Kajodi was a powerful image. A lonely figure, the vast emptiness of the Noida-Greater Noida Expressway and the horizon dotted with high-rise buildings. In the aftermath of the national lockdown announced on March 24, the 90-year-old was trying to walk from Delhi-NCR to her village in Rajasthan, some 400 km away. The image infuriated me. Then it depressed me. Trained as a scientist—a biochemist and virologist to be exact—I was in demand for my views on the coronavirus outbreak. Relying on public health principles, I was advocating social distancing and a lockdown…. But wasn’t I being completely blinkered by the science, and not paying attention to the “public” in public health? Indeed, I was…and I was angry with myself.
How dare I sit in the comforts of my South Delhi apartment and pontificate to people living on the edge? How would I explain, let alone justify, “social distancing” to someone who lives in an urban slum in Delhi or a chawl in Mumbai? One room with five or six people? My anger turned to depression. Over the next fortnight and more, as we navigated to the end of one lockdown and the beginning of an extension, a variety of other conflicted emotions too overwhelmed us. What have we scientists learnt, experientially? How must science look upon these scenes that confront it from the world out there, the world beyond the research lab? Here, I put down some of my thoughts and feelings—hopefully we can turn our doubts into the outlines of a collective interrogation of science in society.