Of Imagined Disasters in India & Vaccine Diplomacy

Covid Pandemic : Thank you India

We have to be humble enough to be ready to learn from each other’s experience and to put our heads together to fight the common enemies that threaten our health, the planet’s health and its economy

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Thank you Prof Indira Chakravarty of Kolkata for sending me the video of the WION (World Is One) channel wherein the anchor presents a factual and insightful update (as of Jan. 23, 2021) about India’s handling of the pandemic, which we’ll see in a moment.

Prof Indira Chakravarty is a former Director of the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health in Kolkata (established 1932), where several Mauritian doctors have trained in Public Health. About ten years ago she was delegated to Mauritius as WHO Consultant to assist the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life in preparing its new National Nutrition Plan.

And thank you also for the clip showing Usha Uthup singing ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ at Victoria Memorial Kolkata on the occasion of Parakram Diwas (in honour of Subhash Chandra Bose) in presence of PM Narendra Modi and CM of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, which sent me down memory lane – Usha was singing as Usha Iyer during my student days in what was then Calcutta.

Commenting on the pandemic situation the WION anchor starts with a flashback to its beginnings when, 10 months earlier, the New York Times predicted a catastrophe for India, followed up four months later by the Boston Globe calling India’s response ‘a humanitarian disaster’. Shortly after, for Scientific American India was in denial about the Covid crisis, and BBC declared that New Delhi was staring at a disaster.

What does the BBC say now? The UK is facing a record of 1564 daily deaths; a further 1564 people have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, the biggest figure in a single day since the pandemic began. CNN reports that UK hospitals look like a war zone. In the US the hospital situation is no better; more than 24 million people have been infected, representing about 25% of the world’s total of around 100 million. In several states there is an upshot in the number of hospital admissions, and California is a new hotspot. The West in general is facing surges.

In contrast, says the anchor, India seems to have got a grip on the pandemic; cases have fallen to their lowest since June 2020: so much for the doomsday predictions, she adds. Besides, India is driving the world’s largest vaccination programme, aiming to attain 300 M (almost entire population of US) of its 1.3 billion population by July 2021. As of 22 Jan 1.04 million people had been vaccinated (N.B. this number has now crossed 1.6 M).

She lets out some mind-boggling figures: India has trained 200,000 vaccinators and 370,000 team members; readied 29,000 cold storages.

But India is not stopping at vaccinating its own people: it is also nursing the neighbourhood back to health through ‘vaccine diplomacy’. That is, gifting several countries its locally manufactured vaccine to several countries: Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar, Seychelles, Mauritius (100,000 doses of Covishield vaccine), Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Morocco and Brazil have received 2 million doses each through commercial arrangements. Countries such as Belgium and UK are interested to source Indian vaccines, as are some countries in West Asia and Africa too.

The interest in Indian vaccines is because they are both cost effective and safe. For example, Covishield is priced at 6 USD compared to Moderna’s 30 dollars and Sputnik 10 dollars. India has the largest number of FDA approved vaccine manufacturing plants outside the US, with a reputation for topnotch standards, India being known as the world’s pharmacy. Vaccine developers from around the world have been tying up with India’s vaccine plants from the beginning of the pandemic. The Serum Institute of India (SII) in Pune is the largest vaccine producer in the world, at 1.5 billion doses a year, currently manufacturing the Covishield vaccine; other big firms in the west all fall far short of this figure. SII will also supply 200 million doses to the WHO Covax platform for distribution to the poorer countries.

India is thus engaged in the equitable distribution of vaccines to the world. In the words of PM Narendra Modi: ‘India is ready to save humanity with two “Made in India” Covid-19 vaccines.’ WHO’s DG Dr Tedros wrote as follows: ‘India continues to take decisive action and demonstrate its resolve to end the Covid-19 pandemic. As the world’s largest vaccine producer it’s well-placed to do so. If we ACTogether, we can ensure effective and safe vaccines are used to protect the most vulnerable everywhere.’

India is thus extending support to multiple nations to heal from the Covid shock in a spirit of compassion. As early as July 2020, Dr Peter Piot, Director of the London School Hygiene and Tropical Medecine, said that without India there won’t be enough vaccines to save the world. While the world blocked the export of essential medicines, India instead supplied drugs such as HCQ (Hydroxychloroquine), Remdesivir, paracetamol as well as masks, ventilators, diagnostic kits, etc. It also provided training to the neighbourhood. All these actions are being driven by the core Indian premise of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: the world is one family, concluded the anchor.

On the other hand, while in India (where the recovery rate is approaching 97%) the number of new cases and deaths continues to fall (respectively 13303 & 131 as of yesterday), in the US and UK the news outlets which at the beginning displayed a pathological obsession with imagined disasters in India have not deemed it fit to own up their prejudice, contrast the Indian stats and response with their own self-acknowledged ‘out of control situation’ and admit that they are lagging behind, let alone to report that India has managed a turnaround and is firmly on the way to vaccinate its 1.3 billion despite facing so many constraints.

Besides, in Europe, as the New York Times reports, there is resistance to prolongation of lockdowns, for example in the Netherlands, ‘Demonstrators in the Netherlands clashed with the police in two cities on Sunday, and a coronavirus testing facility was burned on Saturday, as anger at a nationwide lockdown grew more violent’. And there are other major issues too: ‘The European Union said that it would take legal action if necessary to ensure pharmaceutical companies fulfilled contracts to supply vaccines to the bloc, after manufacturers announced possible delays.’

One lesson that I have learnt during my now nearly half a century of medical practice is that in medical and health matters your Waterloo awaits you at every bend. The last thing that you should practise as a doctor is the art of grand-noir (arrogance). And its equivalent – not posturing on the moral high ground – applies to nations and their leaders and communicators as well when it comes to dealing with the reality of biological variability and unpredictability that Covid-19, for example, has so dramatically demonstrated, and that continues to challenge humanity’s capacity to cope. How long more it will take to achieve a reasonable degree of control we cannot confidently say: it will also depend on whether we behave rationally or impulsively. And we would be naïve to assume that Covid-19 is the last in line to have a predilection not to say a liking for our vulnerable human tissues!

That is part of the reason that we have to be humble enough to be ready to learn from each other’s experience and to put our heads together to fight the common enemies that threaten our health, the planet’s health and its economy. If there is another way out, I’d be happy to learn about it.


* Published in print edition on 26 January 2021

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