In 1918, an influenza virus emerged (probably in the US) that would spread around the world, and one of its earliest appearances in lethal form came in Philadelphia. Before that pandemic faded away in 1920, it would kill more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history.
One cannot know with certainty, but if the upper estimate of the death toll is true, as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus. And they died with extraordinary ferocity and speed.
Yet, the story of the 1918 influenza virus is not simply one of havoc, death, and desolation, of a society fighting a war against nature superimposed on a war against another human society.
It is also a story of science, of discovery, of how one thinks, and of how one changes the way one thinks, of how amidst near-utter chaos a few men sought the coolness of contemplation, the utter calm that precedes not philosophising but grim, determined action.
When American author and historian John M Barry wrote these lines in his 2004 book, The Great Influenza, about the spread of the Spanish flu and its impact on American society, he likely didn’t anticipate the relevance his research would have 16 years later. Arguably, more so in the Indian context.
Barry writes about America of the early 1900s, when Europe dominated the fields of medical science and research. Back then, many American schools handed out medical degrees to any student who attended lectures and passed examinations; others still did not care if students failed several courses and never touched a single patient—they still got through med school. Science and religion were at odds with each other.
Through the pandemic, an important theme that emerged for America was the sudden impetus in medical research and discovery, especially the work done at the Johns Hopkins and Rockefeller institutes. In a note that Bill Gates wrote on the book in May 2020, he says that among his big takeaways for Covid-19 from the book is that philanthropy has an important role to play.
“In fact, things could have been much worse if not for the gifts of John D Rockefeller, Johns Hopkins, and many other donors,” he writes. “These gifts fundamentally transformed American science and medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, giving the country hundreds of thousands of well trained professionals to treat those who fell ill from influenza and guide the public-health response.”
In a country where medical education is largely considered a racket and where a sizeable population is taken to believe that home remedies can steel them against Covid-19, could India stand to make similar gains from the pandemic?
POWER OF BILLIONS
Released in November, the EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy List 2020 showed that Azim Premji maintained his top spot from last year with ₹7,904 crore in donations. According to the list, Premji, through the Azim Premji Foundation, Wipro and Wipro Enterprises, committed ₹1,125 crore towards the pandemic, in addition to their regular philanthropic initiatives. This amounts to Premji having donated ₹22 crore a day.
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