Tech innovation, behavioural change can help fight pandemic, says WHO chief scientist
Despite the national and statewide lockdowns, restrictions on movement and logistics, and other steps, India has not been able to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country has the third highest number of COVID-19 cases after the US and Brazil, and has already surpassed all countries when it comes to daily increase of coronavirus cases.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently organised a closed hackathon, ‘India: Turning the Tide’, to provide solutions that address healthcare, social, educational, and informational gaps that emerged amidst the pandemic. [ File photo]
Apart from the health crisis, the pandemic has also led to numerous social and economic problems: an ailing economy, loss of jobs, food insecurity, spread of misinformation, and increase in domestic violence, loneliness, anxiety, and depression,
Keen to strengthen India’s healthcare system and come up with solutions to address the social, educational, and informational gaps amidst the pandemic, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently organised a closed hackathon, ‘India: Turning the Tide’ hackathon, from August 28-30.
At the panel discussion, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at World Health Organisation (WHO), highlighted the importance of focusing on innovations to solve grim issues arising due to the pandemic.
“Education is something I have been thinking about because students are currently out of school. Some of them have been able to participate in online modes of education, but a large part of this burden falls on parents who are juggling their own work from home and also helping children keep up with online schooling.”
Dr Soumya says situations where parents are not educated or have no access to online learning set back children’s cognitive development and social/emotional growth.
“Early data reveals that many girls might not even return to schools because they got pulled into work or have fallen victim to child marriages. Data also shows that trafficking of children, especially young girls, might increase due to rising poverty and food insecurity. These are very serious issues and I am glad that some attention is being paid to finding solutions for such issues,” she says.
Participants of the seventh edition of the MIT-led COVID-19 hackathon are working on solutions to improve the healthcare sector, revive informal economy, curb misinformation, and provide practical solutions to underserved populations, enabling the country to fight the pandemic.
The 48-hour hackathon announced 40 teams under 10 different categories as winners from a total of 3,725 applications from 60 countries.
For example, the event selected Team Sahara under the supporting marginalised community sector to solve problems related to accessing nutrition and healthcare services by inter-state migrants. The team has developed a portable device that can be integrated with existing NGOs and CSOs to help migrating families.
Addressing the healthcare problems, Team Enigma is looking to combat the overcharging issues by private hospitals. The team has developed a platform which will offer, a price calculator, price comparison among different hospitals, and a bot for patient feedback.
Need for behavioural change
Speaking about solutions needed to fight these unprecedented times, Pankaj Sahni, CEO, Medanta, said there was a need to understand what could be done to encourage certain behavioural change such as adopt the masking behaviour.
“The pandemic is not going anywhere...we will have to live with this disease for a number of months, if not years. One thing that is now globally accepted is universal masking. You can see this as a cultural phenomenon in some Eastern countries…Japan and Korea have been masking for years.
"If we can figure out how to take a nation of a billion people, across social-economic classes, behavioural trends, cultures, and languages, and actually change their behaviour so they wear masks whenever they step out, it will be invaluable in fighting this pandemic,” Pankaj said.
Talking about behaviour and nature, Dr Soumya said humans were social beings and staying cooped up at home and avoiding social gatherings was difficult for them. The famed paediatrician and clinical scientist explained that it was important for people to focus on prioritising events to stay safe. She suggested that planning meetings, classes etc outdoors could help in maintaining proper social distancing and ventilation, and added that people needed to exercise self-discipline and avoid hosting large parties.
The WHO chief scientist highlighted the need for solutions to help people take care of their mental health. She said COVID-19 had made things difficult for everyone, and that it had increased anxiety, isolation, and depression.
“We need to think of ways where social cohesion can still be maintained despite the fact that we cannot be close physically. It is still easier for those of us who are digitally connected. But what are the safe alternatives that can help people from rural areas and urban slums?”
Dr Soumya said only providing information was not enough to result in human behavioural change. “There is a need for behavioural insight - the nudge factor or the hook that will make people change their behaviour,” she said.
She also spoke about the need to deal with behaviour arising due to stigma. For example, instances where people were misbehaving with doctors or nurses fearing infection from them.
The importance of credible information
The panelists also revealed how lack of information or spread of misinformation is a big concern amid the pandemic.
Speaking about the misrepresentation of media, Shradha Sharma, Founder and CEO of YourStory, explained how the media had become fragmented and changed over years. The increased use of Facebook, TikTok, WhatApp, and other apps where people were stating their own viewpoints and communicating with the masses had changed the perception of media.
“Today, the spread of information and deciding what becomes the important narrative can be done by anyone and everyone,” Shradha said.
She explained that at a time when a major chunk of misinformation and false news related to the pandemic or other topics was being spread over social media networks, there was a need for solutions to identify the news from amidst the noise. She added that technological advancements such as artificial intelligence and machine learning could be tapped for this.
Amidst the rampant spread of misinformation, there is also an issue of lack of credible information.
Dr Soumya highlighted the need for a “one-stop shop” for information where users could learn about the symptoms they needed to worry about, the nearest healthcare facility, and other locally relevant information.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)