The true test of Indian patriotism
At one level, it is reaffirming to see our cities open, our markets buzzing with life, and our restaurants so full that you can’t get a table without booking ahead. We have been traumatised, scarred and broken by the second wave of the pandemic and we must do what we can to scrape the dust off our knees and resume the sport of life.
But the caveat is this: We cannot be deluded by a fake sense of exceptionalism all over again.
The months of April and May were the cruellest, in large part because the government, having failed to anticipate the ferocity of what was about to hit, simply failed to procure and distribute enough vaccines. Had a vaccine rollout acquired critical mass earlier, thousands of Indians would most likely be alive today.
Like so many who lost someone recently, I am haunted for instance by whether my father would have had a different fate had he got his jabs earlier. He died in the week he was scheduled to get his second dose.
We are in danger of making the same mistake again — slowing down our vaccine rollout by getting stuck on vaccine nationalism. The truth is that between miscalculating the viciousness of the Delta variant and placing a premium on Made in India vaccines, the volume of vaccines available to us has been hit. This is said with full respect to our scientists and takes nothing away from their spectacular work through the pandemic.
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The fact is that India’s refusal to indemnify Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson is shortsighted and detrimental. That we need all the vaccines we can get and fast is just one part of the story. mRNA vaccines are thus far the only ones that have been used on children. Zydus Cadila is working on testing a vaccine on children in India. But it could be a while before its production pipeline is functional.
Surely, we should be agitated that schools have been closed in India for 500 days now and, even where open, are facing resistance from parents who refuse to let children out of the house. A digital divide has seen millions of poor children simply abandon schooling. Only 11% of Indians have access to a digital device. What would be the reason to not import mRNA vaccines with the specific task of targeting the population below 18 years of age? In fact, it should be a priority.
Similarly, indemnity issues have stalled millions of doses from getting out of the United States (US) — where vaccines are being wasted — and into our hands. Americans spurning vaccines are being nutty and spoilt, and that’s on them. Our refusal to get the paperwork moving to get those doses is on us.
Whether it’s Indian vaccine-makers or foreign vaccine manufacturers, both must get the government to cover for legal liability. It is what countries across the world have done with success.
Unfortunately, we have managed to mire our conversation about vaccines in the worst sort of politics. To be sure, in terms of absolute numbers, India, with its vast experience in mass immunisation programmes, has done well. For the most part, the rollout has been seamless.
But every suggestion of urgently expanding capacity with vaccines already available for purchase is met with conspiratorial pushback. People are either dubbed as lobbyists for big pharma or we are told how big pharma is a profit-fixated evil machine. I don’t know enough about the internal intrigues within the pharmaceutical industry and frankly, I do not care.
Maybe Pfizer is trying to slander AstraZeneca (Covishield in India) or the other way around. In any case, it’s never been clear why the Russia-made Sputnik vaccine should not be regarded with the suspicion we have reserved for other foreign vaccines. Yes, it has not asked for its liability to be waived, but is that the only basis on which to decide what works for India and what doesn’t?
In any case, why should we waste our time thinking about any of this? What we do know, indisputably, is that two shots of vaccines, so far, work against all variants, in saving us from hospitalisation and death. Data-based research on the Delta variant breakthrough infections in the US, and the downward graph of infections in the United Kingdom, are testimony to that.
To get caught up in faux nationalism over vaccines is not just counterproductive, it is, in fact, anti-national. India needs to double the daily vaccination rate — basically, administer approximately nine million shots every day — if it is to meet the government’s own target of inoculating everyone above 18 by the end of the year.
A true patriot would do whatever it takes to make that happen.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal