“Chronic underinvestment in public health the reason why the richest countries have had the highest numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths”: WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan

Swaminathan and AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria release CSE’s new book, The Pandemic Journal 

People have short memories – we should not forget what the pandemic has done to us, says Dr Guleria. Look at and learn from the whole picture, invest more in public sector, do not ignore the non-covid immunisation programmes. Business-as-usual won’t work   

Watch the full coverage of the release here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGXPLmKhEP8 

You can order the book here:


New Delhi, October 8/9, 2021: Over the last two years, human society, which claims to be at the height of its powers, has been humbled by a tiny virus. Why? Are we victims of our own desire to dominate nature? Have we become so inhuman that we are unable to take care of our own in times of trouble? 

Down To Earth (DTE)’s new publication The Pandemic Journal, released here in an online webinar, ponders over these fundamental questions.  As Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the editor of the book, puts it, “This book examines how our arrogantly literate societies have been brought to their knees by a miniscule virus—not even DNA but RNA— while also delving into the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on the poorest of the world.” 

The Pandemic Journal was released by an eminent panel of experts, which included Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist, World Health Organization (WHO); Dr Randeep Guleria, director general, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS); and Narain. 

The book brings together an exhaustive coverage of the pandemic done by over 100 journalists and writers from different nations. On one hand, it traces the genesis and spread of the virus; on the other, it reminds us that we must not get bogged down by the science and lose sight of the personal tragedies and pain that the virus has inflicted upon us. 

What they said: Dr Soumya Swaminathan

Speaking at the release event, Dr Swaminathan applauded CSE and Down To Earth for the publication: “It is critical that the experiences are documented at the time that they are happening and not looking back in hindsight, as we often forget the details.” 

Pointing out that the world had made tremendous strides in leveraging science and technology, Dr Swaminathan said that over four million genomes have been isolated today in the GISAID platform – and that the virus and its actions can now be tracked in real time. She added: “One of the big lessons that this pandemic brings is the need to invest more in science and research, in human workforce and capacity. I am glad that science is at the forefront today, because of our television channels and newspapers. I hope that young people will be inspired to take a career in science and also -- more importantly – the general public would begin understanding science more. This is where the role of journalists has been critical because of the need to bring credible information to the people. There is an equal volume of misinformation out there -- the conspiracy theories and rumours that are leading to vaccine hesitancy and loss of trust in institutions and governments. This is going to be a challenge for us in future. We need to think about how to deal with this kind of anti-science movement. Luckily, in India, vaccine hesitancy has not been a major problem.” 

Dr Swaminathan also emphasised on how the gaps in every country’s health systems were exposed. “The wealthiest countries faced the highest burden of cases and deaths. That is because of chronic underinvestment in public health, as opposed to their tertiary healthcare systems which are very strong. India is investing in Ayushman Bharat and other initiatives to bring universal health coverage – we must strengthen primary health surveillance and data, value the work of community health workers, and constantly re-build the capacity of the people in the frontlines -- because tertiary healthcare will collapse at some point if primary healthcare does not work.” 

“Every country needs to strengthen their own systems, but they also need to think about the global picture and how to work with other countries. The pandemic treaty that is going to be discussed at the special world health assembly in November must address this issue – maybe we need a framework convention or a treaty for pandemics that could be the roadmap for the future,” Dr Swaminathan said. 

“How does one develop and distribute and have equitable access to tools and supplies that are needed? We need a new model of research and development where governments that are investing tax-payer funds to develop products, will need to ensure that there are clauses in those contracts with companies to ensure equitable access. This is to make sure that the products are affordable, accessible and available. This is going to now determine the course of the pandemic,” she said. 

Outlining the future scenario, Dr Swaminathan said: “We can imagine the best-case scenario – one in which we have 1.5 billion doses of vaccines every month, enough to vaccinate 40 per cent of the world’s population by December 2021. It will hopefully bring an end to the deaths that we are still seeing -- 50,000 a week -- and we can continue to vaccinate the remaining population. If no further variants arise that are deadlier than the Delta variant, then we settle into an endemic phase where the virus continues to cause a respiratory infection just like other viruses but we don’t see the complete destruction of our lives.” 

She added: “There can also be a worst-case scenario where we continue to not have vaccines available for everyone and new variants continue to emerge and we cannot predict the mutations they will gather and if they would become resistant to the existing vaccine. Then, we would be in a continuous cycle where only high income countries will have access to vaccines; the rest of the world would continue to wait. The impact will always be on the most vulnerable and poorer countries of the world.” 

What they said: Dr Randeep Guleria

Speaking at the book release, Dr Guleria said: “We have focused a lot on the health crisis, but the crisis is bigger. From AIIMS’s point of view, I can say that it was the biggest challenge that we have ever faced -- none of us were ready for it. It was a situation where we had to find solutions every day in terms of maintaining the morale of the people, creating infrastructure out of nowhere, or making sure that healthcare workers were being taken care of and protected.” 

“One thing we have not really addressed is the issue of mental health -- the trauma and anguish the pandemic caused, not only to those who lost near and dear ones but to those who had to live through issues of lockdowns. It is not only a health crisis, but also an educational crisis and a nutritional crisis. The second challenge that we need to address is the effect the pandemic had on non-covid care for immunisation programmes and institutional deliveries. Data shows that it has been severely affected; for instance, the tuberculosis programme has suffered a lot,” Dr Guleria said. 

“The sad part is that despite the fact that we suffered so much, we tend to have a short memory. We tend to forget and it becomes business-as-usual. We need to look at the concept of one-health in a complete manner, so that we don’t forget. We need more data, not just from our country but across the world. We need to work on investing more in the public sector. If you are able to look at the whole picture, not just from the heath crisis but the crisis in various other sectors and develop sustainable solutions, then maybe we could have gained something from the pandemic,” he added. 

Concluding the webinar, Sunita Narain said: “Due to the lockdown, we were able to live with the smell of clean air, the sight of clear blue skies. We got an idea of what it might take for the environment to rejuvenate itself and the kind of sacrifices which we might have to make to live sustainably. The question is: Can we make this window of opportunity, opened by an extraordinary health crisis, the new normal?” 

For any other information and interviews, please contact: Sukanya Nair of The CSE Media Resource Centre, sukanya.nair@cseindia.org, 8816818864



Webinar Recording
The Pandemic Journal
Chief Scientist,
World Health Organization
Director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS),
New Delhi
Director General,
Centre for Science and Environment