As the country that produces 60% of the world’s vaccines, India can ramp up the vaccination process. But a conventional, bureaucratic mindset appears to be holding us back. The vaccination programme needs to be reset and targeted (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
As the country that produces 60% of the world’s vaccines, India can ramp up the vaccination process. But a conventional, bureaucratic mindset appears to be holding us back. The vaccination programme needs to be reset and targeted (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)

As Covid returns, India must not repeat the mistakes of 2020

Don’t return to lockdowns. Instead, approve more vaccines and ramp up vaccination — especially in the most affected states and cities
UPDATED ON APR 03, 2021 04:37 PM IST

There is a familiar paranoia in the air as India confronts a sudden surge in Covid-19 cases. And we are in danger of making some of the same mistakes all over again — errors that much of the western world continues to make, and that we should have learnt better from, by now. The most colossal misstep is that we are being pulled back into thinking in the lexicon and language of lockdowns.

My extensive reporting travels across India through the year of the pandemic convinced me of one thing. Indefinite shutdowns — of housing societies, neighbourhoods, schools, cities and, finally, borders — is a counterproductive move that ravages the economy, punishes the poorest of citizens and offers no sustainable solution to the spread of the virus. It would be akin to believing you can get fitter by starving, instead of adopting a balanced diet. You may briefly shed kilos rapidly, only to put them all back on again and acquire a host of other ailments, physical, emotional and psychological, along the way.

Lockdowns have — or should have — a singular logic, which is to buy breathing space for the health care system. The 2020 national lockdown’s initial purpose was to allow for stadiums or other large spaces to be converted into makeshift hospitals, ancillary frontline staff to be mobilised, and enough oxygen to be procured. They were meant to be short and finite preparatory interventions, not repetitive, draconian, policed diktats that just keep us further and further away from normalcy, and basically become ways of penalising those who can least afford it.

A year on, we also know more than we did previously. We know we should not go racing to the hospital in a panic if our pulse oximeter throws up favourable numbers; we know that we mostly need high-flow oxygen and not ventilators; and we know that all therapeutic medicine is by trial and error, mostly paracetamol meets steroids, the latter strictly when needed. And we know or should know that testing positive should not be spoken of as if it’s the end of the world — despite the surge, India’s recovery rate is still close to 95%.

The most dramatic difference between 2020 and 2021, of course, is that vaccines are now available. And this is where our urgent focus should be, rather than on an alarmist daily tabulation of how many people have tested positive. We should allow data to lead us towards a productive direction. For instance, we know that eight states account for nearly 85% of all new Covid-19 cases. Among these, we know that more than 60% are from Maharashtra. It’s a no-brainer that we need to universalise vaccination coverage for all adults in these hot zones.

Taking an aggregated, pan-India approach to the vaccine rollout, when some states clearly need this more than others, is short-sighted. We are wasting time debating whether India needs to halt its acclaimed vaccine maitri programme and focus inwards; the fact is we are inoculating well below production capacity. And a little over 6% of vaccines are being wasted nationally. This is nothing short of criminal.

While there may be two views on making a vaccine mandatory, the best way to address vaccine hesitancy is to link its requirements with economic and social activity, whether travel, dining in closed and crowded places, or catching a movie. Once enough people realise that the only way to reclaim our lives is to take the jab, self-indulgent drawing room debates by the elite will be forced to draw to a close. Sure, there have been instances when people have contracted the virus a few days after taking the shot. But the vaccine guarantees protection against severe disease and death. It prevents infections in a significant proportion of cases (70-80% for the vaccines in use in India) and ensures that you dont fall gravely ill or need hospitalisation.

Thus, if we inoculate enough of our population, especially in the cities, where Covid-19 is most prevalent, and target the 10 worst-hit Indian cities, the pressure on the hospital system will reduce by itself.

As the country that produces 60% of the world’s vaccines, and as a leader in mass immunisation programmes, this should be more than doable for us. But a conventional, bureaucratic mindset appears to be holding us back. The vaccination programme needs to be reset and targeted. At least three new global vaccines that have Indian partners need to be allowed in without the demand for bridging trials.

Virologists such as Dr Shahid Jameel have underlined the urgent need for unlocking Johnson & Johnson, Sputnik and Novavax from these regulatory hurdles, pointing out that it is wasteful to be lost in percentage point debates over efficacy. As long as the vaccines are safe and provide protection against mortality and serious illness, that’s all that counts.

This is where our Covid-19 conversation must be centred — in the future. Not in revisiting ideas like lockdowns that are detrimental to the health of nations.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal

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