One of the highest civilian honours in India, the Padma Awards are given for exceptional and distinguished service in a particular field. The official ceremony for the Padma awards for the year 2020 was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was held on November 8, 2021, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, where President Ram Nath Kovind presented the awards to 119 awardees. Among the 119 awardees are 29 incredible women from different walks of life.
The Revolutionary Women under Spotlight
Dr. Niru Kumar – “I have a passion to bring diversity and inclusion to every corner of the country.”
The prestigious Padma Awards for 2021 have recognized achievements by people with disabilities across diverse fields.
Dr. Kumar is a medical doctor, psychologist, and diversity and inclusion consultant. She has been changing the lives of people through a blend of modern medicine, psychology, coaching skills and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Dr. Kumar is a pioneer in raising awareness about the concept of diversity and inclusion among Indian companies.
Dr. Kumar has been living with a physical disability. She has been battling Polio from the time she was three years old. She has faced barriers due to her disability and is passionate about spreading awareness about diversity and inclusion.
2. Padma Shri Tulasi Gowda – ‘Encyclopedia of Forest’
Tulasi Gowda, a 72-year-old tribal woman from Karnataka, was conferred the Padma Shri award on Monday for her contribution to the protection of the environment. Barefoot and dressed in traditional attire, she received India’s fourth-highest civilian award from President Ram Nath Kovind during a ceremony in New Delhi. She has planted more than 30,000 saplings and looks after the nurseries of the Forest Department. Despite having no formal education, she has made immense contributions towards preserving the environment.
She has been given the title ‘Encyclopedia of Forest’ for her vast knowledge of the diverse species of plants and herbs. Since the age of 12, she has planted and nurtured thousands of trees.
3. Sindhutai Sapkal – Mother of Orphans
She is a woman of valour and courage who faced unprecedented ups and downs in her life but nothing deterred her will to live for others. She was married at an early age of 12 years and was a victim of domestic violence. It was while living as a homeless person and begging at railway stations that she saw many children abandoned by their family members. Battling all odds, she decided to devote her entire life to orphans. She used to travel from one place to another, singing in temples, and even begging. She is fondly called ‘mai’ and has nurtured over a 1000 children.
In 2013, she became the first recipient of The National Award for Iconic Mother. She also received the Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2017 and Social Worker of the Year award from Wockhardt Foundation in 2016, among many others
4. Dr. Birubala Rabha – Human Rights Activist
The 72-year-old, Assam’s crusader against witch hunting, devoted her life, and through her organisation, Mission Birubala, is responsible for the state passing the Assam Witch Hunting Act in 2015. Her fortitude has guided her against witch hunting, through a remarkable life – a life that has been awarded with one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Shri.
Dr. Birubala Rabha is fighting against the social menace of witch-hunting prevalent in the state, especially among the tribal communities. After dealing with personal struggles, she heard stories of people in her village being labelled as ‘witches’. Several women from the neighbouring village had been brutally raped and exiled because they were claimed to be ‘witches’. She has been campaigning against witchcraft and witch-hunting, fighting for the cause for more than 15 years now. Rabha has travelled far and wide to spread awareness about the mistreatment of women.
5. Lakhimi Baruah- Banker turned Social Entrepreneur
She is the founder of Konoklata Mahila Urban Cooperative Bank, licensed from RBI. She has provided credit to thousands of women and made a positive change to their lives in Jorhat, Sivasagar and Golaghat districts.
Before starting the bank, she worked closely with underprivileged women through Mahila Samiti in Dakshin Sarbaibandha area of Jorhat district, which she founded in 1983.
6. Manjamma Jogati – Only Transgender Woman to be awarded a Padma Shri
Manjamma Jogati is an Indian Kannada theatre actress, singer and dancer of Jogti Nitya, a golf dance form of North Karnataka.
Manjamma who was named Manjunath Shetty by their parents is no stranger to challenges. Disowned by their family after they identified as a woman in their teenage years and having battled poverty, social discrimination, and rape, Manjamma found solace in mastering Jogati Nritya, Janapada songs, and other rural folk art. They are also the first transgender President of the Karnataka Janapada Academy.
Tweeting on being conferred India’s fourth highest civil honour, they wrote, “Human is human; there are no lesser human beings. Art is Art; there are no lesser Art/Artists…For many like me – Art itself is Life!”
