1. WHO report says animals are likely source of COVID-19
It looked at four scenarios of the virus’ entry into humans
A joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal is the most likely scenario and that a lab leak is “extremely unlikely,” according to a draft copy obtained by The Associated Press.
The findings offer little new insight into how the virus first emerged. But it does provide more detail on the reasoning behind the researchers’ conclusions. The team proposed further research in every area except the lab leak hypothesis.
WHO visit to Wuhan
The report, which is expected to be made public on Tuesday, is being closely watched as it could help scientists prevent future pandemics — but it’s also extremely sensitive since China bristles at any suggestion that it is to blame for the current one. Repeated delays in the report’s release have raised questions if the Chinese side was trying to skew its conclusions.
The report is based largely on a visit by a WHO team of international experts to Wuhan, the Chinese city where COVID-19 was first detected. The mission was never meant to identify the exact natural source of the virus, an endeavour that typical takes years. For instance, more than 40 years of study has still failed to pinpoint the exact species of bat that are the natural reservoir of Ebola.
In the draft, the researchers listed four scenarios in order of likelihood for the emergence of the new coronavirus. Topping the list was transmission from bats through another animal, which they said was likely to very likely. They evaluated direct spread from bats to humans as likely, and said that spread to humans from the packaging of “cold-chain” food products was possible but not likely.
That last possibility was previously dismissed by the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but researchers on this mission have taken it up again. While it’s possible an infected animal contaminated packaging that was then brought to Wuhan and infected humans, it said the probability is very low.
Bats are known to carry coronaviruses and, in fact, the closest relative of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in bats. It said similar viruses have been found in pangolins, but scientists have yet to identify the same coronavirus in animals that has been infecting humans.
The draft report is inconclusive on whether the outbreak started at a Wuhan seafood market.
World Health Organisation (WHO)
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that looks into matters of public health. Established on April 7th, 1948, its headquarters is located in Geneva, Switzerland.
To evaluate the world’s response to Coronavirus pandemic, Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR) has been created by the World Health Organisation. The main points related to it are:
- New Zealand former President Helen Clark and Liberia former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf are co-chairs of the IPPR, as announced by the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
- The IPPR comes on the heels of the Landmark Resolution related to Covid-19 that was adopted in the 73rd World Health Assembly in May 2020.
- On 7 July 2020, President Trump formally notified the UN of his intent to withdraw the United States from the WHO. However, in January 2021, President Joe Biden announced plans to rejoin, and signed an executive order to that effect after his inauguration.
- In February 2021, the WHO team visited China in order to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 virus that allegedly had its origin in the Wuhan Virology Institute. The team will publish its findings in mid-march.
- WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on February 26, 2021 had lauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment for supporting vaccine equity and sharing COVID-19 vaccines with over 60 countries across the world, hoping that other nations will follow his example.
Facts about WHO
At the 1945 United Nations Conference on International Organization (also known as the San Francisco Conference), Szeming Sze, a delegate from the Republic of China (modern-day Taiwan), proposed the creation of an international health organization under the auspices of the new United Nations. Alger Hiss, the Secretary-General of the conference, recommended using a declaration to establish such an organization.
As a result of these proceedings, the World Health Organisation came to be established in 1948. It became the first specialized agency of the United Nations to which every member subscribed.
- The WHO is headed by its Director-General and is headquartered in Geneva. Currently, the WHO has 194 member countries.
- Full membership of the WHO is only guaranteed with the ratifying of the treaty known as the Constitution of the World Health Organisation. To know more about Important Headquarters of International Organisations, visit the linked article.
- The member states of the WHO appoint delegates to the World Health Assembly, which is the supreme decision-making body. The World Health Assembly is attended by delegations from all Member States and determines the policies of the Organisation.
- On May 19, 2020, India was elected by the 73rd World Health Assembly to the Executive Board of the World Health Organisation for three years. Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan took charge as the chairman of the WHO Executive Board on May 22. He succeeds Dr. Hiroki Nakatani of Japan.
