Tag: COVID India

From 13 unis to 1: why Australia needs to reverse the loss of South Asian studies


By Craig Jeffery* & Matthew Nelson**

South Asia is crucial to the future of Australia. But Australia has just one (small) program focused on South Asian studies across its many universities.

This has not always been the case. In the mid-1970s, 13 of Australia’s universities offered undergraduate subjects on South Asia (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives). Students could learn about South Asian coins at ANU and Sanskrit at the University of Wollongong.

Australia boasted some of the leading scholars on South Asia. ANU nurtured subaltern studies – the study of social groups excluded from dominant power structures – which became a global movement in the field of post-colonial analysis. Leading post-colonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty was based at the University of Melbourne. Other luminaries active in that period include A.L. Basham, Anthony Low, and Robin Jeffrey.

But, even as the Australian university sector has expanded since the 1970s, it has withdrawn support for Asian studies, and South Asian studies in particular. There is currently only one South Asia or India program – at ANU.

Only five of the 40 Australian universities offer semester-length subjects on India or South Asia. Six universities offered an Indian language in 1996. Now only two do so.

Several universities, often supported by government grants, have launched country or regional research initiatives since 1990. The National Centre for South Asian Studies, based at Monash, is one of these. But Australian universities have not built any strong or sustainable South Asia programs for students.

A trend at odds with national priorities

This point sits oddly alongside a high-level commitment to South Asia in Australia. The Australian government is exploring new forms of engagement with India, including the Quad security dialogue involving India, Australia, Japan, and the US.

At a social level, Australia is increasingly Indian. In 2019 more than 700,000 people in Australia claimed Indian descent. Hindi is among the fastest-growing languages in Australia, and India is the country’s leading source of skilled migrants.

Historically, there are fascinating connections between Australia and South Asia. The lives and work of Australia’s “Ghans” (cameleers) is one famous example.

Moving forward, Australia needs a knowledge base to match this longstanding and increasingly important commitment to India and South Asia more generally.

Out of step with global academic practice

Australian universities could learn from their counterparts in other parts of the world how to integrate area studies into their teaching. Outside of Australia, most of the top universities in the world make great play of their area studies expertise. Area studies enables people to apprehend their own distinctive humanity, anchors innovative cross-disciplinary teaching across the university, and provides a basis for re-evaluating assumptions about a person’s disciplinary field.

Students arriving at Oxford, Yale or Columbia know that if they are studying law, business, art, politics, education, design, technology, anthropology, economics, agriculture, military affairs or modern media, they will need to think about how to apply their disciplinary knowledge to specific places. A “whole of university” commitment to area studies teaching, including South Asian studies, has long been a key mechanism for drawing on multiple disciplines.

Even with small numbers of area studies majors, the world’s best universities do not see area studies as a niche endeavour. On the contrary, they see it as a central feature of their global mission. Strong universities without robust, independent, and widely accessible area studies programs open themselves up to accusations of antiquated parochialism and a poor understanding of the interdisciplinary trends that powerfully shape our world.

What should South Asian studies offer?

Today, South Asian studies programs in Australia should include internships, opportunities to study abroad and virtual classrooms connecting Australian students to their counterparts elsewhere.

Asian studies programs should also include language options, because effective communication with rising regions like South Asia is essential. Keep in mind that only 10% of India’s population speak English.

At its most fundamental, good area studies and good South Asian studies allow people to understand that they are, as French philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it in an essay on global education written 450 years ago “like a dot made by a very fine pencil” on the world map. It teaches them how they fit within a global whole.

Beyond this, area studies helps people understand and confidently engage with forms of difference and diversity. It fosters key skills for interacting with peers overseas as well as global diasporas. This includes connecting with foreign organisations, managing communications and cultivating an active sense of global citizenship.

Area studies allows us to develop an understanding of our common humanity across national boundaries – something Indian scholar Veena Das has written about in her book Critical Events.

Now is the time for Australian universities to place area studies teaching at the core of an internationally engaged education. We must provide a much larger number of Australians with a deeper understanding of South Asia.

* Professor of Geography, The University of Melbourne.

** Associate Professor, Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne.

Source – The Conversation, June 14, 2021, Published under Creative Commons Licence.

SAT Special: Pandemic stigma – Foreigners, doctors, minority wrongly targeted for COVID-19 spread in India, says Monash study

People wait to get the COVID vaccine
People wait to get the COVID vaccine at a government dispensary, in New Delhi. Photo-ANI

By SAT News Desk/MediaNet

MELBOURNE, 17 May 2021: The Indian public blamed foreigners, minority groups, and doctors for the rapid spread of COVID-19 across the country during the first wave, due to misinformation, rumor, and long-held discriminatory beliefs, according to an international study led by Monash University. The study was supported by funding provided by the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability (CDES), Monash University.

This resulted in people refusing to get tested for fear of humiliation or public reprisals, which included attacks on Muslims and health care workers.

However, when presented with accurate and reliable information about the virus spread, the Indian public back-pedaled on those negative sentiments and was more likely to get tested and seek medical help, highlighting the importance of health advice from credible sources.

A world-first study by researchers in the Monash Business School, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, and the University of Southampton found the prevalence of accurate information decreased the stigmatization of COVID-19 patients and reduced the belief that infection was confined to religious minorities, lower-caste groups, and frontline workers.

Led by Professor Asad Islam*, Director of the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability in the Monash Business School, the study surveyed 2,138 people across 40 localities in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on their views about the spread of COVID-19.

Ninety-three percent of respondents blamed foreigners for the spread of COVID-19, while 66 percent also blamed the Muslim population. Surprisingly, 34 percent and 29 percent of people blamed health care workers and police respectively for failing to contain the virus spread.

The social and physical consequences of stigmatization were found to be severe, as those with symptoms refused to step forward and get tested for fear of public humiliation.

Other examples included the refusal of non-Hindu doctors and patients to have a dignified burial; attacks on Muslims during and after religious events; health care workers being assaulted and asked to vacate their residences due to fear of virus spread; and incidents of COVID-19 patients leaving self-isolation early.

As India comes to grips with a devastating second wave, with an average of 350,000 new cases and 4,000 deaths daily, researchers say these incidents during the first wave are happening again.

“We believe the results are as relevant today, as widespread stigmatization is visible even during this wave,” Dr. Islam said.

“Cases of stigmatization during the second wave have resulted in doctors being verbally abused and prevented from taking a lift in their own residential flat, old parents being abandoned, several patients fleeing medical facilities across the country, and dead bodies being dumped in rivers.

“Most importantly, we found that stigmatization of COVID-19 can have negative public health implications as it may lead people to avoid getting tested and respecting prevention measures. This is essential if India is to get on top of this second wave.”

During the study, which took place in June 2020 at the height of the first wave, researchers surveyed individuals by phone and followed up with a randomized controlled test. The treatment group received information about COVID-19 and preventive strategies.

Researchers followed up with participants about one month later to assess if the information intervention was effective in improving knowledge about the transmission and prevention of COVID-19.

More than half of the participants who received the information brief were less likely to believe that any particular group was to be blamed for the spread of the disease and thus reduced stigmatization of COVID-19 patients, frontline workers (health care workers, sanitary workers, and the police), and marginalized groups such as religious minorities.

Furthermore, researchers identified a significant increase in the self-reporting of COVID-related symptoms and subsequent medical treatment in the Indian population, including treatment for mental health. There was a 75 percentage point reduction in stress and anxiety experienced by participants in the treatment group.

An additional 10 percent of participants reported greater quality of life as a result of heightened information awareness and consumption.

“Health advice from credible sources in simple language is of utmost importance as individuals are still taking the pandemic lightly, not wearing their masks and are reluctant to get vaccinated due to widespread ignorance and misconception, even when the numbers are soaring,” research co-author Associate Professor Liang Choon Wang from the Monash Business School’s Department of Economics said.

“Raising awareness and reducing stress and stigmatization could lead to encouraging vaccination rates, following prescribed quarantine or lockdown guidelines, coming forward and getting tested if symptoms are visible (or in early stages of infection) and getting help at the earliest time.”

* Professor Asad Islam (Monash Business School) led the study titled ‘Stigma and Misconceptions in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Field Experiment in India’. Contributing authors of this research include Associate Professor Debayan Pakrashi (Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur), Professor Michael Vlassopoulos (University of Southampton), and Associate Professor Liang Choong Wang (Department of Economics, Monash University).

After early success, India’s daily COVID infections have surpassed the US and Brazil. Why?