7. Pappammal – A 105-year-old Organic Farmer
“Even today, I wake up before the sun, wash my face, and go around the village once, I cannot sit still.”
From the Thekkampatti village near Coimbatore, Pappammal is a 105-year-old woman who has given a leg up to organic farming. Even at this age she wakes up before the sun to head to the fields. She was married off at an early age of 14 and in an era when women were supposed to be confined within the four walls of the house, she had ambition.
Pappammal is from a family of agriculturists. She owns a 2.5-acre farm in her village, and in the past, grew lentils such as horse gram and green gram. Now, she mostly grows bananas. Over the years, she has worked closely with Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.
President Ram Nath Kovind presented the third highest civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan, to shuttler PV Sindhu.
The 26-year-old, who has already received the Padma Shri in 2015 and Khel Ratna in 2016, won a silver medal in women’s singles badminton at the 2016 Rio Olympics and followed it up with a bronze at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
2. Mouma Das
Ace Table Tennnis player Mouma Das has represented India at various international events including the Olympic Games in 2004 and 2012. She partnered with Manika Batra and reached the quarterfinals of the women’s doubles event at the 2017 World Table Tennis Championships. The duo also bagged the silver medal during the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Hailing from Kolkata, the 36-year-old was honoured with the Arjuna Award in 2013.
3. Anshu Jamsenpa
Anshu Jamsenpa scripted history as the first woman to scale the summit of Mt. Everest twice in a month – in May 2011. The mountaineer broke her own record by scaling the summit twice in five days in 2017.
Hailing from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh, Anshu is also mother of two children and her journey as a mountaineer is dotted with many recognitions and awards. She received the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award from President Ram Nath Kovind in 2017 and India’s Highest Adventure Award in the following year.
4. Anitha Pauldurai
Anitha Pauldurai is a former captain of the Indian women’s national basketball team – the youngest one at 19. The sportswoman holds a record of 30 medals in national championships from nearly two decades of playing for the Indian Women National team. She is also the first Indian woman to have participated in nine Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) championships.
5. MC Mary Kom
The face of women boxing in India, Mary Kom was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award. Mary Kom set a new standard in amateur boxing without ever competing in professional boxing. In 2015, she became the first amateur to surpass several professional athletes in India in earnings, endorsements and awards.
6. Oinam Bembem Devi
She is an Indian footballer born in Imphal, Manipur. In 2017, she was honoured with the Arjuna award by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. She was nicknamed the ‘Durga of Indian Football’ and is currently involved in spreading awareness about Women’s football in India.
The ‘Durga of Indian Football’ Oinam Bembem Devi became the first Indian woman footballer, and the seventh overall to receive the prestigious Padma Shri Award on Monday.
Out of a long list of Padma awardees, 29 women from different walks of life, have been awarded. This year these awards have been People’s Padma Awards in the true sense since people working at the grassroot level, the ones who deserve to be under the spotlight, have been honoured.
These women are a source of inspiration for and have left a mark on generations to come. The valour with which they have faced unprecedented challenges and emerged gloriously is immensely encouraging.
A Manipuri by birth, Pushpita Aheibam is the brilliant mind behind the brand Pushpita’s Artisanal. Specializing in handcrafted food products, Pushpita’s Artisanal is known for making varieties of mouth-watering pickles(both vegetarian and non-vegetarian). Some of her popular pickle flavours include Sweet & Spicy Mango, King Chilli, Muya-King Chilli, Jujube Berry (Boroi), Prawn Pickle and Chicken Pickle.
Currently based in Pune, Pushpita Aheibam calls herself an ‘accidental entrepreneur’ as business was never in her mind. Since her childhood, she has always been fond of homegrown pickles – her mother and her paternal aunt were experts in this field. Being away from home for more than ten years encouraged her to make pickles, for her own consumption as well as for gifting them to friends. This personal fulfillment led to the delicious masterpiece known as Pushpita’s Artisanal.
Pushpita Aheibam completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Economics in 2002 from Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey (SNDT) Women’s University, Mumbai and pursued her Master’s Degree in Economics in 2010 from SNDT Women’s University, Pune. She started her career as a Market Research Analyst with Indica Research Pvt.Ltd in 2005 and Gitanjali Gems in 2006. After her elder son was born, she took a break from work from 2007 onwards and continued as a homemaker. After a long break, she began working as a Freelance Content and Feature Writer for a Canada based lifestyle publisher, Florida, USA based healthcare e-publisher, a Dubai based e-publication and a Bengaluru based publisher in 2013. Her writings were based on areas such as lifestyle, economics, foreign exchange, crypto currencies, engineering and healthcare.