- The WHO celebrates World Health Day annually on its formation day (7 April). The theme for 2020 was “Year of the Nurse and Midwife”.
What is the Overall Focus of the WHO?
The WHO Constitution states that the organization’s objective “is the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health”.
The WHO fulfills this objective through the following functions:
- By playing a role as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work.
- Maintaining and establishing collaboration with the UN and any other appropriate bodies.
- Assisting governments, upon request, in strengthening their health services.
- Giving appropriate technical assistance and in case of emergencies, required aid upon the request or acceptance of governments.
What is the Health Policy of the WHO?
The WHO addresses government health policy with the following two aims:
- To address the social and economic determinants of health through policies and programs “that enhance health equity and integrate pro-poor, gender-responsive, and human rights-based approaches”.
- To promote a healthier environment, intensify primary prevention, and influence public policies in all sectors to address the root causes of environmental threats to health”.
Contribution of WHO
The WHO has been instrumental in eradicating the suffering of millions all over the world through its assistance to various governments. Some of the important milestones include:
- Eradication of smallpox in 1980.
- The organization is close to eradicating Polio, a disease that affects mainly infants and young children. Due to eradication programs by the WHO, polio cases have come down by 99% since 1988. As of 2019, only three nations are suffering from polio – Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
- About 216 million people are suffering from Malaria, mostly in tropical Africa, where 90% of Malaria cases and deaths are recorded. In the African region, the death rate due to malaria has been brought down by 60% as of 2018.
- In 2008, the WHO initiated the observance of the ‘World Malaria Day’. This day is observed annually on April 25. Read more about this day in This Day in History dated April 25.
- It focuses on infectious diseases like HIV, influenza, malaria, tuberculosis, and Ebola; and also other non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
- It also takes efforts in the direction of maternity and infant healthcare, old-age care, and hygienic food and water for all.
Contributions of the WHO in India
India is a member of the WHO and the organization has its offices in various parts of the country. The WHO Country Office (WCO) is headquartered in New Delhi.
The WHO Country Cooperation Strategy (CCS) – India has been jointly developed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of the GOI and the WCO.
- Its chief aim is to contribute to improving health and equity in the country.
The National Strategic Plan for Elimination of Malaria (2017-2022) was launched by the Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare.
- Its chief aim is to eliminate Malaria by 2027.
- The National Strategic Plan has formulated year wise elimination targets in various parts of the country.
- It is formulated with the support of the World Health Organization’s Global Technical Strategy for Malaria (2016-2030).
What are the current challenges of WHO?
As an international organization, WHO has its fair share of challenges. Some of them are as follows:
- The WHO is largely dependent on funds from donors – usually from economically well-developed countries and organizations such as Melinda Gates Foundation – rather than a secured channel of funding.
- As a result, most of the WHO’s funding for crucial programs remain on the back burner as some of these programs also clash with the interests of the donors.
- The effectiveness of the organization has come under question especially due to its disastrous handling of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the very recent coronavirus outbreak in 2019-20.
- Consequently, the WHO’s role as a leader in global health has been supplanted by other intergovernmental bodies such as the World Bank, and increasingly by big foundations.
- The WHO’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has come under severe criticism amidst what has been described by world leaders and media as the agency’s “diplomatic balancing act” between “China and China’s critics”, including scrutiny of the relationship between the agency and Chinese authorities.
- Initial concerns included the observation that while the WHO relies upon data provided and filtered by member states, China has had a “historical aversion to transparency and sensitivity to international criticism”. US President Donald Trump has been the most vocal of all the critics of the organization. This has led to the US’s withdrawal from the WHO.
