The Covid-19 Chronicles: The changes we should aim to keep

  • Science, She Wrote
  • Sunday, 17 May 2020

I took my kids to the open space lobby for the first time since the movement control order (MCO), as we dipped our toes into a Covid-19 new normal.

It was early, only cleaners were around, and the breeze carried a tinge of disinfectant, irritating the eyes. An air of restraint lingered from weeks of strict MCO. At first they were hesitant.

But it did not take long before they wanted to play hide and seek and challenged me to a race, like old times.

It is amazing how quickly we can adapt to new ways of living; quickly forgetting what life was like before. And then when the environment changes again, we sometimes revert back to the way things like nothing had ever changed.

But while restrictions on social activities are temporary necessities to flatten the curve, many Covid-19 norms we recently adopted may be long overdue. Before the pandemic, I would not have imagined my carefree boys transforming into the hand washing and health-aware children they are now. Hopefully, that remains a life-long habit. Equally, there are appreciable changes on a societal scale that we can maintain beyond Covid-19.

First is the recognition of frontliners, health professionals and experts.

In Malaysia, Covid-19 saw the rise of expert leadership such as Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, epidemiologist Datuk Prof Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, public health practitioner Dr Amar Singh, and public health advisor Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahood.

The public became aware of laudable contributions to science such as from Dr Cher Han Lau and his WHO-recognised team at CoronaTracker making Covid-19 data accessible for everyone across the world. Abroad, Lim Boon Chuan of Oxford University was part of the team that developed faster methods to detect the virus, and Dr Azaibi Tamin at the US Centres for Disease Control were among the scientists who first visualised the virus under the electron microscope; and was part of the groundbreaking work demonstrating virus survival in aerosol.

Above are just a few names, some drops in the sea of countless doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians, and researchers that quietly serve as the old guards to our most precious yet understated possessions: our lives and loved ones.

Enduring the discomfort of protective equipment for hours, frontliners answer the call to task, leaving their families at odd hours, risking their health, without expecting anyone to sing songs of their valor. Researchers spend sleepless nights and mind-bending hours solving problems that they struggle to explain to their own family. Though few enter healthcare or research expecting wealth or fame Covid-19 highlights the critical contributions from those making the protection of human lives their life's purpose — this should not change after Covid-19.

The second are the transdisciplinary approaches i.e. all onboard problem solving that has become the necessary norm in dealing with Covid-19.

Science has long been accused of operating in domain-specific silos. These domains grow narrower with time, as narrow as a specific protein in a specific disease analysed using a specific method. These walls gradually erected from competition, communication complexity and complacency are now being chipped away. The falling barriers reveal that time and resources are better used if we shared information and cooperated beyond silos.

For the first time since I entered science, Covid-19 has shown that it is possible for people of diverse disciplines to work together. For the first time, I had the pleasure of working with economists on disease modelling, with social scientists on public communications, and with fashion designers about mask use – all spurred by a common goal. On a global scale, cooperation over Covid-19 has resulted in unprecendented speed and breadth of work in the span of months: from new diagnostics, to expedited drug and vaccine candidates, to creative strategies in operationalising frontliner protection, social distancing, and other public health action.

Ideally, these multi-perspective approaches should remain long after Covid-19 becomes a line in the history books, and that we are not shy to reach out beyond the comfort of our disciplines to try and solve common problems. Ideally, the key adaptation arising from pressures to survive this pandemic is the paradigm shift from competition to collaboration. Rather than have them be visors blocking our view, when we harness diverse lenses to contribute pieces to the same puzzle, we come closer to seeing the larger picture, closer to achieving common goals.

Finally, the collaboration boom would not be possible without the unfettered use of the Internet for facilitating communications and processes.

Where to begin? Meetings with my team in Malaysia and an infectious disease epidemiologist in the US; then consulting a public relations specialist in New Zealand before running to the kitchen to cook for iftar—all in one day. The ease of having online meetings locally and abroad reduces delays in progress that occurred previously when we were bound to scheduling physical meetings, not to mention being bound by limitations in time and other resources for travel.

Webinars open doors to theatres that would have been limited only to audiences on-site. Remote teaching and learning have spurred interactive online activities, and recorded lectures that aid flexible and continuous revision. Forms submitted and approved via email instead of through exhausting physical paper chasing save time and trees. Frequent video calls with far-flung family, like a sister in Scotland, bring us closer together. These online platforms were available before, but they became the norm because Covid-19 leaves no excuse not to use them.

Among the downsides to this new norm, however, is the painful disparity seen between urban and rural Internet access. Arguably, it is also a timely push to invest and expand initiatives towards universal Internet access such as those by Associate Professor Dr Rosdiadee Nordin, a telecommunications engineer innovating delivery of wireless Internet connection to remote areas.

Another downside is the encroachment of work into personal time and space; an emerging issue that we should all tread with care. Especially since work-from-home is shown to disproportionately affect productivity and mental health of women and those who are carers of school-age children. But the solution is not to revert back to physical processes and platforms. The flexibility and productivity enabled by widespread use of online platforms during Covid-19 should be further enhanced, while expectations and definitions of performance need to be recalibrated to fairly reflect different realities. If we address issues of inequities, the shift to online platforms can become a long-term blessing.

But while I wax lyrical about the unintended blessings of Covid-19, there is certainly painful recognition that this pandemic is a test of resilience.

Being confined at home for extended periods takes its toll. It was such a relief to be able to finally take the kids out for a brief whiff of fresh air.

While watching them play, I wondered what 2020 would be like if the pandemic never happened. Travel plans would have proceeded. Events would have been held. Many lives, livelihoods and businesses would have been spared.

But we also would have continued to live and operate, however ineffective, out of societal normalcy and convenience. Could things have changed without Covid-19? We will never know.

But what seems apparent now, is that while we adopted positive changes at the initial threat of contracting a potentially deadly virus—there are signs of gradually increasing desensitisation towards Covid-19, and reducing appreciation of the philosophical purpose of a world forced to adopt new norms.

Even before we have seen signs of the end of Covid-19, already many are back into old habits, undermining public health precautions. Already, we hear increasing dissonance and spread of conspiracy theories, undermining the tireless work and progress achieved at the onset of the pandemic.

As we saw with the painful reversion in progress with controlling diseases like measles due to anti-vaccination movements, once communities are no longer committed, and expertise and evidence is no longer valued, this still unfolding war is already lost.

I spoke of a few changes we should keep after Covid-19.

For the sake of our children who have so much more to experience in this world, I really hope that time comes soon.

But until that time arrives, we cannot afford to change back to old habits.

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Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah

Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah

Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah is senior lecturer in Medical Microbiology at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and an affiliate of Young Scientists Network-Academy of Sciences Malaysia. She is active in science communication and infectious disease biomedical research. She was the first female Asian champion of FameLab, the world’s longest running science communication competition, in 2018. The writer’s views are her own.


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