She started as an independent Manipuri food blogger (Blog: Pushpita’s Chakhum) in 2015 before starting her pickle venture Pushpita’s Artisanal; and even now, from time to time, she continues to collaborate with and contribute to several print media as a Manipuri food blogger.
However, dusk befell when in 2017 she was suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer, just two months after she started her venture and relocated to Pune from Vadodara. But with a determined mindset, she overcame all the challenges and hardships that blocked her way during this inspiring journey. After a year-long treatment from October 2017 to July 2018, she survived the advanced stage breast cancer and continued with her pickle business. Moving forward in life, she completed her second Master’s degree in Population Studies in 2021 from the International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.
There have been multiple hurdles in her path towards being an entrepreneur. Many people approached her with negative remarks with respect to her choice of career. But with unconditional support from her family members and her unshakable willpower, focus and determination, Pushpita Aheibam made her dream come true. She says, “We have to know our own worth first. We should continue doing what we think is right; and if we have that self-confidence and we strongly believe in ourselves, then definitely I don’t think others should matter and come into the scenario.” (Her World India Talk Show)
Pushpita Aheibam encourages women entrepreneurs to work with an independent and firm mindset. In her words, “I always had this at the back of my mind that when you have the right set of education, you are a qualified person, then why do you have to depend on somebody else?” She also aims to include other women in her journey who can work and collaborate with her. She hopes to see a world where women can think independently and make their own decisions.
Pushpita’s Artisanal is a symbol of triumph over hardship – a story that shows us that hardships are inevitable but where there is a will, there is a way. Pushpita Aheibam inspires many young minds, specially aspiring entrepreneurs, to work towards their goal. She states, “It gives me immense satisfaction in doing what I am doing. It’s like never looking back for me right now. I am quite determined with what I am doing. ” (Her World India Talk Show)
According to the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) India rankings (NIRF 2021), Miranda House is the best college in India. Dharmendra Pradhan, the education minister, announced the NIRF Ranking 2021 on 9th September, 2021. Miranda House has been on top of the list for the fifth consecutive time.
In October 2020, Miranda House started working towards creating an archive to preserve its seventy-two years old history in order to document the history of women in the field of higher education. On its Founder’s Day, the Miranda House Archiving Project was announced. In the words of the Acting Principal Dr. Bijayalaxmi Nanda, “I’m interested in the telling of the history of a woman’s college. A ‘herstory’ is a narrative. It’s not just about achievements. In an old college magazine, I found a piece written by the first principal about how she had offered sari to students who had come to her home and had been caught in the rain… Narratives of what women students’ access to education had been like, their relationships with their teachers and each other.” (The Indian Express)
In March 2021, Miranda House planned to offer a three-month certificate program in order to train women who aspire to join politics both at the state level and the national level. In order to assist the ones in need during the Covid 19 pandemic, Miranda House initiated a help desk service on 22nd April, 2021. They received calls from people asking their help to find oxygen, doctors, hospital beds, ambulance services, plasma, RT-PCR tests and so on. The students then directed the people to a credible source who could help them.
The operation was headed by Srishti Sensarma. In her words, it was the college principal Bijayalaxmi Nanda’s idea and was started by a few students to help the college community. However, their phone numbers soon spread out vastly and since then they have been receiving phone calls by people asking for help.
By providing unique opportunities to women both in terms of higher education and life experiences, Miranda House is setting new and higher goals for themselves every day. Its dedication towards the future and well being of young women, and the society in general, is unmatchable. Miranda House’s contribution in achieving a society where women are treated equally with men in both professional and public spheres is truly phenomenal.
Taekwondo, also known as Tae Kwon Do or Taekwon-Do, is a form of martial arts that originated in Korea. Known to be more than two thousand years old, Taekwondo is considered to be one of the oldest forms of martial arts in the world. The three parts of the word, “Tae”, “Kwon and “Do” means “foot”, “fist” and “discipline” respectively. Thus, the art of Taekwondo involves kicking and punching techniques. In India, Taekwondo was introduced in around 1975 by Master Puran Andrew Gurung, after he returned from Hong Kong. At first he started taking Taekwondo classes in Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kalimpong and later expanded his teachings to not only Kolkata but also to northern, southern and northeastern parts of India.
