Pandemic Response: Restive Public, Diwali Violations And Vaccine Solace!


As the loud bursts of firecrackers reach a crescendo the discerning law-abiding citizens, particularly the elderly ones sticking to the stay-at-home doctrine, wonder loudly too, ‘What the heck is happening, and how?’ Yes, valid question: the state, one of many Indian states, imposed a complete ban on firecrackers and fireworks from 9th November to 30th November 2020 asking citizens to observe Diwali, the biggest festival of India, by lighting earthen or electric lamps only, in view of the pandemic that can accelerate again due to increased pollution. In the nation’s capital Delhi, apart from the complete government-ban the National Green Tribunal also totally prohibited use or sale of firecrackers making these punishable offences. Yet, on the Diwali night of 14th November 2020 all caution ended up in smoke as most of the city folks celebrated with fireworks in brazen defiance. How they managed to get the abundant supplies of crackers and accessories is a question that is better unanswered.


Are the people of the country running out of patience? Possible. It has been now more than 8 months of stay-at-home and no social mixing or celebrating. COVID-19 experts and doctors are also saying that the response to the pandemic is getting fatigued with people not willing to carry on with the preventive norms. A father in the city of Mumbai was heard uttering, ‘How can we deprive our children of this joy that comes only once in a year? That too, after keeping them at home for so many months, no school, no outing, no play, no nothing!’ He is right in a way: only the parents know how difficult it has been to manage the forced inactivity of their children, and yet keep them happy.


There are more issues involved here. The operation of unlocking has also been going on all the while: people are asked to attend offices in increasing numbers; shops, retail outlets, malls, markets and other places of public gathering are being opened in phases; in some states school attendance is also allowed along with online classes; the separation of essentials and non-essentials is getting eased off due to the unlocking. Now, this means a huge number of people are getting out of homes daily. But the public transport is still not opened up fully. Buses are running with 50% occupancy; local trains and metro services are operating partially to accommodate the workers/employees of the essential sectors only, with the issue of passes. A shopkeeper, in the non-essential category, was heard saying, ‘It takes me 6 hours daily to come from my home to open my shop here in the buses that take only limited passengers. I cannot get a pass for the local trains which would reduce my journey time to only 2 hours. Very stressful times.’ He is right too. Thousands like him are stressed due to problems of commuting while thousands of others are stressed due to the stay-home claustrophobia.


The festival of lights obviously gave the citizens the opportunity to vent their built-up frustration, and many of them thronged the markets, ate at all the food outlets and indulged in bursts of fireworks, in total defiance. This is a very worrying situation considering the fact that the pandemic has been easing off since the peak in September, and the governments and the authorities are right too in their bid to not allow one more wave during the festival season, the increasing pollution and the beckoning winter. The medical fraternity has been working continuously in the last eight months, and one more wave would stress them beyond measure.


The spikes in daily COVID-19 infections in Delhi, termed as the third wave by the authorities, have come to be the highest in the world at this point of time with increasing daily deaths. The Delhi government, rendered helpless by the public defiance, had approached the central government for advice, not for the first time. In fact, Delhi’s predicament is more due to the haphazard or premature unlocking indulged in by the government since the lockdown. They are right now in ruling out further lockdowns, but it is ridiculous to say that masks are as effective as lockdowns as one minister pointed out. The minister made it all the more bizarre adding that a lockdown cannot contain the virus. While the options for the authorities are limited even now, they can help the stressed citizens more by not uttering absurdities.


The encouraging news on the COVID-19 vaccine front has to be the only solace available for the citizens at the moment. Out of about 150 vaccine candidates 44 of which are in various stages of clinical trials, at least 5 are now in the final stages. The first officially approved COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V of Russia has arrived in India and phase 2/3 trials are about to begin. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities have claimed that the vaccine is 92% effective. The two US vaccines Pfizer and Moderna, prioritized by the outgoing President Trump, started their phase-3 human trials in July 2020, and the prospects are very bright at the moment: Pfizer declared that the vaccine is more than 90% effective, and after that Moderna stated that their vaccine has 94.5% efficacy, the highest so far. However, the distribution angle for India is not clear yet.


Covishield, the Indian version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, is in the final phase trials in India, and reports say that by December 2020 around 100 million doses would be ready for distribution. India’s own Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech, is also in phase-3 trials and the apex medical authority in India, the Indian Council of Medical Research, is very positive about it expressing the hope for its possible launch by February 2021, much ahead of schedule.


Nothing wrong in hoping for the best: an effective vaccine by end of this year or early next year. However, the effectiveness of various vaccines is based on claims only, and scientists and experts give different opinions. Whatever be the final result, people of India, if not of the world, do need the arrival of a vaccine, desperately. It must be added that it would be much healthier to have expectations rather than desperation, and to adhere to all new normal norms in the meanwhile at any cost.


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