April 2020
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Communicable and Non-communicable diseases – HIV, Malaria, Cancer, Mental Health, etc.

The spectre of a post-COVID-19 worldop-ed of the day

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- What are the possibilities that could be brought in the world by the epidemic.


Context

As COVID-19 spreads exponentially across the world, profound uncertainty and extreme volatility are wreaking havoc of a kind seldom encountered previously. It might, hence, be wise to start thinking of what next, if at least to try and handle a situation created by the most serious pandemic in recent centuries.

China’s important role

  • No previous experience: The problem with the novel coronavirus is that with the exception of China, which battled another coronavirus epidemic in 2003 — SARS epidemic — there is little available for most nations on which to base their assessment of what next.
  • Further drop in China’s growth rate: What is known is that China’s growth rate has further plummeted, even as it was confronting an economic slowdown which had been in the works for some time.
  • Economic downturn internationally: The consequences for the global economy of China ceasing to be the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods are considerable.
  • And with no country in a position to replace it, this development will precipitate a further economic downturn internationally.

Uncertainties before epidemic

  • The COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a more difficult time.
  • Uncertain economic environment: The world was already having to contend with an uncertain economic environment, with industries in turn facing newer challenges such as having to adjust to a shift from cost efficiencies to innovation and breakthrough improvements.
  • Added to this were: a global slowdown, increasing political and policy uncertainties, alterations in social behaviour, new environmental norms, etc.
  • India’s position: Newly emerging economies, such as India, were even more affected by all this, than some of the older established ones.

Impact on India and what lies ahead?

  • Estimate of cost by ADB: An early estimate by the Asian Development Bank, soon after the epidemic was declared, was that it would cost the Indian economy $29.9 billion.
  • A recent industry estimate pegs the cost of the lockdown at around $120 billion or 4% of India’s GDP.
  • May require six months to recover after epidemic: The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) had at one point warned that the COVID-19 impact, and the existing stress in the financial sector, meant that India would require up to six months even after the entire course of the COVID-19 epidemic is over to restore normalcy and business continuity.
  • The COVID-19 Taskforce under the Finance Minister come up with measures to mitigate the economic hardship engendered by the pandemic, and finally a three-week-long lockdown.
  • Several precautionary measures based on guidelines in vogue elsewhere in the world for preventing pandemics of this kind, have also been introduced including ‘home isolation’, ‘home quarantine’, etc.
  • The prognosis as to what lies ahead is indeed bleak.
  • On the economic plane, according to most experts, a global recession seems inevitable.
  • The decline in demand: Uncertainty, panic and lockdown policies are expected to cause demand worldwide to decline in a precipitous way.
  • Start of downward cycle: Decline in demand will inevitably lead to a vicious downward cycle, where companies close down, resulting in more lay-offs and a further drop in consumption.
  • A precipitous decline in GDP would follow.
  • Massive funds would be needed: To compensate for this loss, massive inflows of government funds would be needed, but most governments, India included, might find it difficult to find adequate resources for this purpose.
  • Right time for fund: Equally important, if not more so, is that such massive inflows of funds (if they are to be effective) should be here and now, and not later, by which time the situation may well have spiralled out of control. Global coordination was a must in the extant situation.

Disruption in the global order- Implications for the position of the US

  • COVID-19 is, in turn, expected to bring about major changes in the global order.
  • Changes would get accelerated: Some of these changes have, no doubt, been in the making for some time, but would get accelerated.
  • As of now, though the U.S. is no longer the global power that it once was, it is hardly in retreat.
  • Retreat from Afghanistan, not the end: The US is, without doubt, increasingly disinclined to act as the world’s gendarme, as instanced by its retreat from Afghanistan after a dubious accord with the Afghan Taliban,
  • But this was not the end of the road as far as U.S. power was concerned.
  • The US would step back further: Post COVID-19, however, and given that the U.S. is among the countries badly affected by this pandemic, together with existing uncertainties affecting its financial markets, the U.S. can be expected to step back even further — from one of assertion to neutrality in global affairs.
  • Already, U.S. command of the global commons has weakened. Meantime, China and Russia have strengthened their relationship and improved their asymmetric capabilities.
  • US not the largest economy by PPP: The challenge from China is becoming more obvious by the day — measured by purchasing power parity, the S. is not the largest economy in the world as of now.
  • Russian challenge: Even more daunting from a U.S. standpoint, and also representing a sea-change from the recent past, Russia has become far more economically and politically stable and an important power broker in West Asia.
  • Impact on liberal international order: These shifts cannot but, and are likely to, have a direct impact on the liberal international order. It could, in turn, give a boost to authoritarian regimes and authoritarian trends.