Many young girls from India aspire to become Tawkwondo Champions and make our country proud. Taekwondo champions, Aruna Singh Tanwar from Haryana and Shahnaz Parveen from Ladakh, have soared high up in the sky and paved the way for many young talents who dream of making India shine. With their extraordinary skills and utmost hard work, the two girls have created history.
Aruna Singh Tanwar is the first ever Taekwondo athlete from India who qualified for Paralympics 2021. Born in Dinod Village, located near Bhiwani, in Haryana, she began practicing Taekwondo at the age of eight. Her father Naresh kumar, a factory driver, and her mother Sonia, a housewife, have been huge pillars of support in Aruna’s life. Even though Aruna suffered from deformity in both hands since birth, she never let it become a stumbling block in the way of her dreams. Her mother, in an interview with The Print, stated, “She never complained about it, rather she practiced harder to overcome the physical barriers and convert them into a tool to be used in the martial art. With her selection for Paralympics, Aruna will now become a role model for many, especially girls who are not given equal opportunity in comparison to boys in India by their parents to showcase their inner talent and get empowered.”
Besides sports, Aruna also speaks up and spreads awareness about women’s safety. In her words, “Martial art is not only a sport. I consider it as a tool for women empowerment. We keep on listening to news about women harassment and rape attempts. I want every girl to learn martial arts and use it as a tool to defend themselves against the bad elements of the society.” (The Times of India)
Aruna won five gold medals at the National Taekwondo Championships. Currently, Aruna Singh Tanwar holds the World Rank 4th in the W-49 kg | K43 | and the World Rank 30th in the W-49 kg | K44 event category of World Para Taekwondo Events. She received the official confirmation, from the Para Taekwondo Association India (PTAI), of getting the bipartite quota for the Tokyo Paralympics which is going to be held from 24th August to 5th September, 2021. “My dream to represent India at Paralympics 2021 has been fulfilled and I am confident to win a medal for my country,” she said.
On the other hand, Shahnaz Parveen, is another inspirational name in Taekwondo. In 2020, the Poomsae Lovers Club China organized the 1st International Poomsae Lover Club Invitational Online Championship where players from twenty-two countries had participated. Three players from the Ladakh Taekwondo Association (LTA) participated in Championship and made India proud. Shahnaz Parveen, the only female player out of the three, became an inspiration for all the upcoming female Taekwondo players by winning the gold medal. Zeeshan Mehdi too received the gold medal and Sonal Chospal bagged the bronze medal.
Both Aruna Singh Tanwar and Shahnaz Parveen are role models for all the young girls of our country who want to achieve their goals. They proved that with determination, dedication and hard work, one can surely overcome all obstacles and turn their dreams into reality.
Dr. Priya Abraham, a renowned virologist, is the director of ICMR and is heading the National Institute of Virology (NIV) Pune.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Welcome Prof. Priya Abraham, I welcome you to the show.
Dr. Priya Abraham: Thank you for having me in your show and I look forward to this interaction.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Recently we read that the mixture of Covaxin and Covishield actually benefitted people and boosted immunity. Would you like to throw some more light on it and tell us whether there are confusions or whether it is the right direction?
Dr. Priya Abraham: In our experience, we were led to look at a serendipitous mixture of doses. It happened unintentionally and we looked at the response rate. Those who received a heterogeneous combination, that means, one vaccine followed by a different vaccine as the second dose, we found that it was not unsafe and did not cause any extra symptoms or side effects. The immune response was a little better but the numbers are modest and very few at this point in time. Time will tell when we will be able to give an official recommendation that this is a safe way to go and also in some way a little beneficial. So right now this is not a formal recommendation.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Looking at the full journey of the pandemic, even a month back the situation was scarier than it is now. However, we are hearing reports about the increase in cases in places such as Kerala and North-Eastern India. As far as this pandemic and SARS-CoV-2 is concerned, where do we stand as of now?
