In mid-March, as the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hit home, Indians tried to make sense of the jumble of data streams flooding the internet: the number of tests India was conducting each day, fatality rates across countries that were already close to hitting the peak, the possible incubation period of the virus, the extent of shortfall the country’s healthcare system was gearing up for. Epidemiological models were predicting wildly varying outcomes for India a couple of months down the line. Holed up in our homes, we urgently needed an expert to gaze across the great swathes of data about how an intractable and capricious disease was attacking humankind, and to tell us with considerable confidence what indeed was going on. Shamika Ravi, former Director, Research, at the India Centre of Brookings Institution, a Washington DC-based think-tank, stepped into the scene when data was only just becoming part of the shared emotional experience of a virus-ridden world. Her daily Covid-19 updates, which she posts on Twitter every morning, have since become, as one follower puts it, “like filter coffee”, for over 80,000 people. Ask her to crystal ball-gaze and the number-cruncher recoils from drawing conclusions. “We don’t have local data, we don’t know what the behaviour of the infection is like in India—how long the incubation period [12-14 days for OECD countries] is, reproduction data, the infection rate. These are not matters for mathematicians. Without ground-level data, it will be quite tough to understand how the infection will behave in India,” says the 44-year-old. “We are only working with existing evidence.”
“We” includes her husband, Mudit Kapoor, a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute. Ravi and Kapoor began by calculating a five-day moving average of new cases and have now progressed to seven. This, she says, is better for tracking broader trends. It takes a couple of hours to sift through, organise and analyse the data and anywhere between an hour and an hour-and-a-half to upload it. Ravi usually tweets out the day’s observations between 9 am and 10 am and on the rare days that it has been delayed, she is inundated with anxious enquiries and feels obliged to lead with an apology.
Tracking the spread of the pandemic in the country has kept her so busy that for Mothers’ Day, her two sons gave her a handmade card depicting her at the computer. “You can’t switch off your mind. You are constantly thinking of the problems and issues your research brings up. An academic’s life isn’t 9 to 5.” Neither is that of India’s most trusted ‘Covid statistician’, a title Ravi can lay claim to since she began her daily updates on the pandemic nearly eight weeks ago. From the rate of growth of active cases to the compounded daily growth rate to death rate per million to how other countries are doing in the fight against the virus, Ravi’s updates, presented in an accessible format and complemented with graphs and attribution to sources like the data repository at Johns Hopkins, are easily the most relied upon Covid-19 numbers in the country.
In April, when Twitter put out a list of 29 accounts to follow for tracking the Covid-19 crisis across the world, it included science journalists, infectious disease epidemiologists, and of course, Ravi. “In moments of crises, clear communication, a clear understanding of what is unfolding, especially in the face of such uncertainty, is essential. I am not surprised at how keenly people have been following my tweets,” she says. Ravi had started out with sharing India’s Covid-19 numbers, its doubling rate and the corresponding figures from countries like Germany and South Korea. By the time she spoke to Open, she was tweeting over 10 updates a day with detailed parameters of the spread across states and countries. Not surprisingly, Ravi is part of several Government-appointed task forces and groups set up by ministers and elected representatives. “I work with both the political and the executive arm of the Government—everyone is keen on understanding the pandemic.”
Yet, what has been missing is a localised strategy informed by data. “The nature of the spread in Tamil Nadu is different from say the spread in Dharavi—the former is due to a cluster and the latter due to cramped living conditions,” Ravi says. “We need to know exact data points and highly localised district-level estimates if we have to formulate a local strategy.”
An economist with experience in fields as varied as gender inequality, microfinance, game theory and public health, Ravi’s motivation for tracking Covid-19 data was sparked by the alarming prognosis for India made by international epidemiologists. Ravi doesn’t name anyone but take, for example, Ramanan Laxminarayan’s predictions. Director of the Washington-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, Laxminarayan had, in mid-March, predicted a worst-case scenario of over 700 million Indians getting infected by Covid. The best-case scenario, he had said, was 200 million. According to Laxminarayan, the lockdown has pushed the peak back but it will eventually come.