Impact on social behaviour

  • Moving away from the political and economic consequences of COVID-19 are other concerns arising from an extended lockdown, social distancing and isolation.
  • The epidemic of despair: Psychologists are even talking of an ‘epidemic of despair’ arising from a fear of unknown causes, resulting in serious anxiety and mental problems.
  • Problems due to extended isolation: Extended isolation, according to psychologists, can trigger a different kind of pandemic even leading to possible suicidal tendencies, fits of anger, depression, alcoholism and eccentric behavioural patterns.

Inequality and impact

  • The impact is not the same for all: Another fallout from the current epidemic might well be the extent to which inequality in incomes impact segments of the population, facing a common malaise.
  • Countries lacking a comprehensive nation-wide health system would find this an even more difficult situation to handle.
  • Meantime, as the economy weakens, accompanied by job losses, those without high levels of skills would fall further behind.
  • This is evident to some extent already given recent reports of mass migration across the Indian landmass.
  • Out of work migrant labour, unable to find new jobs since they lack the necessary skills, are attempting to return to their normal habitat, bringing in their wake untold suffering and, perhaps even the spread of the virus.
  • This has all the makings of a huge human tragedy. Existing curbs on their movement would further exacerbate the problem, and could even lead to a major law and order situation.

Possibility of the rise of digital authoritarianism

  • One possible, and unexpected, aspect of the COVID-19 epidemic could be the thrust it could provide to ‘digital authoritarianism’.
  • China’s authoritarian methods seem to have helped it to contain the spread of the virus — at least for the time being.
  • Somewhat similar tactics are being employed by some other countries as well.
  • In turn, leaders across many nations may find China’s methods, and the embracing of technology to refashion authoritarianism for the modern age irresistible, and a standard to be adapted, even if they profess to be democratic.
  • The rise of digital autocracies could lead to digital repression, and in the age of AI-powered surveillance, create a capacity for predictive control, or what is often referred to as ‘social management’.

Conclusion

The pandemic even after it’s over could change the world in more than one ways and we must be cautious in our approach in accepting or rejecting these changes brought about by the epidemic.

Innovations in Biotechnology and Medical Sciences

Man versus microbeop-ed snap

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Techniques used for detecting virus: RT-PCR, CRISPR and serological tests.

Mains level : Paper 3- Various techniques used in tests used to detect Covid-19 and their advantages.


Context

The present COVID-19 outbreak has brought to light the old struggle between humans and viruses.

The constant struggle between humans and viruses

  • Hijacking the cell machinery of the host: Microbes, particularly viruses, have only one goal — to find a suitable host and multiply. Viruses, however, do not multiply by themselves. They need the cell machinery of the host for replication.
  • Around two-thirds of all infections in humans are caused by viruses.
  • The current COVID-19 outbreak caused by a coronavirus, SARS-CoV2, has brought this struggle to light once again.
  • Coronavirus has the upper hand now: The virus seems highly successful because it spreads rapidly from human to human and has a lower rate of mortality.
  • Humans have faced new viruses at regular intervals. These include the Ebola, Zika, HIV, the Flu virus H1N1, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)the latter two are from the coronavirus family.
  • Animal to humans: These viruses have all appeared in the last few decades, having jumped from their animal reservoirs to humans.
  • Many of these viruses have a much higher mortality rate than the SARS-CoV2 that caused COVID-19.
  • Victory would be at huge costs: Like before, humans will come out of the present crisis as winners but that will happen at a huge cost, in every sense of the word.
  • The loss would include untimely loss of human lives, economic losses and a general loss of confidence in the human ability to deal with a tiny unknown enemy.

