Justice was served in spades today, when Dr. Raman Gangakhedkar was awarded the Padma Shri by the President of our Republic, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi. The award was richly deserved by this doctor-scientist, and former head of the Indian Council of Medical Research’s Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases Wing, who was the face of India’s battle against the Wuhan virus, until he retired on 30 June 2020.
Dressed in a simple navy blue sleeveless jacket, over a white shirt and tan pants, the rotund researcher with a bushy moustache cut a gallant figure, as he walked across the Durbar Room to have his Padma Shri pinned on his chest. Then, with a humble, almost shy, dip of his head, Dr. Gangakhedkar received his scroll, mustered a half-smile for the camera, turned, and was gone.
In many ways, that moment defined the man, because when the epidemic hit India last year, it was this same self effacing approach which calmed a billion hearts, and gifted us stoic reassurance, that the government would do its job to save us from an accursed Chinese pathogen.
Readers must not forget that the arrival of the epidemic was echoed by the conjuring of an alarmist, defeatist narrative across platforms. There was confusion, concern and a very real fear of the unknown, which could have led to public panic. At that time, it was Dr. Gangakhedkar who would appear frequently on television, to explain the truth of public health matters, and this Mandarin menace, in soft, measured tones of pure science.
Nothing fazed him – not the virus, not the narrative, and certainly not ‘intelligent questions’ from the mainstream media. It was a tough job, because frankly, no one knew how this epidemic would evolve or balloon; its transmission dynamics and medical impact were still something of a mystery (readers would remember the sordid, needless, instigated debates about mask/no mask, lockdown/ no lockdown, BCG, HCQ, plasma therapy and many more).
And yet, in the midst of all this, Dr. Gangakhedkar stood firm, explaining patiently that prevailing uncertainties had been integrated into public health policies being framed. All we had to do was follow the norms, and the risks of infection and transmission would go down.
The approach worked. Along with his boss, Dr. Balram Bhargava, Dr. Randeep Guleria of AIIMS, Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal, and others, Dr. Gangakhedkar formed the team which successfully communicated intricate, abstruse aspects of a terrifying public health crisis to a terrified populace. People came to believe that the fight against the Wuhan virus could be won, and that the government was doing everything in its power to ensure our citizens’ safety. In the midst of a raging crisis, positive communication is half the battle won.
Unfortunately, Dr. Gangakhedkar’s tenure came to a close before the first wave did, but not before he had done his duty.
Then, there was a lull, and the good doctor returned into the public eye only in 2021, with the second wave. At that time, the raging debates (again wholly needless) were over vaccine efficacy and vaccine hesitancy.
Again and again, Dr. Gangakhedkar argued on television that it was scientifically wrong to reduce vaccine trials to media sound-bites. This was not a conversation for a studio, he said; it would only end up confusing people more.
When senior anchors retorted that they were only doing their job, the doctor’s response was that we had to trust the system. And that, in a nutshell, defines Dr. Gangakhedkar’s contribution – the building of public trust.
No matter how many migrants were instigated to move when they should have stayed put, or vaccine merchants tried to undermine our domestic efforts, or a hundred other times when narratives sought to inflame passions, in the end, people reposed their faith in the system, and the battle was won.
Today, Dr. Gangakhedkar is the worthy recipient of a Padma Shri, but his job is not done. India’s most respected epidemiologist has been appointed to an expert group of the World Health Organization, which will examine the scientific aspects of epidemic pathogen emergence and re-emergence – including the Wuhan virus. It’s not retirement time yet for him!
Now, times tend to shrink with time, enfeebling memories and diluting contributions, but it can be safely said that Dr. Raman Gangakhedkar will always be remembered as a true blue Indian hero, for the sage, unruffled manner in which he positioned science over emotion, and crucially increased public faith in the system exactly when that was needed. The best wishes of a grateful nation will always be with him.
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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