Dr. Priya Abraham: First thing we have to understand is that India is a large and complex country and each state is like a “country”. So we might have multiple surges across our country, it’s not like the surge comes simultaneously over the different states of the country. So, it may be related to, one, the level of protection that people have. Or even, people may have low levels of antibodies because they have adopted very good public health and social measures, such that, many people are not protected. So should there be a spread in the community, many people go down with it. Another factor that contributes to differential positivity rates is, one of course there has been a general laxity in that region; otherwise, it is also because of the manner in which they test. Are they testing intelligently? Are they actually catching the more symptomatic people who are likely to be positive? Maybe in some regions we are not testing intelligently. We are catching people who are at a lower risk, the asymptomatic individuals, and they will come positive. So the percentage prevalence will be low. You have tested n number but you have not tested the people who really are likely to be positive. So these are the factors that lead to variation between the states. And I think now, both Kerala and the North East are just going through their wave. Other states have already completed their wave. This is likely to happen and it is going to be different as the festivals approach us. Each state has its own regional festivals which are very big things for them, and if we open it out, then we are going to have multiple small surges based on the level of crowding and merry-making that are happening, which are done in a callous way.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: In fact, Ma’am, I would really like you to give out a message here, as you, being in Maharashtra, has rightly said that all over India the festival season is starting and in spite of spreading the word about social distancing, festivals create an emotional surge. Would you like to give a message here saying how important it is to behave in a Covid-19 protocol manner?
Dr. Priya Abraham: I think the more sensible approach, at the point where we are today, is to continue to mask up. I think now is the time where you can take out your designer masks so you can have a nice, snazzy mask that goes with your pretty outfit; but masking is a must, physical distancing is a must, overcrowding is a big no-no, hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene are also very important. We could go with the flow of things and be really excited about our festivals approaching, but this has to be celebrated in a different manner where we can have fun but we have to be sensibly celebrating.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Sensibly celebrating is the message that Prof. Priya Abraham of course is giving, apart from many others who really understand the severity of the situation as it is and only the current Covid-19 protocol behaviour really gives us that safety cover which is important. We are very happy that we have crossed 50 crores in India as far as vaccination is concerned. However, despite two doses of vaccination, we are seeing cases of breakthrough infections. How would you like to make us understand what it is all about and how we can deal with it?
Dr. Priya Abraham: I want to make two points very clear. One is that, no vaccine is hundred percent effective in stopping acquisition of infection. What a vaccine does is it protects you against serious forms of illness should you pick up SARS-CoV-2. Those of us who are vaccinated and who are going around in and out of malls and festivities, we could pick up the infection. The infection could enter our bodies through our nostrils, it could cause a localized infection, we might not get very sick because we are vaccinated but we could potentially be the roots of transmission to others, especially, vulnerable people at home, elders at home, such as our grandparents and parents who have other health conditions. So we need to be cautious and celebrate knowing that even though we are vaccinated, we could pick up and continue to transmit the infection to others who are more vulnerable.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Another thing we read and also heard about from the director of AIIMS Dr. Randeep Guleria is the R factor. How serious and severe is it? How much do we need to look at it?
Dr. Priya Abraham: R factor is the reflection of ratio; when one person gets infected, how many other people can that one person infect. So when that R factor crosses 1, what they call the R–naught, that means, if I am infected, I can potentially infect two or three people and those two or three people can infect two or three people and you can see that becomes a very quick spread of infection in a particular area. So R-naughts going up, definitely crossing 1, is not a good thing for any region. And again I come back to our behaviour, which will be able to keep this R-naught lower just by virtue of the way we behave in public and even in our homes, or even when we are interacting with our colleagues and friends.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: What about the 3rd Wave that one has been talking about? How do we really need to look at it? Is there any trend which shows that the 3rd Wave could be just around?
Dr. Priya Abraham: The 3rd Wave may happen. We have seen it happen in other countries, even Delhi had more than two waves. So 3rd Wave is likely to happen; when it will happen, how big that wave will be is dictated by us. So, to all your questions, I have the same answer to give. The more careful we are, the more responsible we are, we can at least delay the wave and even if a wave was to come, the size of the wave will depend on how good our measures are.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Coming to children, some people are saying that children’s health might get affected. How true is that? How do we need to look at children and their health in the current SARS-CoV-2 scenario?
