave was detected by many: Virologists started noticing the spread of a new mutant by March. Many in the modelling community observed divergence from expected trajectory by early March, and were predicting a significant second wave by the end of the month. While the severity of the second wave when compared to the first wave has caught everyone by surprise, a second wave that was at least as severe as the first wave was predicted by many scientists in March.
The scientists outside of government fold must also ask the question: Why is it that no one anticipated the severity of the second wave? Modellers capture the behaviour of a pandemic through certain equations, estimate the values of parameters governing the equations, and use them to compute future trajectory.
This is also useful for medium-term predictions if future values of parameters are correctly estimated. Typically, these estimates are done by epidemiologists based on their domain knowledge. More recently, data-centric approaches are also being used to estimate parameter values – the author was part of a group that devised a model named SUTRA, which estimated parameter values using data.
Why could the intensity of second wave not be predicted by the models? Because the future parameter values could not be correctly estimated, either by domain-knowledge-based or data-based models. For SUTRA, we got the timing of the peak approximately correct but not the height.
This was due to rapidly changing behaviour of the pandemic in early April. It stabilised in the third week and on April 25 we predicted a peak during May 5-8 between 3.4 to 4.4 lakh cases per day; the actual peak appears to have come on May 8 at 3.9 lakh cases. These numbers are 7-day moving averages of new cases.
For any model, one critical input required for estimating future values is the fraction of population that is currently immune. To understand the importance of this data, take the evidence for Mumbai where 58% of the individuals living in the slums had acquired antibodies by December 2020 while this number was only 18% for those living in the high-rise buildings. In the second wave, about 90% of the infected in Mumbai have been in the high-rise buildings.
Thus, the smaller the immune population, the higher will be the intensity of the next wave since more people will be susceptible to infection. To estimate this number correctly, one needs to continuously track the immunity level in the population of different regions since people lose immunity over time. Unfortunately, this information was not available. In the month of February, this author requested the PSA office for such a survey but probably could not make a convincing case.
Going forward, it is important that regular sero-surveys are conducted at national, state and even major district levels. This will allow the decision-makers to quickly identify regions where immunity levels are dropping and thereby initiate appropriate action. There is a lot of talk these days about third wave. However, without a proper analysis, we may again be left guessing at its magnitude. It requires proper scientific analysis with sero-surveys being a crucial input.
As these sero-surveys need to be done regularly and provide results quickly, many countries have opted to use blood samples collected from a region over a short period of time, and perform sero-tests on them to estimate immunity levels. Such surveys are adequate to provide a decent estimate. The same methodology must be adopted in India too to track the susceptibility of population in different regions.
In sum, the key learning for policy makers is to rely on evidence-driven scientific models as a necessary tool – but not sufficient – for decision making under uncertainty, and enable availability of crucial data so that the uncertainty could be minimised.
2.Beyond prices: Weak demand may prove to be a bigger and stickier problem than inflation
There can’t be a more trying phase for economic policy makers than one where the economy is stagnant but prices are shooting up. That’s what emerged this week after the wholesale price index in April increased by 10.49%, the highest in 11 years. The headline however doesn’t convey a clear picture of the underlying situation; we are not in the midst of an overheating economy. The surge in WPI is because of a rise in global energy and commodity prices which are benchmarked against a phase last year when they were falling.
In April 2020, the Indian basket crude had collapsed to $19.90 a barrel in the shadow of worldwide lockdowns. By last month, the price of the Indian basket had risen to $63.40, an increase of 319% in a year. Global price trends in key industrial commodities are showing a similar pattern. Iron ore’s average price in February was $163.8 per dry metric ton. By April, it had risen to $179.8 per ton. This combination is feeding into prices across manufactured products. This does not mean that RBI should reorient its priorities to place inflation ahead of economic growth. That will be counterproductive.
RBI’s inflation-fighting tools largely centre on squeezing demand to cool the economy. Therein lies the problem. Demand’s already weakening in the wake of the second wave of Covid-19. RBI’s latest analysis on the state of the economy observes that the biggest toll of the second wave is a demand shock. Here it’s important to be mindful of the dissimilarities between the first and second waves. There’s evidence that this wave is penetrating rural India and it’s not clear yet what the full impact will be. This time rural demand may not act as a countervailing force to the urban impact of lockdowns.
Another early sign that weakness of demand may persist shows up in corporate results. RBI’s analysis of the financial results of 288 non-financial companies for January-March quarter shows that they registered an increase in sales and net profit despite a rise in raw material costs. That’s because of a lower growth in salaries and other expenses. Many developments suggest that consumer demand will slacken. Weak demand may then be a bigger and stickier problem than inflation. That’s what needs to be prioritised but through fiscal policies. It’s a clever fiscal policy that India needs to offset the economic impact of the second wave.
3.RBI’s reading of the economy
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has said, in its monthly bulletin released on May 17, that “the biggest toll” of the ongoing second wave of Covid-19 is “demand shock”. It listed other negatives — “loss of mobility, discretionary spending and employment, besides inventory accumulation” — but emphasised that “aggregate supply is less impacted”. Perhaps because of this, RBI concluded that “the resurgence of Covid-19 has dented but not debilitated economic activity in the first half of 2021-22” and that the economy hasn’t been as badly hit as it was last year (the central bank has added the caveat that this is a tentative assessment).
4.Stormy start: On handling severe cyclones
Accurate forecasts and resilience-building hold the key to handling severe cyclones
Millions of people wearied by the onslaught of the coronavirus have had to contend with a furious tropical cyclone that has left a trail of death and destruction before making landfall in Gujarat. Cyclone Tauktae swelled into an extremely severe cyclonic storm, dumping enormous volumes of water all along the west coast, and caused loss of life in Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat, before weakening overland. To thousands who had to be evacuated to safe locations, this year’s pre-monsoon season presented a double jeopardy, caught as they were between a fast-spreading virus variant and an unrelenting storm. Many coastal residents would have felt a sense of déjà vu, having gone through a similar experience last year, when the severe cyclonic storm, Nisarga, barrelled landwards from the Arabian Sea, pounding Alibaug in Maharashtra as it came ashore. The cyclones in both years spared densely populated Mumbai. The twin crises have, however, strained the capacities of multiple States, especially the coastal ones, although the impact of the storm was considerably mitigated by disaster response forces. Once again, the value of creating a trained cadre, supported by the defence forces in rescue and relief work, is seen. The heralding of the 2021 monsoon season by a cyclone comes as another reminder that the subcontinent is at the confluence of more frequent, extreme weather events originating in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea every year.
How well India is prepared to handle cyclones depends on developing greater expertise in forecasting and disaster mitigation, and crafting policies to increase resilience among communities. Last year, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) launched an impact-based cyclone warning system from the October-December season designed to reduce economic losses by focusing on districts and specific locations, and incorporating such factors as population, infrastructure, land use and settlements. The IMD also claimed that its accuracy of forecasts, for instance, in plotting landfall location, is now better. Together with ground mapping of vulnerabilities, this is a promising approach to avoid loss of life and destruction of property. The importance of precise early warnings cannot be overemphasised, considering that the Arabian Sea has emerged as a major source of severe cyclones, and their intensity is aggravated by long-term rise in sea surface temperatures linked to pollution over South Asia and its neighbourhood. Climate-proofing lives and dwellings is a high priority now, a task that warrants a multi-sectoral approach: to build sturdy homes of suitable design, create adequate storm shelters, provide accurate early warnings, and ensure financial protection against calamities through insurance for property and assets. Governments must rise up to the challenge.