People stand in a queue to undergo COVID-19 tests
People stand in a queue to undergo COVID-19 tests at the old Civil Hospital, as coronavirus cases surge across India, in Gurugram on April 16, 2021. Photo- ANI

By Rajiv Dasgupta*

India is in the grip of a massive second wave of COVID-19 infections, surpassing even the United States and Brazil in terms of new daily infections. The current spike came after a brief lull: daily new cases had fallen from 97,000 new cases per day in September 2020 to around 10,000 per day in January 2021. However, from the end of February, daily new cases began to rise sharply again, passing 100,000 a day, and now crossing the 200,000 mark.

Night curfews and weekend lockdowns have been reinstated in some states, such as Maharasthra (including the financial capital Mumbai). Health services and crematoriums are being overwhelmed, COVID test kits are in short supply, and wait times for results are increasing.

How has the pandemic been spreading?

Residents in slum areas and those without their own household toilets have been worst affected, implying poor sanitation and close living have contributed to the spread.

One word that has dominated discussions about why cases have increased again is laaparavaahee (in Hindi), or “negligence”. The negligence is made out to be the fault of individuals not wearing masks and social distancing, but that is only part of the story.

Negligence can be seen in the near-complete lack of regulation and its implementation wherever regulations did exist across workplaces and other public spaces. Religious, social and political congregations contributed directly through super-spreader events, but this still doesn’t explain the huge rise in cases.

Source: PIB, India, 16 April 2021.

The second wave in India also coincides with the spread of the UK variant. A recent report found 81% of the latest 401 samples sent by the state of Punjab for genome sequencing were found to be the UK variant.

Studies have found this variant might be more capable of evading our immune systems, meaning there’s a greater chance previously infected people could be reinfected and immunised people could be infected.

A new double mutation is also circulating in India, and this too could be contributing to the rise in cases.

Low fatality rate?

In the first phase of the pandemic, India was lauded for its low COVID death rate (case fatality rate) of about 1.5%. However, The Lancet cautioned about the “dangers of false optimism” in its September 26 editorial on the Indian situation.

In a pandemic situation, the public health approach is usually to attribute a death with complex causes as being caused by the disease in question. In April 2020, the World Health Organization clarified how COVID deaths should be counted:

A death due to COVID-19 is defined for surveillance purposes as a death resulting from a clinically compatible illness, in a probable or confirmed COVID-19 case, unless there is a clear alternative cause of death that cannot be related to COVID disease (e.g. trauma)

What are the challenges this time?

A majority of the cases and deaths (81%) are being reported from ten (of 28) states, including Punjab and Maharashtra. Five states (Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala) account for more than 70% of active cases. But the infection seems to have moved out of bigger cities to smaller towns and suburbs with less health infrastructure.

Saints take a holy dip on the third 'Shahi Snan' of Kumbh Mela
Holy dip on the third ‘Shahi Snan’ of Kumbh Mela at Har ki Pauri, in Haridwar. Photo- ANI

Last year, the government’s pandemic control strategy included government staff from all departments (including non-health departments) contributing to COVID control activities, but these workers have now been moved back to their departments. This is likely to have an effect on testing, tracing and treating COVID cases. And health-care workers now have a vaccine rollout to contend with, as well as caring for the sick.

What now?

In early March the government declared we were in the endgame of the pandemic in India. But their optimism was clearly premature.

Despite an impressive 100 million-plus immunisations, barely 1% of the country’s population is currently protected with two doses of the vaccine. The India Task Force is worried that monthly vaccine supplies at the current capacity of 70 million to 80 million doses per month would “fall short by half” for the target of 150 million doses per month.

Strict, widespread lockdowns we have seen elsewhere in the world are not appropriate for all parts of India given their effect on the working poor. Until wider vaccination coverage is achieved, local containment measures will have to be strengthened. This includes strict perimeter control to ensure there is no movement of people in or out of zones with local outbreaks, intensive house-to-house surveillance to ensure compliance with stay-at-home orders where they are in place, contact tracing, and widespread testing.

It should go without saying large congregations such as political rallies and religious festivals should not be taking place, and yet they have been.

Strong leadership and decentralised strategies with a focus on local restrictions is what we need until we can get more vaccines into people’s arms.

* Chairperson, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Source- The Conversation, April 16, 2021 (Under Creative Commons Licence)