Dr. Priya Abraham: Well if you see the results of the most recent surveys that ICMR did, you will know that large number of children were exposed and they were positive antibodies to the virus, which means, they were exposed. The majority of children handled this virus very well. They usually have an asymptomatic illness and we may not even know that they are infected. It is the children that have some other medical complication which could make the outcome serious for them. Otherwise by and large, children, especially younger children, handle the virus very well. At best they have mild symptoms or no symptoms, but as I said it is only in a fraction of children who have some other medical complication that the infection can take a bad turn.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: We always say that women should lead from the front. We talk about female health workers and I must appreciate and also share with our viewers here that we feel delighted that someone like you is leading NIV in Pune, leading in the health sector and creating a very scientific understanding for us. Looking at India, if we focus on the whole sector of virology, the scientific study, the scientific temperament that we should all have, and the new learnings from the pandemic, how have we really behaved?
Dr. Priya Abraham: In terms of the health care sector and in terms of a potentially future pandemic hitting us, we need to have very robust healthcare infrastructure. Just like our armed forces, it is a preparedness that we need to have, to be able to handle an outbreak which will come from the most unexpected quarters. So, the preparedness is very important. But having said that, if we reflect on how the entire bunch of the health care workers as well as the indigenous kits and equipment that we were able to put out, I think as a country we have done well. ICMR-NIV itself, we were the first to report the virus, and within two weeks, we had taught thirteen lakhs how to do the RT-PCR Test. Today we have taught 107 virus research diagnostic labs which are under the department of Health Research and over 1300 government labs are using the technology we taught them. So day and night we taught people virtually, online, how to do a test which they had never done before. So from very low levels of expertise, people have come up to a very good level of expertise. They have risen to the challenge and we have a number of labs today, over 2000 or perhaps as I talk maybe 3000 labs, both government and private, that are able to do testing for our country.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: So basically we did stand up to the challenge Ma’am.
Dr. Priya Abraham: Yes we stood up to the challenge. The very good reporting network and the portal we have to enter results set up by ICMR, even the government responding to making Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), ventilators, now we increasing our oxygen production capacity, every day we are hearing that we are inching up more and more and a lot of indigenous kits and equipment have also come into the market. So I think we have not really been lackadaisical from that angle. But as the public of India, we don’t need anybody to tell us. By now common man should be made to understand that this pandemic will behave the way we behave, in the sense, if we behave responsibly, the pandemic will slowly ebb away.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: But as we see around Ma’am, people have started travelling. Using a mask and social distancing are very important, but people are not only travelling domestically but there are plans of making admissions for children and tour plans for business, outside the country as well. What would you really advice at this point of time as to what exactly the kind of precautions we should really take?
Dr. Priya Abraham: So again I would say vaccinate as much as possible. Be vaccinated and the mask is a wonderful “kavach” for us. So no matter where we are, whether we are at the cafeteria, of course we have to eat but try to find a place where it is not crowded, where you have a little space around you so you can take off your mask and consume your food, especially when you are going to the washroom, the mask has to be on. Again when you are crowded in an aircraft or in a lobby, look at the place and you will find that there are many people around you, so there is no scope for letting down your guard. In fact, I was in an aircraft recently; I had to go for work. I was sitting across the aisle with a man who was quietly letting his mask down. Twice the cabin crew told him to put up his mask and when they disappeared, he brought his mask down. Then I spoke to him from across the aisle and I told him, “Excuse me Sir, this mask is first to protect you and then to protect others. So please don’t do it for anybody else, please wear that mask.” So I think we should also step out of our zones of comfort and actually tell people who are wearing chin masks, who have their nose sticking out of the mask, who put aside their masks. We are a vehicle to pass this message around so that all of us collectively become more responsible.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: We get most of the information online, or by reading newspaper or by watching television, of course ICMR is putting out information, the Health Ministry is also, through its conferences, telling us about what is happening. Talking about the recent scenario, the vaccination is taking place; women’s health is also of priority. What is your message to women as to how they should protect themselves and take care of themselves? Recently we heard that pregnant women can get vaccinated as well. What would say about the confusion regarding women taking the vaccine, taking the right kind of precautions and dealing with this pandemic and SARS-CoV-2?
