By Mohammed Abdul Mannan
Three south India-born Americans and an Indian paediatrician are under the global spotlight for their crucial roles in handling the world’s worst medico-socio-economic havoc triggered by the 21st century’s second pandemic. While one is busy thrashing out programmes to effectively put the global economy back on its feet, the second is at work to lessen the burden of the coronavirus cases which had already crossed over 11 million marks in over 188 counties and 525,119 deaths by July 4, with India, after the US and Brazil in Covid-19 cases. The third is busy ensuring the global Information Highway keep running without fits 24/7 as the world works more from homes and shops online. The fourth is resolutely fighting the heightened menace of fake news – infodemic as the WHO calls it.
The history’s biggest Black Swan event has the world listen more attentively to Gita Gopinath and Dr Soumya Swaminathan. This is perhaps for the first time in history two women – both Indian by birth, are in crucial positions at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). One is the Chief Economist and the other is the Chief Scientist. As Google CEO, Sundar Pitchai is at work ensuring the world surf the Internet smoothly and access the world’s largest online library containing more than 5.98 billion pages and 3.8 million searches per minute. While Gita had been born in Kerala, Soumya and Sundar hail from Chennai. While Sundar became Google CEO in August 2015, Gita took over in March and October 2019, respectively. While Soumya is 61 years old, Sunder is younger by a year to Gita at 47. Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella is from Hyderabad and 52 years old.
The IMF’s first woman chief economist says the global economy has been worst hit since the Great Depression which lasted from a decade after it began with the stock market crash in October 1929. This downturn, she says, will slash US$9 trillion from the world economy. Created in 1945, the IMF is an international organization consisting of 189 countries working to foster global monetary cooperation and secure financial stability. The 46-year-old is the second Indian to hold the position after Raghuram Rajan who served from 2003 for three years before becoming the 23rd Governor of Reserve Bank of India. In 2014, Gita had been as named one of the top 25 economists under 45 by the IMF, and a year later, the communist-ruled southern Indian state of Kerala, where she was born, appointed her as its economic advisor despite her perceived neoliberal economic background. The IMF is not a lending institution, but an overseer of the monetary and exchange rate policies and a guardian of the code of conduct. The IMF has downgraded its outlook for the coronavirus-ravaged the world economy, projecting a significantly deeper recession and slower recovery. It now expects global GDP to shrink 4.9 per cent this year. The cumulative loss for the world economy, this year and next as a result of the recession is expected to reach US$12.5 trillion.
Global spending on health had been US$ 7.8 trillion in 2017 or about 10 per cent of GDP and US$1,080 per capita. Global health expenditure has been rising worldwide, with its pace most rapid in low- and middle-income countries where growth in all forms of spending (public, private and donor aid) is now averaging six per cent annually as compared to four per cent in high-income countries. Inpatient and outpatient curative care and medicines also account for 70 per cent of total global health spending. Formed in 1948, the Geneva-headquartered WHO had been working on health policy making and monitoring. A globally recognized researcher on tuberculosis and HIV, Dr Soumya had earlier served as the Director-General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). She is the first Indian and woman to hold the post of Chief Scientist at WHO.
She remarked: “We need to remember we are going to be facing this infection for a long time. People will need to change behaviour — continue to follow physical distancing, isolate if sick and maintain personal hygiene, while the public health system will need to detect, isolate, treat and track cases. Lockdown alone cannot be effective unless it is combined with standard public health measures. Most important is knowing where the virus is and tracking various sources of data to find it.” Since 1940, more than 335 new emerging infectious diseases have been identified. In January 2019, the WHO had compiled a list of the top 10 threats to global health, with six of them being infectious disease-related. Covid-19 is the 15th largest pandemic since the 14th century by the yardstick of over 100,000 deaths each and is the worst contagion in over a century.