Steps involved in dealing with the virus

  • It involves dealing with any new viral outbreak is to be able to accurately test, detect and track the spread of the virus, and isolate the infected persons to stop further spread.
  • Knowing the genetic makeup of virus matters: In order to implement the first step, it is important to obtain information on the genetic makeup of the virus, which forms the basis of developing highly specific diagnostic tests.
  • Three types of tests are being used which have different advantages associated with them and are based on different technologies. These are described below-

1. What is the RT-PCR technique?

  • Currently, the most reliable and widely-used test is based on a technique called RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription Time Polymerase Chain Reaction).
  • This test aims to detect the viral RNA, the genetic material of SARS-CoV2.
  • The testing begins with the careful collection of swabs taken from the nose or the back of the throat of the patient and extraction of the viral RNA.
  • However, this extracted viral RNA from the swab is too tiny an amount for direct detection.
  • Amplification: The RT-PCR, through many different reactions that include the conversion of viral RNA to DNA — its amplification and detection — makes it possible to confirm the presence or absence of the virus.
  • The testing kits contain all chemicals and materials required for carrying out the RT-PCR based tests, which are performed by government-approved laboratories such as India’s National Institute of Virology.
  • However, many more testing centres, including those run by private players, have now been allowed to carry out the tests in many countries to bridge the huge demand and supply gap.
  • Why testing matters? It is now clear that countries which were able to scale up the testing of the virus in patients at an early stage were able to control the spread of the disease far better than those which did not.
  • Only viable control measure: Given that there is no cure or vaccine for the control of COVID-19, testing of infected patients much more quickly and tracking their contacts to isolate them till they clear off the virus is currently the only viable control measure.

2. How CRISPR is proving helpful in scaling up the testing?

  • There is good news of a relatively new but powerful technology called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats).
  • CRISPR is highly specific in directly detecting viral RNA and confirming the presence or absence of the virus.
  • Interestingly, viruses also attack bacteria and the discovery of CRISPR itself was based on understanding how bacteria cut off the viruses.
  • What are the advantages of CRISPR-based test? The CRISPR-based test is quick and circumvents the need for both expert handling as well as PCR machines and can be done at multiple locations in about half an hour.
  • It can also fend off delays and other logistic problems in collection and transportation of test samples.
  • These tests are being validated and readied for approval.
  • Two companies, separately founded by the two scientists who discovered the CRISPR technique, have also announced that they are ready with their CRISPR-based test for validation and approval.
  • Test in 10 minutes: They have claimed that these tests can be performed within 10 minutes and can be conducted by using a paper strip format.
  • Test in 5 minutes: Another company, Abbott Laboratories, has recently announced the approval of their portable test for coronavirus, which the company claims can provide the results in five minutes.
  • Such a point of care test will not only greatly enhance the speed of large-scale testing but will also relieve the tremendous pressure faced by frontline healthcare providers.

3. Serological tests to detect the realistic information on the spread of the virus

  • Why we need serological tests? The above described RT-PCR and the newly developed CRISPR based tests are needed for scaling up the testing.
  • But many individuals infected with the virus do not show symptoms of the disease and recover completely.
  • How to test these cases to gather realistic information on the spread of the virus?
  • Such information will be necessary for designing future control strategies.
  • How serological tests work? This is done with serological tests, which are carried out in blood samples collected from a large population and are based on the detection of antibodies that are produced in response to the viral infection.
  • Advantage of the serological tests: These tests are relatively easier to develop and use, less expensive, and also do not need much sophisticated infrastructure or highly trained manpower.
  • Serological tests for COVID-19 have already been developed by many groups and are already in use.
  • India also plans to carry out serological tests to examine the actual spread of the disease in different parts of the country.

Conclusion

Lockdowns are essential to control the disease but long-term strategies to deal with the disease would be based on the knowledge of its actual spread. The newly-developed point of care tests should be successfully able to bridge the existing gap in the testing of the virus. This will also assist in gearing up facilities to treat the severely sick as well as relieve and protect frontline health providers. Meanwhile, hopefully, efficient drugs therapies and efficacious vaccines against COVID-19 will also be discovered soon.

Government Budgets

States at centreop-ed snap

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Mains level : Paper 3- Financial stress on the states and what centre should do to address the problem.