2. Polarisation in times of dispossession
It is democratic struggle within Sri Lanka, rather than advocacy in Geneva, that will put an end to this dangerous trajectory
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva has passed another resolution on Sri Lanka, as war-time accountability continues to haunt the state for over a decade. Sri Lanka’s prospects in Geneva swing according to geopolitical interests at any given time — reflecting a vote this time with 22 in favour, 11 against and 14 abstaining. Yet, Sri Lanka could not have tried harder to shoot itself in the foot by repressing minorities domestically and actively alienating external powers.
In 2015, a resolution was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka and unanimously adopted with overwhelming international support. Indeed, Sri Lanka in the following years was even considered an exception by some for its attempts at reconciliation when the world at large was getting increasingly polarised, as Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump would show us. However, instead of building on that experience, the Rajapaksa government withdrew from that resolution, soon after rising to power, in a show of unilateral arrogance.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s increasing economic dependence on China has offended India and many Western countries, with the latter pushing for greater scrutiny of the deteriorating human rights situation. The Tamil and Muslim minorities have also turned to Geneva as the space to engage the government has shrunk with growing authoritarian rule. As geopolitical rivalries exacerbate external relations, what will come of the recent moves in Geneva for the long-suffering people, and particularly the minority communities under constant attack by the state and its majoritarian allies?
The tremendous physical destruction, economic setbacks and the abominable loss of human life and suffering of Tamils during the protracted war have not got the necessary reckoning within the country. Rather, the nationalists across the ethnic divide play with heightened rhetoric of “war heroes” and “war victims” as sound bites for international consumption. Year after year, in the lead up to and during the sessions in Geneva, the Sinhala and Tamil nationalists either claim to save war heroes from international prosecution or find justice for war victims.
Replaying the rhetoric of the war and its legacy has been paralleled by mounting Islamophobic attacks over the last decade. The Easter terror attacks in April 2019 by an Islamist radical group and the backlash that followed, including violent attacks on Muslims, culminated in the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November that year. While the minorities voted overwhelmingly against Mr. Rajapaksa, a tremendous swing in the Sinhala constituencies ensured his thumping victory. During the parliamentary elections in August 2020, the minorities were subdued as fear had eclipsed the communities, and the minority vote was fragmented, with some even supporting coalition partners of the majoritarian regime. The rulers consolidated further power by passing the 20th Amendment, with a comfortable two-thirds in Parliament, and giving unfettered powers to the executive.
The regime’s show of force soon after was apparent in blatantly discriminatory measures such as the forced cremation of COVID-19 victims, which was a blow to Muslims’ burial rights. However, heaping power has not translated to clear or coherent policymaking as evident from the government’s thoughtless economic policies, the awful dilly-dallying before permitting burials of pandemic victims and more recently with the burqa ban proposal. The all-powerful government may have the numbers in the legislature but stands exposed for its instability and weakness.
Underneath the heightened rhetoric in Sri Lanka about Geneva in recent weeks is a devastating economic crisis that has been ravaging the everyday lives of the people. Sri Lanka’s woes are a consequence of liberalising trade and capital flows over four decades ago. Its dependence on imports, and looming external debt payments, both without adequate foreign earnings, have pushed the economy over the cliff into a depression. Keeping Sri Lanka at boiling point, particularly with talk of external and internal enemies, has been one strategy to deflect the people’s attention from their economic distress. Those in power forget how the citizenry has time and again galvanised resistance when bread and butter concerns hit the roof. Furthermore, time is ticking, where the country is for the first time in danger of defaulting on its external debt, even as the grandstanding chauvinist ideologues in government are in denial.
In this context, with escalating attacks on the land rights of minorities, an unprecedented protest march from Pottuvil in the south-east to Polihandy in the north mobilised sections of the minorities in early February. The Tamil nationalist mobilisation was joined by Muslim communities in the east, and drew support from up-country Tamils centred in the plantations. This six-day-long march amidst the COVID-19 situation reflected the desperation of the minority communities.
