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Making Sense of COVID-19

In the midst of a global pandemic, we have come to realize that several of our priorities need to be reordered and regrouped. Our perceptions of what is normal and what is not have changed. It is evident that one such area that is undergoing rapid remodeling with each passing day is the field of education. With schools, colleges and other educational institutions shut and put on hold indefinitely, online learning or e-learning has gained widespread popularity almost overnight. Although this has always been an option, online teaching methods are now being preferred to their offline counterparts given the restrictions and social distancing practices in place. The unfolding of the pandemic and the socio-economic impacts it has left is one that will last for a long period of time.

That being said, we have had to quickly get comfortable with Zoom calls and virtual classrooms. Catching up with the latest trends, collaborating with 16 senior students at Samvida, Prayoga faculty members came up with four experiment-based DIY summer projects for the students to work on, for a duration of two months. Students were mentored throughout, and regular doubt-clearing and Q&A sessions were held. The aim was to expose the students to novel skill sets, so that they develop higher order thinking skills, ans also keep them engaged during the lockdown.

The students were able to channel their creative energies and put it to good use. These four projects - 'Making Sense of COVID-19', 'Candles', 'Kitchen Chemistry' and 'Physical Simulation Building' - enhanced their learning, and at the same time, brought about awareness on problems in our environment and society. This achieved both a social and educational objective - converting adversity into an opportunity to look at some real-life problems. Ramasimha. B, Dr. S Athavan, Vinay B.R, Dr. Prathik Cherian and other Prayoga staff spearheaded the facilitation of these projects.

The first project – ‘Making Sense of COVID-19’ was designed keeping in mind the current scenario, to increase the students’ awareness and knowledge about Epidemiology, History and Theory of diseases, disease progression, SIR models, vaccination and control, non-pharmaceutical interventions and the origins of COVID-19. The project was highly relevant as it served as a real-time learning experience. Given below is an overview of the project and a few take away points.

During the early middle ages, very little was known about the origin of disease, the mechanism by which it spreads, and its causes. Later on, theories were put forth to address and understand the answers to these questions. The invention of the microscope and developments in the field of optics revolutionized the way people understood concepts relating to diseases. Over the years, advances in Microbiology have made combating infectious diseases relatively easier. Yet, new viral strains are surfacing, owing to changes in lifestyle, and an increase in spillover infections. The ongoing pandemic due to COVID-19 emerged in the seafood market at Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province, China, in December 2019, originally disguised as a Pneumonia outbreak. This was later traced back to a new viral strain of Coronavirus. Initially the virus was called ‘2019 novel Coronavirus’. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) announced on 11 February 2020 that the virus would be known as “severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)”. This name was chosen because the virus is phylogenetically related to the Coronavirus responsible for the 2003 SARS outbreak. The WHO announced on the same day that “COVID-19” would be the name of the disease. Coronaviruses are zoonotic and there is substantial evidence to suggest the COVID-19 may have primarily spread from bats.

Phase-adjusted estimation of the number of COVID-19 cases in Wuhan, China

(Wang and Wang, 2020)

A sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases was observed by the end of December 2019. But, as immediate international and domestic travels bans were not announced at the time, it resulted in the spread of the disease outside Wuhan, as well the People’s Republic of China. The virus has an incubation period of 12.5 days, causing a wide range of flu-like symptoms, and people over the age of 60 and under the age of 11 are especially at risk. COVID-19 spreads through close contact, when infected droplets are inhaled. This is why, masks are essential in reducing the transmission of the disease (Howard et al., 2020). To limit infectivity, social distancing proves to be extremely effective (Lewnard and Lo, 2020). But how do we know social distancing measures are actually helping?

Epidemiology is a field of study which deals with the occurrence, infectivity, and prevention of diseases. Supplemented with mathematics and computational models, it becomes an effective tool in predicting outcomes and implementing control measures. Graphical data called ‘Epi-curves’ are generated to understand the relationships between variable factors that are affecting the onset of a disease. SIR models serve as evidence and a testing tool to verify data relating to ‘Flattening the curve’, ‘Basic Reproduction Number (R0)’ and ‘Susceptibility’.

Disease Lab - Annenberg Learner

Available at: https://www.learner.org/series/the-habitable-planet-a-systems-approach-to-environmental-science/disease-lab/ (Accessed: 10 June 2020)

Students who had worked on the project ‘Making sense of Covid-19’ presented their reports through a webinar, attended by Prayoga staff, mentors, Samvida faculty members and parents. Students immensely enjoyed working on the projects. “For me it was an adventure. I got to know about R0, flattening the curve, old theories on diseases and about the invention of the microscope,” recalls Varnika. Chinmaya says, “This year has been shocking so far. The whole world has been toppled upside down due to the COVID crisis. The government is increasing its testing abilities and is trying to flatten the curve The R0 has also slightly decreased. The government is doing contact tracing very well. I used to hear this kind of news almost all day round. I would vaguely understand the terms like contact tracing, flatten the curve, etc. I never knew exactly what these words meant. This COVID-19 project taught me the exact meaning of these words. This project was wonderful and I enjoyed it a lot!

The methods of learning and teachings will continue to change. But it is an opportunity for those who are currently affected by the consequences of the pandemic directly or indirectly, to learn by observation and experience. As Prayoga focuses on experiential learning, this project is a good example of how real-time experiences shape the acquisition of knowledge and growth of an individual.

References:

  1. Disease Lab - Annenberg Learner https://www.learner.org/series/the-habitable-planet-a-systems-approach-to-environmental-science/disease-lab/

  2. Lewnard, J. A. and Lo, N. C. (2020) ‘Scientific and ethical basis for social-distancing interventions against COVID-19’, The Lancet Infectious Diseases. doi: 10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30190-0.

  3. Howard, J. et al. (2020) ‘Face Mask Against COVID-19: An Evidence Review’, British Medical Journal. doi: 10.20944/preprints202004.0203.v1.

  4. Wang, H. et al. (2020) ‘Phase-adjusted estimation of the number of Coronavirus Disease 2019 cases in Wuhan, China’, Cell Discovery. Springer Nature, 6(1), pp. 1–8. doi: 10.1038/s41421-020-0148-0.

  5. Fraser, C. et al. (2004) ‘Factors that make an infectious disease outbreak controllable’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. National Academy of Sciences, 101(16), pp. 6146–6151. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0307506101.

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