The virus originating from Wuhan, known as Covid-19, has been dogged with controversies since the very beginning of its explosive appearance on the world stage. The doubt about its origin – natural or a lab leak – is yet to be resolved. Almost inevitably, the issue of vaccination could not escape being trapped in this web of controversies, and along with the issue of origin, it is the one that now figures most prominently on the radar of everybody trying to either make sense of or is involved in the control of the epidemic.
Business, politics, ideology, religion form another explosive mix that is dogging the vaccine landscape, effectively impacting adversely efforts by national authorities across all countries to achieve levels of vaccination in their respective populations that would halt transmission. Initially 70% was considered to be the minimum segment of the population that needs to have had at least the two doses recommended to confer what is known as herd immunity, the phenomenon that would also protect the rest of the population.
Israel reached this threshold early on in the pandemic, and was able to lift restrictions which is maintained to date. But Seychelles which had vaccinated 75% of its population suddenly found itself subjected to a second surge. The question then shifted to the efficacy of the vaccine used, in this case Sinopharm. In fact, official data put Sinopharm’s efficacy at 60%.
Other vaccines that have been produced and used – Astrazeneca-Covishield, Covaxin, Pfizer, Moderna, Sputnik, Johnson & Johnson have shown efficacies ranging from 80-90%. But then arose the basic problem of availability – quantities that needed to be manufactured, and fast – and affordability, along with issues of storage, supplies of paraphernalia required for administering vaccines (e.g. syringes) and logistics especially in the poorer countries.
Now another problem has surged and that is the variants, the Delta variant being considered the most widespread, and which is upsetting all calculations. Apparently available vaccines are effective against this variant, but it has come with a caveat: 70% herd immunity is not enough, now this has been revised upward to 90%. But when vaccines are slow in coming, how will countries that have no clout procure the amounts they need?
In the meantime, economies are suffering: open up and you enhance the risk of spread; maintain restrictions and the wheel of the economy cannot turn. Damn if you do, damn if you don’t.
The reality is that unlike the established vaccines which have been in use for decades and form part of the universal immunization protocol, Covid vaccines are altogether new, and data about them are changing at relatively short notice. That, along with people’s claim to their freedom to choose to be vaccinated or not, is posing a dilemma to all governments in democratic countries.
The solution to this is to hammer to the refuseniks their civic responsibility. Should they be asked to come forward, and register themselves formally if they have the courage of their conviction? And then be identified by a tag so that others can do the social distancing and reinforce the other protective measures vis-a-vis them? And penalties be made more severe for the refuseniks if they go about in public flouting the sanitary measures?
You can’t have it both ways: I refuse vaccination, but I am free to put other citizens at risk. Each country has to devise its own strategies to deal with this issue. If vaccination cannot be made mandatory as in dictatorships, then the sanitary measures which are as critical a component of the prevention and control strategy must be strictly enforced at the cost of heavier penalties in the case of the refuseniks. The logic of public good must prevail.
* Published in print edition on 22 June 2021
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