Dr. Priya Abraham: Women are just as vulnerable as men for this infection and women need to understand that vaccination is very important. It does not interfere with their menstrual cycle or fertility issues and can be taken during pregnancy and while they are nursing. This is the first thing they need to know. A woman is a pivotal person not just at her place of work but I think she is the pivotal person in a family setting. She is important for her children, her husband, her parents and for herself. So I think that women should not put this on a back burner, they should take every effort to get themselves vaccinated if they want to stay healthy and also this Covid-19 appropriate behaviour is very relevant for her too. She is very much a person who should be handling this very responsibly and there are no additional risks to a woman.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Thank you for sharing that and I am sure that all the women out there feel confident. Please go and get vaccinated as the experts say that this is important. As far as vaccination is concerned, and you also spoke about testing, how are we going ahead? Where do we stand?
Dr. Priya Abraham: If you are asking me about testing, I think testing has to continue. Testing, tracing, quarantining, isolating, all of these are extremely important and we need to be maintaining a quality. It is not just any test, but a test that will give the result. I need to remind the public that there was this talk about RT-PCR Test not performing optimally when the peak of the second wave hit us. That was because the health care system and the laboratories were overwhelmed by the sheer load of tests they had to do. And I know for a fact that many of the staff who were in the lab were themselves infected. So we need to help each other; like I always tell people that let us not put that load on the doctors and nurses and other health care workers. We are responsible. We do not need to be an agent of putting more load on the healthcare system. So yes, to some extent, both the hospitals and the laboratories were reeling from the load but I think our labs are well up to meeting that challenge and we just need to keep up with it. There is no time for laxity.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: At this point of time we know that there are a lot of confusions and rumours regarding the pandemic, although we don’t want it and we keep telling others not to spread misinformation but sometimes through some inputs one gets apprehensions. So post Delta variant, will there be a new variant which will be worse, as some people say?
Dr. Priya Abraham: I will take the question a little differently. I would say that the vaccine and the mask are your protection against any variant. Yes, the Delta variant was extremely transmissible, so it raged through our country, it has raged through so many other countries, well over 132 countries and I think my figure is conservative. It is probably more than that. So you know how many countries now have the Delta variant. Even in the United States of America, the Delta variant is raging. Now knowing this virus, the more you give it a chance to spread amongst a population, it is going to keep changing its avatar a little. So variants are likely to come, and for that most of the nations have now geared up to do very good surveillance and sequencing of strains that are circulating in a region. So every region, including the WHO, is alerting us that there is a new variant about. And again, like I said, if we allow the virus to spread more amongst us, the virus will keep changing just a little bit. That’s the nature of the virus. So what we can do is stop its spread.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Talking about virology, in this pandemic, we got to understand the whole importance of this area of health. But tell us about this whole pattern of understanding the virus. It took some time, of course, to understand the pattern, the nature. As far as virology in India in concerned and you are heading one of the important institutions, how much do you think have we really gotten hang of it now? You said that we stood up to the challenge and we have really been able to come together and gain good results to preserve or take care of the healthcare system. But as far as virology is concerned, can you give us more insights on that in India?
Dr. Priya Abraham: I think there has been a huge amount of awareness not only among the lay people, who are not scientists themselves, but in the whole healthcare system and among laboratories, I told you how we had empowered 107 laboratories, and now virtually every medical college has developed capacity to test viruses. People had this bigger, larger discipline of Microbiology, people knew about TB, people knew about those kinds of bugs, to some extent they knew a little about the H1N1 which common man refers to as the Swine Flu. But at that time, the spread of the virus wasn’t so much and we also had an antiviral drug for it. The drug combined with vaccine could quell the spread of the previous pandemic to some extent. Now we are finding that this virus is spreading like really crazy and now I think awareness has come up to a great extent among the non-scientific and the scientific communities; and I think this will hold us in good strength but we should keep up the awareness and preparedness so that we will be well braced and ready for another potential pandemic in the future.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: We work here with a lot of young people, we work with colleges and many of them are young girls; if we talk about virology and the scientific stream as a subject, what would be your message to some of these young people who are looking at careers in the areas of science and scientific research?
Dr. Priya Abraham: I think we have come a long way. In fact, earlier when I used to say that I am a virologist, people would say, “Oh you are a biologist?” They could not distinguish what virology is and what biology is; I think that awareness has come up and I think this whole discipline of virology is really the place to be. I think working in a discipline such as this, you will never be out of business. I say it not out of an inflated sense of confidence, I am just saying it out of our experience from the recent past. As I am speaking to you, you know we found that there was Zika both in Kerala and in Maharashtra. We are constantly finding new things, so being in this specialty is perhaps one of the best places to be if you are in the overall discipline of science.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: And that leads to another small question about convergence, that is, how do we join together and understand something which poses a challenge for us? Within the health system, let’s say, you are in the field of virology right now, but there are different scientific streams, expertise and researches; what would you say about the convergence of it all happening in India as of now?