“All the models gave frightening numbers and as such it (the decision to start tracking) was very personal,” says Ravi. She quickly realised parameters that worked for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, cruise ships (Diamond Princess) and China “were not applicable to India”. “The Indian scenario with its inter-generational living arrangements and rural-urban gap is unlike any other. Then there are factors like what policy decisions had been taken [the lockdown], the infection rate, the mortality rate, the nature of the spread, etcetera. My husband and I just felt that it was our professional duty to do this, to bring our training to bear on this. So it was both personal and professional,” says Ravi, on a video call with Open.
An economist with experience in gender inequality, microfinance, game theory and public health, Ravi’s motivation for tracking Covid-19 data was sparked by the alarming prognosis for India made by international epidemiologists
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“She is very precise in her analysis,” says MP and former Union Minister Jayant Sinha, who dubs her research “outstanding”. “She has a unique ability to relate to the big picture while keeping her observations very detailed.” Ravi is no stranger to such fulsome praise. Armed with a PhD from New York University, she moved back to India nearly 15 years ago, when the country was just waking up to its economic potential with the reforms of 1991 taking hold. She has since established herself as a respected policy wonk, but not before wearing the professorial hat. A former member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, Ravi continues to be a senior fellow of the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, and professor of economics at the Indian School of Business, a position she has held since 2006.
Ravi graduated in 1996 from Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, an institution she credits with instilling in her the belief that anything was possible. “My generation came of age with a lot of great opportunities opening up for women,” she says. Opportunities began to crystallise for Ravi when, as a Masters’ student at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE), she found herself considering a career as an economist. The seeds that were planted in DSE took root in NYU under the tutelage of mentors like William Easterly and Jonathan Morduch. “It was there that I understood the importance of research that made an impact on the real world. In India, especially, there are just so many motivations to do research that can have a direct bearing on people’s lives,” she says.
She knew she had to come back and work in India. In 2006, she and Kapoor, who had become parents by then, moved to Hyderabad, where she took on a role as a visiting professor of economics at the Indian School of Business. “Economics can be highly conceptual and theoretical but Shamika made the material come alive. Her style of teaching was very engaging and accessible. She was very popular,” says Pramath Raj Sinha, the founding dean of ISB. Ravi’s course was on development economics, with a focus on microfinance. Coming just two years after Muhammad Yunus had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Grameen Bank, the course became one of the most popular electives at the business school, Ravi says. “Over the years, several hundred students have signed up for the course. The end aim is not a career in the field of development finance but a knowledge of it from the point of view of banking.” Around the same time, Ravi was also exploring her interest in policy and doing a fair bit of research on schemes like the MNREGA.
It was nearly a decade ago that economist and writer Devaki Jain first came across a piece by Ravi on the Panchayati Raj in The Economic and Political Weekly. She was struck by the tone of the piece. “I thought here is a person doing something which is comprehensive and speaks to its values.” She sent Ravi an email and friendship blossomed between the two, with Jain attending her talks and encouraging the young economist. Jain’s work lies at the intersection of gender and economics—an area that Ravi, too, is interested in.
Six years ago, Ravi moved from Hyderabad to Delhi and switched focus to the two pillars of human capital—health and education. She saw that the country wasn’t investing enough in human capital and that this was directly impacting growth. In 2014, Ravi co-authored a Brookings report titled ‘Health and Morbidity in India (2004 -2014)’ that looked at NSSO data through the decade to make observations about healthcare in India. One of the many findings of the report was that public health insurance programmes had been ineffective in lowering the healthcare expenditures of Indian households. “The paper made it very clear that there was no protection from insurance schemes and people were pushed into poverty because of catastrophic health expenditures. It is a point we had also been trying to make. Shamika’s paper made the argument in a much better way,” says Dr Srinath Reddy, President, Public Health Foundation of India. Having met her at ISB, he is not surprised by her pivot to public health.
The thousands who follow her for daily updates are a great reminder that when it comes to healthcare, everyone is a stakeholder. Lockdown days for Ravi, when not crunching data, include reading to the kids and running to stay fit. In between, she also finds time to attend seminars and talks, where she lays out her views on everything from the fiscal relief measures announced by the Government to why the lockdown needs to be lifted now and how India should continue to fight Covid for the next two years. “We can’t wish the virus away, it is here to stay. And until we have a vaccine, social distancing with all its attendant protocols will need to be followed. We have to manage the disease, but we also have to let people move about.” It is a point she makes in all the questions that come her way on social media. And because it comes from her, India tends to sit up and take notice.