Bring in data, statistics and science, please!

Thursday, 6 May 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

India is quite close to us and we know that the interface is quite porous. As I write this we also are pondering whether we too are in some way heading in that direction

 


It is interesting and thought provoking when one witnesses backdrop offered during vaccine seminars hosted by Pfizer and their posters. The backdrop says ‘science will win’. I remember writing in March last year that science can deliver but it must be given the opportunity, its abilities respected, etc. (http://www.ft.lk/columns/COVID-19-Science-will-triumph-But-its-ability-needs-to-be-understood/4-697724). To support there has to be the understanding of science as otherwise pseudo-science reign. 

‘Would you prefer speaking to the astrologer to charter your way forward?’ is the big question in our country! Sadly, with many months and deaths later what is coming out and becoming a reality is that many are paying or have had to pay a big price due to decision makers ignoring or due to scant attention given to science. 

 

The USA

The science and COVID-19 did get played out in United States and Joe Biden in his push for presidency was always indicating that he would allow science to make the decision when it comes to COVID. The deadly mistakes of Trump administration due to its scant attention – it is almost difficult to believe this though thanks to communication systems of the day one has heard and witnessed in real time of events in USA – given to scientific decision making resulted in the USA leading in the COVID-19 death statistics. 

One exception of Trump administration was the Operation Warp Speed, the $ 18 billion investment into vaccine R&D and ensuring supply of the vaccine to the nation with advanced orders. One aspect in the USA throughout however was the availability of data, models and communications. The fact that clouded judgment was not knowledge but the strength of political views and decisions over science. Evidences were available but evidence-based decision making was not.

Today USA is marching with mass vaccination with 4 July in view to make a statement with action. However, months of wrong processes means that the hole from which USA has to come out is difficult and tough but USA being USA is definitely fighting the issue with vigour now. 

The size of the hole that they dug for themselves over time was quite big due to wrong policies, politics and attitudes. Brazil having emulated the stance of USA has given its citizenry through poor leadership, disease and death as the first option. 

 

India

With the USA recovering another country has occupied the attention having demonstrated the same lax attitudes. India being our neighbour and with all the connections over centuries perhaps even at a DNA level, the sights and sounds are much more difficult and agonising to watch. One has to ask the question, ‘How did this happen in Nehru’s India with so much science and abilities?’ Hyderabad is the vaccination capital of the world and there is so much science strength in India. 

The non-stop funeral pyres, people clutching oxygen cylinders and live broadcasts of a population gasping for breath are difficult to fathom and sad to watch. India is quite close to us and we know that the interface is quite porous. As I write this we also are pondering whether we too are in some way heading in that direction. 

As one views the numbers on the screen, India is having the number infected equivalent almost equal to the population of Sri Lanka. What is seen is the unfortunate power of the exponential behaviour of the virus and once allowed to unleash the consequences are just too overwhelming. Unlike the USA, India is suffering from poor data availability. There is an accusation of the State over time having run down these systems.

 

Ignoring science, data and statistics

India too is in this situation because it ignored science, data and statistics is the conclusion. With slightest of chances the primordial interests take over and hard won gains are lost. It is a real pity that playing politics receives the top of the mind attention – come what may politics are a must, elections are of paramount importance and then winning occupies 24/7 attention. The gatherings observed with all recommended guidelines violated are a testimony to them being a significant ingredient to this disaster. 

PM Narendra Modi proclaimed at the WEF in Jan 2021 that India ‘saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively’. However, it was soon apparent that the complacency had set in and this had been a premature victory celebration. 

Loosening public health measures and the super spreader events coming from both religious and political events, virus struck again. India at that time had given 66 million doses of the vaccine to 95 countries something which was lauded as a triumph of vaccine diplomacy by Shashi Tharoor when writing to Sunday Times. He was to recant the essay later when the picture changed. 

 

Sri Lanka and science

Sri Lanka today appears to be in multiple programs and events where the presence of science appears to be quite important if not vital. COVID-19 is just one among many at present in the country. I remember listening to a recent discussion on TV that was about coconut and palm oil. To some the palm oil is farm oil as seen with cartoons on the subject. 

The latest to enter into the national equation is fertiliser – chemical vs organic. Late night discussion that I was watching had discussants from multiple political parties representing all sides. There was an interesting authoritative statement from one participant which was meant to provide the ultimate answer to the issue. 

When you heat coconut oil that it undergoes change – the basic saturated characteristic would change to unsaturated state – and therein lies the whole problem was the statement made not once but twice. The ‘science’ was explained with such detail. The moderator was obviously moved to a state of such high awareness from this explanation that he remarked and thanked the contributor for the wonderful explanation delivered. 

Now there must be quite a number of listeners and all of them perhaps went to sleep thinking now they understand what is wrong with coconut oil – pity the nation who learn by facing the TV! That explanation was completely wrong and the process as explained cannot happen. Pity the listener.  A fair amount of oil procured at great expense must have been burnt to power the gas turbines usually required when night time programs are aired. These type of discussions are a plenty and perhaps media may be believing that they are actually making the society much more aware and knowledgeable. 

The process of creating the scientific Sri Lankan is creaking from all sides. In an era where science is a must for decision making when we are in the era of sixth wave of innovation, fourth industrial revolution we just do not see that happening. 

Scientists too are perhaps equally guilty for this unfortunate state of affairs. I would still like to exonerate them from much of the blame as ideas, views and an opportunity for some decent public sensitisation do not materialise and the spirit of scientific communication is never allowed to sharpen to a position of value. 

At times when science may not have the answer immediately the pressure on scientists by the politicians to go beyond what is actually known have also created situations of public developing distrust with the scientific community.

 

The scientific lesson

Remember President Trump moved science away from both climate and COVID-19 management. President Joe Biden has pushed back on both but really reversing the damages inflicted is not easy. At present the Indian figure of infections recorded and communicated is almost the number of Sri Lankans and imagine the number reflecting on the fact of thinking the scenario of whole of Sri Lanka infected. 

The development of the situation in India to this level did not take much time and in the exponential world mistakes do not get a second chance to correct. You put aside science for temporary economics would be at much higher cost than the short term gains. What is worrying is the peak in India is considered to be still into the future. The peak of the third wave in Sri Lanka nobody is asking the community of astrologers. 

The scientific lesson is to seek elimination of the virus starting with getting the R value below 1. With one year of experience and discussions how many of us are conversant with this value as a basis. The science on control from public health is clear – targeted shut downs, testing and testing, masks and hand hygiene and avoiding gatherings. This list is quite clear yet practice has not been consistent and each lapse is rewarded with an exponential spike crippling the whole situation. 

How many of our school children are aware of Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future and the climate relationship? The media has failed the masses. What we promote and give coverage is to things of relatively low value taking the societal IQ in a downward spiral. Data and Statistics are important and actually the new science is data science and the statistician has transformed to a data scientist, data analyst, etc. 

Our public management system still considers the statistician to a lower salary position in an institution if ever one is to recruit a person. The essence of this function is not really made use of. Evidence based decision making, scenario planning is only possible with data and analytics. That is why big data is becoming so powerful today. 

Moving with COVID-19, these are lessons that we must quickly factor in. Science should be elevated and politics really should be relegated. It is an imperative to be factored in as we live through this pandemic and if we still have a vision of real development.

 

The non-stop funeral pyres, people clutching oxygen cylinders and live broadcasts of a population gasping for breath are difficult to fathom and sad to watch

 

Science should be elevated and politics really should be relegated. It is an imperative to be factored in as we live through this pandemic and if we still have a vision of real development


 

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