Dr. Priya Abraham: I think between different disciplines, whether you are a cancer surgeon or you are a person who looks after kidney diseases, a nephrologist, or a cardiologist or a pharmacologist who looks at drugs, or an immunologist or a vaccinologist or a virologist – this particular pandemic has just driven home the fact that we have to work in a very complimentary fashion. Our inputs in a complimentary manner, in a cohesive manner will bring out the best outcomes. Nobody can work in isolation. We are interdependent at a time like this.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: That is very well said Ma’am; the interdependence and also understanding and learning from each other, and then working together to face the pandemic. Do we have some other questions team? Is there somebody who would like to ask a question here?
Q) Tishya Majumder: When we talk about common objects such as money or coins which people handle every day, what percentage of the virus can enter our bodies from objects such as money?
Dr. Priya Abraham: Money or anything that can be touched by common man, be it the railing, or even when you travel in an airport shuttle which takes you from the airplane to the lobby of the airport, that is touched by innumerable people. For all of us, when we touch anything that is handled by anybody and everybody, we should periodically sanitize our hands. Definitely we shouldn’t take the unsanitized hands to rub our face, our nose or even consume food especially if we are not using a fork and spoon, if we are eating Roti or whatever; without sanitizing our hands or washing it well with soap and water or using a good sanitizer, we cannot consume food. We must assume all these could have been touched by somebody who is not as careful about transmission of infection, following strict Covid-19 protocol, not taking hands to the nose or face; so we have to assume that these objects are potentially infected.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Tishya, thank you for asking that question. One more thing Ma’am and I can’t let you go without asking you a little bit about your personal and professional journey, reaching here and leading here at NIV; and also when we are looking at the health sector in the times of pandemic, how has it been understanding something specifically and having huge responsibilities at a time like this? How has it all been for you Ma’am?
Dr. Priya Abraham: I will be honest, it has not been easy and obviously to lead an institute that is doing so much work at a critical time, we started our work in January of 2020, so we are almost 18 months into this, it has not been easy. There has always been pressure from all quarters because everybody was stressed and did not know how to handle it, be it from individual entrepreneurs, scientists, from the government, from the ministry, because everybody was under stress. But looking back, I think, because of the excellent teamwork in the institution that I am heading, we were able to contribute in several ways and I look back with a feeling of contentment, some sense of accomplishment and gratitude that things went fairly well, nobody became very sick and there were no transmissions of the virus within the institute, we didn’t close down a single day. The days we closed down were for the machines to be rehauled and recalibrate because machines also need some time. It has been a very hectic and eventful rollercoaster journey but I think, looking back I feel, we have been able to serve the nation.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Another small question again about our health workers actually. We need to salute our health workers, the entire spectrum, from doctors in ICU to paramedics to nurses to other medical staff, I think they have really worked 24/7 and I think as a team, as you are saying, at the institution ICMR-NIV, and apart from that, all over India I think health workers have really done a commendable job.
Dr. Priya Abraham: I have to completely agree with you. I think we have to salute people who are frontline staff, frontline workers, be it qualified as a formal frontline staff in terms of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and even in the non-formal sector, they were there facing the suffering and putting themselves at immense risk because they were going back to families after having been at work for long hours in the midst of all this suffering and lot of infection around them. So that is what I had earlier mentioned that we can truly appreciate them and we can truly salute them for their services by being responsible citizens and making sure we don’t either pick up the infection or transmit infection to others; that would be our best tribute to the work they have done for this whole period of the pandemic.
Q) Ms. Rakhee Bakshee: Thank you so much Ma’am for your valuable time, for all your insights, for all the valuable information that you have shared here on Her World India Talk Show and we really feel very grateful to you and we also show our gratitude to all the health workers here and of course to you! More power to you for leading from the top as you are from NIV, an institute as prestigious as that, and ICMR, our Heath Ministry which is keeping an eye on things as they are happening. Prof. Priya Abraham, thank you so much for talking to us.