Context

Concerned over the impact on their revenues, several state governments planned cuts in salaries of government employees.

State finances showing the signs of stress

  • The fiscal crisis stemming from the disruption in economic activity due to the coronavirus is now beginning to show.
  • Concerned over the impact on their revenues, several state governments planned cuts in salaries of government employees.
  • The stress to state finances stems from multiple sources.
  • First, as economic growth falters, their own income streams, for instance, revenues from petroleum products, real estate transactions, will slow down further, as will GST collections, and the amount collected through the compensation cess will not be enough to meet budgeted expectations.
  • Second, as the Centre’s own revenues also slow down, transfers to states will take a hit. It is quite likely that tax devolution to states, which has been budgeted at Rs 7.8 lakh crore in 2020-21, will not materialise.
  • Collectively, state expenditure far outstrips that by the Centre, with revenues falling short, any cutbacks in their spending, at a time when there is a need for a bold fiscal expansion, will further aggravate the economic stress.
  • Need assurance of adequate resource: Thus, states, which are at the frontline of fighting the public health crisis, need to be assured of adequate resources.

Increase in the WMA limit will not address the issue

  • Limit increased by 30%: The Reserve Bank of India decided to increase the ways and means advances (WMA) limit by 30 per cent for state governments.
  • What is WMA? The WMA is a temporary liquidity arrangement with the RBI which helps governments tide over their short-term liquidity woes.
  • A short term measure: While states have been averse to opting for this facility in the past, and the new WMA limits may need to be revised further if the mismatch rises, this is a short-term measure, and does not address the underlying issue of significant revenue slippages.
  • Contradictory impulse: Under the existing fiscal deficit constraint, the collapse in revenues will force states to cut back on spending, imparting a contractionary impulse to the economy.

Way forward

  • The Centre must take several steps to ensure an adequate flow of resources to states.
  • First, it must immediately clear all its pending dues to state governments.
  • Second, while it is cheaper for the Centre to borrow and transfer to states, even though the spreads between state and central government bonds have now widened, making state borrowing more costly, states must be allowed to borrow more.
  • Third, as some state chief ministers have suggested, the fiscal deficit limits imposed on states must be relaxed.
Policy Wise: India’s Power Sector

Explained: 9 minutes light-out and its impact on gridsExplained

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not Much

Mains level : 9 minutes light-out and its impact on grids


In his address to the nation, our PM has urged people across to turn off the lights in their homes for 9 minutes on April 5, starting at 9 pm. In response to this appeal, grid managers across states have flagged some risks.

Why is the 9-minute exercise a problem?

  • India is one of the largest synchronous interconnected grids in the world, with an installed capacity of about 370 GW (3,70,000 MW), and a normal baseload power demand of roughly 150 GW.
  • The big worry is that just before 9 pm there may be unprecedented load reduction, followed by a sudden increase in load post at 9.09 pm.
  • The concern is that grid frequency should not swing beyond permissible limits and that all generators across the country must give frequency response as per the Grid Code.
  • During this 9-minute lights out exercise, up to 10,000-15,000 MW of power demand could to drop suddenly and then come on stream a few minutes later.

How does grid function normally?

  • Power System Operation Corporation Ltd (POSOCO), the national electricity grid operator, projects daily demand for power and regulates supply from power generators based on these projections.
  • Frequency reflects the load generation balance in the grid at a particular instant and is one of the most important parameters for assessment of the security of the country’s power system.
  • The nominal frequency is 50 hertz and POSOCO endeavours to maintain frequency within a permissible band (49.9- 50.5 hertz), primarily by balancing the demand-supply equation.

Impacts of light-out

  • The frequency needs to be maintained within this range as all the electrical equipment and appliances at our homes are designed to perform safely and efficiently in a certain power supply band.
  • An increase in frequency results in an increase in the voltage and a decrease in frequency results in a decrease in voltage.
  • Exigency does occur during an outage at a power plant or the tripping of a transmission line or a sudden change in electrical demand.
  • The grid operator needs to ensure that there is an automatic corrective response manually by curtailing demand or ramping generation from another source within a really short period of time.
  • Handling imbalances are the most crucial function of the grid operator.

What are the key areas of concern?