The organisation of the march and its conclusion have triggered questions about its inclusivity and the attempts by hard-line Tamil diaspora groups to hijack it. But it has also compelled many to reflect on how and why minorities should forge an alliance. Furthermore, can such an alliance include sections of the Sinhala community to redirect the country on a plural and democratic path? Or will this initiative also end as mere theatrics for consumption in Geneva?
Sri Lanka’s tragic political history is in many ways a consequence of the failures of its political elite, and their rank opportunism and nationalist world view. They could have negotiated a solution long before Sri Lanka got embroiled in armed conflict. International engagement and solutions have only aggravated national crisis from the time of the Indian Peace Keeping debacle in the late 1980s to the failed Norwegian peace process of mid-2000s that eventually led to the cataclysmic end of the war in 2009. Moreover, the golden opportunity soon after the war to address the ethnic problem was squandered by the Rajapaksa regime due to its hubris, and eventually paid with regime change in 2015. The current Rajapaksa leadership and its core base are again polarising Sri Lanka, undermining possibilities for a plural and democratic future for the country.
In this context, India’s vote at the Council was closely watched, given New Delhi’s frustration with Colombo, particularly after it reneged on the East Container Terminal project at the Colombo Port, and the impending Tamil Nadu elections. India abstaining on the resolution was considered a betrayal by the narrow Tamil nationalist lobby, whose nonsensical campaign seeks to move Sri Lanka’s justice question from Geneva to the International Criminal Court. Nevertheless, India in its oral intervention did insist that Provincial Council elections should be held and openly expressed its “support to the Tamils of Sri Lanka for equality, justice, dignity and peace.” Sadly, India under the Modi regime can neither claim to be a beacon of devolution as it undermines the powers of its own States nor does it have the credibility to call out Sri Lanka on Muslim rights, given its own despicable attacks on Muslims.
The resolution has been forthright in highlighting the ongoing human rights abuses and places the spotlight on the state of democracy in Sri Lanka. With the economy in free fall, protests by indebted women, disgruntled farmers, and citizens aghast at the government’s destructive environment policy are beginning to question their rulers. Such resistance, from both working people and the minorities whom the regime repeatedly scapegoats, is invaluable in the face of authoritarian repression pregnant with fascist tendencies. It is democratic struggle within Sri Lanka, rather than advocacy in Geneva, that will put an end to this dangerous trajectory of polarisation and dispossession.
3. Editorial-1: Indian history and distorted narratives
The latest policy document on undergraduate education presents an incomplete and ill-judged view
The University Grants Commission (UGC) document on Learning Outcomes-based Curriculum Framework (LOCF), 2021 for undergraduate education in history begins with the declaration: “History, as we all know, is a vital source to obtain knowledge about a nation’s soul”. The document seeks to create a student body that will compete globally and be aware of its glorious past — one that will reclaim its history as it takes its rightful place in the new global order. It argues that a “new narrative” about the nation needs to emerge through a dialogue between the past and the present.
The document is a policy directive to mould undergraduate history education to these ends. However, a critical examination of the curriculum reveals that it falls short of its own stated goals.
The idea of Bharat
The LOCF makes an argument for inculcating “national pride”. The first paper of the course is titled the ‘Idea of Bharat’ and seeks to study the “primitive life and cultural status of the people of ancient India”. The five units of the course cover the concept of Bharatvarsha; Indian knowledge traditions, art and culture; dharma, philosophy and ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’; science, environment and medical sciences; and Indian economic traditions.
The course sits separate from the paper on ancient India (from the earliest time to 550 CE) while exploring ancient philosophical, cultural and material traditions under the umbrella of the term Bharat.
The course presents Bharatvarsha as an “eternal” concept, as an originary moment of the nation that lies in its ancient past. If one places this course within the entirety of the curriculum framework, it appears as a period untouched by invasions — be it Kushan or Sunga people of the early historical period, Timur and Babur of the medieval times, or the British in the modern period. It suggests an origin to the nation that is in a pristine ancient past.
