India Fights COVID-19: Vaccine The Only Solution?

India has been under lockdown since 25th March 2020, and some vestiges of that still linger in containment zones or in terms of some restrictions still continuing. However, we must ask the question here as to for exactly how long the lockdown had been implemented effectively in the country. Unfortunately, the answer we get says that it’s only for about a month. How? Because, from late April 2020 the problem of the migrant workers burst into the streets, and special trains had to be run for them from May which led to introduction of other trains too for other stranded people within the country. Once the trains were opened up immense pressure led to the reopening domestic flights in the same month.


Therefore, compromises were made within one month of lockdown enforcement. Besides, India has some other crucial realities: political propaganda and political opposition that meant rallies or protests were held regularly throughout; once the political leaders are out the media persons cannot be far behind, and so congregations or crowding took place regularly; people forced to stay at homes wanted at least to have quality meals which led to crowding in the essential markets; and the Indian population, divided across several religions, insisted on observing their respective occasions and festivities which led to violations on a regular basis.


Thanks to all such compromises the graph of the pandemic spread in India has been haphazard with the peak taking more than six months (three months in most other countries) to be realized. After the peak was reached in mid-September 2020 the festival season burst into the open, and again, religious sentiments fueled by political complicity propelled the larger public break the rules in a blatant manner. Besides, election and political rallies became bigger and bigger in size with no consideration for that enigma called ‘new normal’ behavior. Obviously, a second wave started occurring in most of the states from October 2020, and this continues till date without any positive signs of an  effective fightback.


One cannot really blame anyone for this. This country, packed and throbbing with more than a billion people and with the highest-in-the-world population density figures, cannot possibly implement a new order or a new normal standard or whatever to fight the virus effectively. We have been shrieking in these pages since long to make work-from-home and online classes a normal way of life. But then, how far can these measures be realistically implemented? The fact that more than 90% of the country’s workforce are in the unorganized sector makes the realization of these measures well-nigh impossible; because majority of these workers may not even have compatible smartphone, forget about laptops or desktops and good internet connections. Besides, the huge volume of daily manual labor cannot possibly be done from home!


What about social distancing? We’re forced to continue with our depressing analysis. Suppose a grocery supermarket is restricting entry to a maximum of 25 customers at a time. Now, this will lead to accumulation of people outside leading to huge queues or double-queues and finally people spilling over to the lanes and roads. This scenario is applicable to most other public places. Shops/retails/restaurants situated along the roads or the highways will have to stare helplessly at the people crowding around them; they cannot push them out in the streets. Regarding parties/weddings/rallies, outside or inside, it is not possible for the law enforcing authorities to supervise and restrict each and every one round the clock.


Citizens of this country have also been developing a kind of defiance thanks to the consistently low fatality rate and a rising recovery rate. They feel even if the virus hits them, they’ll recover fast and surely. They consider wearing of even masks an act of cowardice, an act induced by the mortal fear of the virus. So, one can see thousands of people out in the open without wearing mask or wearing these like necklaces thrown around in reckless abandon. Authorities have no other option but to increase the penalties for non-compliance.


Then, there is one more frightening fact. Although the spikes in daily COVID-19 cases in many states have been somewhat under control since the peak levels with recoveries rising consistently, such statistics are subject to some specific conditions, that is to say, the restrictions that are still in place: all forms of public transport are running only at half-capacity; schools and colleges are still not fully opened; trains and domestic flights are still not in full strength; only a few international flights are operating; and there are restrictions still on public congregations that are, of course, not applicable to political events or media crowding.


Sooner or later, all of these services have to be opened up, and then you’d be scared to imagine the scenario: the teeming millions with their newfound defiance crowding the buses, the local trains, the metro trains, the public places, the entertainment zones and the like. Economic compulsions cannot be wished away either, and in that perspective one cannot afford to stop the process of unlocking. India’s growth rate had been in decline from even before the pandemic hit. For the pandemic period India’s growth rate plummeted with a huge -24% contraction for the Quarter ending June 2020. Although the rate has improved to around -7% contraction for the Quarter ending September 2020, the growth is still in the negative, and one cannot afford to ignore either the livelihoods or the lives, the classic dilemma that continues to plague the country. More pessimistically, petty crimes like stealing or robbery or snatching or mugging are bound to rise in the near future due to loss of jobs, unemployment and drying-up of all sources of income.


No doubt, the government of India has been prioritizing the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines that are expected round the corner. The Serum Institute of India is in the process of producing 100 million doses of Covishield, the Indian counterpart of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, by December 2020. Another 100 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine are also to be produced in India within this year. Launch of the Indian vaccine Covaxin is likely by early or middle of 2021. The government is also finalizing the list of priority categories of people who are going to be vaccinated first.


As our argument converges on at least one effective vaccine for the final solution against the rampaging pandemic in India or perhaps in some other populous democracies, questions and doubts linger too about the efficacy and safety of the vaccines in the long run. At the moment nothing can be said about this, and therefore, the hope for a safe and effective vaccine should be the positive spirit to be nurtured and maintained by all of the people and the stakeholders. The other option of herd immunity, in the context of the growing defiance of the Indians, should, nevertheless, be avoided at all costs, because the process involved in this could lead to loss of millions of lives.


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