Plain Speak

Arup Kumar Dutta

Recent reports in India suggest that States like Gujarat and Maharashtra are experiencing spikes in coronavirus cases. While one certainly hopes that these are aberrations which will be contained quickly, they reinforce the truth that effective and rapid mass vaccination of the population is the sole means of getting rid of this lethal virus.

Trust our politicians to try to extract political mileage out of even such a serious issue as the Covid-19 pandemic that has caused such devastation across the world. Just a few days back, referring to the drop in cases of fresh corona infections and deaths in India in the last few weeks, India’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan asserted that the nation has flattened her Covid-19 graph. He, naturally, attributed the ‘improved’ situation to the ‘Whole of Government’ and ‘Whole of society’ approach envisaged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has enabled India to successfully contain the pandemic!

Such a conclusion is not quite true, if we go by what medical scientists are warning us about. India has been spared the extent of mortality witnessed by nations in the West. The US, which has around 33 crore population, had till the time of writing 28,381,220 afflictions and a whopping 5 lakh deaths. The UK, with just 6.6 crore population, has had 4,058,468 cases and 118,195 deaths. In contrast, India with 136.64 crore people had a staggering 10,937,320 cases but, mercifully, only around 1,56,000 deaths.

Why this has been so remains an enigma to scientists even a year after the novel coronavirus outbreak was reported in the Wuhan city in China. That infection cases and mortality rate remained low even in congested slum areas such as Dharavi in Mumbai was truly a medical miracle. Perhaps a less pernicious mutant version of the virus had transported itself to the country; perhaps factors such as mass inoculations in the past against other diseases, the natural immunity of the people and a younger population had contributed to the miracle.

Yet, contrary to what might perhaps be inferred from Vardhan’s assertion, it would not be wise to let our guards down, as is being done by a majority of the people everywhere, who have almost given up using masks and following other Covid-19 protocols. Even now medical experts are cautioning about a possible second wave as experienced by the European nations.

Just a few months back Europe was celebrating ‘the end’ of the pandemic; educational institutions resumed in-person teaching, tourism and hospitality industries were reopened as were offices or other work places, and social life, disrupted during the pandemic, resumed. But by autumn the virus returned, forcing nations like Germany and the Netherlands to go into renewed lockdown.

The sober truth remains that Covid-19 is an inscrutable and eccentric novel coronavirus and scientists are yet to fully unravel its mystery and establish the pattern in which it behaves. Yes, we have been relatively spared so far, but there is no guarantee that we are yet out of the woods. The problem is complicated by the fact that this virus has shown itself capable of adapting itself to different conditions and mutating into different forms.

No one knows how many mutations have already occurred across the world, but India has so far detected at least three of these in the country. Around 187 people have tested positive for the UK variant, four for the South African variant and one for the Brazilian variant. Not only do these variants infect far more quickly than the original, but according to scientists are “less susceptible to antibody neutralization” than previous variants.

Moreover, the sudden and unexpected recurrence of virus clusters underlines the reality that no place can consider itself having totally eradicated Covid-19. Recent reports in India suggest that States like Gujarat and Maharashtra are experiencing spikes in coronavirus cases. While one certainly hopes that these are aberrations which will be contained quickly, they reinforce the truth that effective and rapid mass vaccination of the population is the sole means of getting rid of this lethal virus. Given the possibility that intrusion of variants might ensure that the spread of the virus outpaces the rate with which immunization is effected, the need to speed up vaccination drives everywhere has become more imperative than before.

Here again false and misleading statements to get political mileage would be detrimental to the final objective. For instance, when India reached the 50 lakh mark in vaccination the Union Health Ministry patted itself on the back by issuing a global graph on how India was the fastest nation to reach that mark in 21 days, as compared to the US (24), the UK (43), and Israel 45 days.

Such statements, in fact, cover the harsh truth that India’s vaccination drive, which started on January 16 last, has been in fact very slow, considering that her plan is to inoculate 30 crore people with two doses of the Covid-19 vaccines in the first six months! Such an enormous target means the nation plans to inoculate a number equal to almost the entire population of the US and five times that of the UK!

Because it has had previous experience in mass inoculation for other diseases, it was assumed that India would be able to achieve the huge target she had set for herself. But, viewing the slow pace of inoculation so far, experts are warning that unless the vaccination mechanism is dramatically augmented and there is at least a tenfold increase in the rate of vaccination, the target would not be met even by the end of this year.

As per official figures, India had administered the vaccine to 8.4 million people so far, in contrast to the US (52.8 million), followed by China (40.5 million) and the United Kingdom (15.6 million). This means India has given the first shot to only 3.4% of its total target group, and 96.6% are yet to receive both doses!

It also means that since India, unlike most other countries, has opted not to undertake concurrent vaccination, which entails simultaneous inoculation of healthcare workers and the elderly, the entire vulnerable segment of the population even today remains at risk. If, at the moment it seems that a semblance of normalcy has returned all across the nation, it is only because the younger segments have got over their initial fear of the virus, realizing that they would be impacted upon, if at all, only in a slight, non-fatal way, and have given up wearing masks or observing social distancing.

This has created an environment where the Covid-19 protocol has been thrown to the wind. Fortunately, a vast segment of the older generation throughout the country have realized the danger this poses, and have been sensibly and patiently insulating themselves.

Apparently, as the latest development indicates, the Union Government has finally turned its attention towards this segment. It has expressed its intention of ‘soon’ launching the Covid-19 application called Co-WIN, designed to enable members of the public to self-register for vaccination. One, however, recalls the numerous glitzes which had afflicted this app in the past, and needs to keep fingers crossed that it is not overwhelmed by the huge numbers it is expected to handle.

Surprisingly, for reasons known only to the powers that be, unlike other nations which have placed those above 65 in the senior citizen category, India has put it at 50 years, which means that the pressure on Co-WIN will be all that greater. It has also not been clarified whether the 65 and above, as well as people with comorbidities, would be prioritized, leading to the possibility that the most vulnerable amongst the population would be left in the lurch.

Given that in India the private health sector possesses infrastructure and personnel better than the Government run sector, many senior scientists and doctors have been advising the Centre to rope in the services of the private health sector. Whether it will do so, or what steps it will take to speed up the vaccination drive, only the coming weeks would tell.