The Covid-19 is now a top priority, with over the 24 vaccines for it under development. About 150 different attempted vaccines are at the pre-clinical stage of testing, 17-18 are in clinical stages and one or two in phase-3. She told The Wire it will only be in early 2021, and that too if we are lucky, that a vaccine would be discovered. And that it would be the end of 2021 before a vaccine is available in sufficient volumes. She says it’s quite possible the number of unreported or undetected global cases of Covid-19 could be up to 20 times greater than the officially recorded global tally. “The truth is we simply don’t know how many cases are unreported or undetected. The 11.2 million figure is the tip of the iceberg.”
For Sundar Pitchai, the task is not easy, as well. He has to contain what the WHO called infomedic as social media platforms spew misinformation, racist and communal posts. The Internet got clogged but had not crashed according to PC Magazine. “No other pandemic had its death toll, details, debates updated through 24/7 media coverage, millions of social media sources, three billion cell phone users continuously accessing news – unlike earlier times when people read the morning newspaper once a day,” argued The Statesman, one of India’s oldest daily. It wrote: “A chronicler in year 3020 might accurately sum up the Covid-19 pandemic. Posterity will know it as the first pandemic brought home to billions through media and social media in real-time. “This minute, 3.8 billion people are exchanging information through social media – 49 per cent of the global population. More than 4.5 billion people are on the Internet, accounting for 347 million tweets (microblog posts on Twitter), 117 million emails and 3.1 billion Google searches daily. And the leading topic is coronavirus.”
Google has entered into a rare partnership with Apple to add technology to their smartphone platforms that will alert users if they have come into contact with a person with Covid-19-19 when they opt in to the system – it has the potential to monitor about a third of the world’s population. It has removed thousands of videos on YouTube containing Covid-19 misinformation and made premium features of its video conferencing app Meet free to help remote workers worldwide.
Days after it made the app free for everyone, it was downloaded over 50 million times on Google Play Store. Google Meet garnered over five million downloads on Play Store in the first week of March and its downloaded numbers crossed over 50 million times on the Play Store till mid-May. Since making Meet’s advanced features free for all G Suite and G Suite for Education users in March, it has seen daily usage grow by 30 times, with Meet hosting three billion minutes of video meetings daily. In April, it added roughly three million new users every day. Google is removing coronavirus misinformation on developer platforms like Play. It continues to remove videos that promote medically unproven methods to prevent coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment. On Google Maps, it is continuing removing harmful content such as fake reviews and misleading details about healthcare locations, through their automated and manual review systems. Google Search and Maps now shows if a business place is temporarily closed. It has made it possible for companies to easily indicate they are ‘temporarily closed’ using Google My Business. Google is also using its AI technology Duplex, whenever possible, to contact companies to confirm their updated business hours, so these can be then also updated on Google Search and Maps. Google has since January “blocked” hundreds of thousands of ads attempting to capitalize on the coronavirus pandemic, and had imposed a temporary ban on all ads for medical masks and respirators.
At Microsoft, the biggest company by market cap in the world at US$1.28 trillion and whose Windows is the world’s most popular desktop operating system and Office the most popular productivity suite, a survey has found India has more fake news and internet hoaxes than anywhere else in the world. The report, by Microsoft, found 64 per cent of Indians had encountered fake news, compared to the global average of 57 per cent. Meanwhile, 54 per cent had come across internet hoaxes, in comparison to 50 per cent worldwide. The French news agency AFP has debunked almost 200 rumours and myths about the coronavirus. According to Recode, a technology news website, there had been 19 million mentions across social media and news sites related to Covid-19 in 24 hours alone around the world. In mid-March, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube have joined forces to combat “fraud and misinformation” about the coronavirus. Before the lockdown, social media usage was on average 150 minutes per day and it by the first week of lockdown, jumped to 280 minutes per day, with 75 per cent people spending more time on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Television, Internet browsing and streaming platforms too have seen a rise in viewership.
(Mohammed Abdul Mannan is a senior editor, communications consultant and author of eight books. His new book, Behind the Mask, the first all-encompassing reportage on Covid-19 and its socio-economic impact, has been released on Amazon/Kindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)