In this schema, Bharat is an exclusionary concept with little space for land and people south of the Vindhyas, or from the east and the northeast. Further, it communicates no sense that this nation has a history as Bharat, Hindustan, or India, that as a nation it was crafted into being through the struggle of its people. Instead, it reads the nation into a deep past and renders it into a narrative stuck in the stasis of an autochthonous origin. Across the curriculum, changes in history are mapped through the rise and fall of empires, kings and royal dynasties and acts of violence and movement of armies. There is a preoccupation with violence as a motive force of change, whether it is through the examination of the Aryan invasions or the invasions by Timur and Babur.
The curriculum cleaves closely to the categories and modes of history-writing effectively utilised by colonial historians. Terms like the ‘Aryan Age’, ‘Hindu society’, and ‘Muslim rulers’ were deployed in colonial historiography to delineate periods as well as causation in Indian history. These were used to pose a contrast between the secular, modern Europe and the backward ‘oriental’ states, with their irrational adherence to religion. By bringing these terms back into use, the curriculum undoes the work of generations of historians to challenge colonial frames of history-writing and foreground socioeconomic and political processes.
The paper on medieval and early modern India (History of India, 1206-1707) best demonstrates the ideological bias in the LOCF. It treats the “Hindu society” and the “Muslim society” as discrete entities in the medieval past, replicating the understanding that these communities existed as separate nations, an understanding that last had valence in the run-up to the partition of India.
Further, it presents a history of only north India. In contrast, existing history syllabi currently followed in universities across India have been studying the processes of sociocultural, economic and political changes in different regions like Odisha, the peninsular India, and the Rajputana, Gujarat, Malwa, Bengal regions, among others. But this latest curriculum framework ignores the rich work in regional history and introduces some regions in the syllabus simply as political formations.
Inherent in the LOCF is a pedagogical critique of current forms of history education. It forcefully argues that young minds are not “empty vessels” to be filled with “static narratives”. Young minds, it declaims, must be participants in knowledge production. This would make history an attractive area of study. However, the pedagogy suggested in the course outlines and recommended readings would achieve just the opposite.
The introduction of primary material in the classroom — parts of historical texts, archaeological artefacts, coins, visits to monuments and museums — bring the subject alive for students. Engagement with these allows students to parse historical analysis and make their own judgments. However, the readings prescribed in the curriculum do not contain a single reference to primary archives for history-writing. Further, the suggested readings are devoid of some of the most important works in different areas of history-writing. Readings in history, or any academic discipline for that matter, are central to building the discipline. We look at older writings and follow the evolution of historiographical understanding through critiques and the new questions posed. To develop critical thinking, students must be encouraged to read divergent opinions and engage with different ideological hues of historians. A curriculum framework that does not encourage this only provides faulty foundations for disciplinary education.
This curriculum framework, quite egregiously, omits some of the finest writings in Indian history. Instead, a bulk of suggested readings span from the 1900s to, at best, 1980s, with a heavy dependence on the work of Indologists. The omissions seem deliberate and ideologically motivated. Most importantly, rather than enabling students to critically engage with diverse schools of historiography and reaching their own conclusions, it seeks to curtail the resource base available to them.
What are the challenges facing a young student in the 21st century? Climate disaster, democracy, freedom of speech and movement, equity in rights and social justice are issues that must be considered. This curriculum, with its colonial underpinnings, is inadequate in preparing students of the 21st century. New modes of thinking about Big Data, digital mapping and visualisations, critical study of the environment, health and society are all missing from this curriculum.
Seen in its entirety, the LOCF is determined to project into the past majoritarian and divisive conceptions of contemporary Indian politics. It is limited and narrow in its understanding of processes of historical change, out of touch with the current state of research in the discipline of history, and dated in its pedagogy. In 2021, this curriculum framework seeks to make history education a space for passive rote-learning of ideas that had their heyday in 1921.