While the possibility of the grid tripping on account of this is highly unlikely, operators expect a “jerk”. While the system is generally planned for an outage of the single largest unit outage, there are two riders:

1) Lockdown has severed domestic consumption

  • One, the grid load is primarily on account of the domestic load now, especially since the lockdown implemented.
  • The normal baseload power demand of roughly 150 gigawatts has already dropped by 20 per cent since the lockdown announcement as most of the industry and commercial establishments are not operational.
  • With hotels and factories, malls, railway stations, airports closed, the domestic load is the predominant load.
  • So the lighting load as a percentage of total loads is much higher now and the impact of a sudden drop in lighting load could be more accentuated than during regular times.

2) Fear of complete power-offs

  • The second concern is if housing clusters and societies switch off mains, or if overzealous discoms switch off street lighting or even feeders to show compliance.
  • During this part of the year, domestic load peaks at about 9 pm.
  • This load could then be impacted much more than what’s being anticipated in the normal course, a concern that grid operators are flagging.

Why is this demand of significance in such a big grid?

  • The domestic load is about 30-32 per cent of total load during normal times.
  • Of India’s total electricity demand load pattern, industrial and agricultural consumption accounts for 40 per cent and 20 per cent load, while commercial electricity consumption accounts for 8 per cent of demand.
  • So, theoretically, if only lighting load goes off, it should not have a major impact on grid frequency during normal times.
Wildlife Conservation Efforts

Tropical Butterfly ConservatoryPrelims Only

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Tropical Butterfly Conservatory

Mains level : Significance of butterflies for ecosystem


The Tropical Butterfly Conservatory Tiruchirappalli (TBCT) has been developed in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirappalli to create awareness among the public about the importance of the butterfly and its ecology.

Tropical Butterfly Conservatory

  • The TBC is located in the Upper Anaicut Reserve Forest, sandwiched between the Cauvery and Kollidam rivers in Tiruchirappalli.
  • It was inaugurated during November 2015 at Tiruchirappalli with the objective of propagating the importance of butterflies and conserving the biodiversity of the district through environmental education.
  • It  is spread over 27 acres and is considered to be Asia’s largest butterfly park.
  • The park has an outdoor as well as indoor conservatory, a ‘Nakshatra Vanam’ and a ‘Rasi Vanam’ in addition to a breeding lab for non-scheduled species.
  • So far, about 109 butterfly species have been observed here.

Conservation measures

  • Eggs of non-scheduled butterfly species are collected and bred in captivity in the in-house incubation laboratory by keeping them in ventilated plastic containers with the leaves of host plants as feed.
  • After attaining the transformation of larva (caterpillar) and pupa (transition), the adult butterfly finally comes out with gorgeous colours and at this stage they are released into the natural habitat.
  • Non-scheduled butterfly species are bred and released by the park authorities into their natural surroundings.

Significance of butterflies

  • Butterflies are known for their intrinsic, aesthetic, educational, scientific, ecological, health and economic values.
  • As butterflies form an important part of nature’s food web, it is very essential to protect the species for ecological balance.
  • They play a key role in the pollination of plant species, the global food chain depends on their well-being.

Various threats

  • The major threats to butterfly diversity are destruction, degradation and fragmentation of their habitats, grazing, fires and application of pesticides and weedicides in agricultural and urban ecosystems.
Foreign Policy Watch: India-Maldives

Operation SanjeevaniPrelims Only

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Operation Sanjeevani

Mains level : India-Maldives Relations


An Indian Air Force (IAF) C-130J transport aircraft o delivered 6.2 tonne of essential medicines and hospital consumables to Maldives under Operation Sanjeevani.

Operation Sanjeevani

  • At the request of the govt. of Maldives, the IAF aircraft activated Operation Sanjeevani and lifted these medicines from airports in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Madurai before flying to the Maldives.
  • Among other things, these medicines include influenza vaccines, anti-viral drugs such as lopinavir and ritonavir — which have been used to treat patients with COVID-19 in other countries.
  • The flights are being operated on commercial basis following demands from pharmaceutical companies and their intermediaries and will carry cargo on inbound as well as outbound flights.
  • The cargo operations will help the airline earn some revenue at a time there is a ban on passenger flights and the entire fleet is grounded.