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Column: One world under COVID-19

To the Valley News
Published: 5/8/2021 10:20:09 PM
Modified: 5/8/2021 10:20:06 PM

Last year, in the midst of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, major cities in the United States had acute shortages of oxygen and ventilators, as India is experiencing now. For days in New York City, bodies waited for burial in refrigerated trailers. Disaster morgues and crematoria operated around-the-clock, while quarantine and lockdown policies differed from state to state. It was also a presidential election year, and there were widespread demonstrations, including Black Lives Matter and climate protests, among others.

The COVID-19 situation in America seemed hopeless, as it seems in India today. But then came President Joe Biden, who said that in his first 100 days, 100 million Americans would be vaccinated. Today more than one-third of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. America is bursting with optimism.

As of May 7, according to Worldometer, out of the more than 33.4 million cases in the United States, there were 594,000 deaths. India had 21.5 million cases and 234,000 deaths. America has brought COVID-19 under control through a massive and speedy vaccination program. So would India, sooner than later. But the question is whether India, the United States and other countries would be prepared for the next COVID-19 wave, which could be more deadly than this one.

Only a couple of months ago, so many countries looked up to India as an ally for combating COVID-19, hoping it would continue supplying vaccines and health and personal protective equipment to them, which it did unhesitatingly — until it was caught in a most vicious COVID-19 mutant surge that sent shockwaves around the world. The abundant vaccine supply created a feeling of safety, which was not matched by the strength of India’s health care infrastructure when virus cases suddenly spiked from 10,000 daily to more than 400,000.

As a major producer of generic drugs, accounting for 20% of global supply, and the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, meeting 62% of the demand, India has been an indispensable nation for global health. Confident that COVID-19 was under control and manageable, India supplied about 64 million vaccine doses to 76 countries through the World Health Organization’s global vaccine access alliance, known as COVAX, as well as through grants and on a commercial basis. With massive election rallies in five states, millions dipping into the Ganges for the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival and pilgrimage, and the continuation of protests against new agricultural laws, the people felt that life was getting back to normal and the economy, which had been hit hard due to lockdowns, would be getting back on track.

But amid the noise and chaos of India’s complicated democracy, the ferocious, fast-mutating virus was overlooked. It spread much faster than the country’s capacity to vaccinate its population of 940 million adults. With about 157 million vaccinated, India has a long way to go to reach herd immunity. If sufficient supplies were available and the vaccination rate accelerated from the current 3 million a day to 10 million, as Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan told the BBC, COVID-19 would come under control in the next few months. India then would be able to resume its role as a global vaccine supplier under the WHO alliance.

In a perceptive article in Foreign Affairs, Nicole Lurie, Jacob P. Cramer and Richard J. Hatchett, experts in epidemic preparedness innovations, write that “vaccine technology is only as good as the infrastructure around it.” None of the technology’s potential will be realized “unless international institutions, national governments, and private companies work collectively to ensure that the resources and capacity exist to take full advantage of this medical miracle.” They caution, however, not be complacent because the pathogen and the vaccine are new; it’s uncertain how long immunity will last and we must therefore prepare for new variants that might require newer or upgraded vaccines. Since a new variant could be even more transmissible, it may require the creation of mobile vaccine production units “that could eventually be shipped to the site of an outbreak and rapidly make targeted vaccines locally.”

Global problems need global solutions. The bottleneck that India, a crucial vaccine producer and supplier, is experiencing now is the result of a lack of resources, raw materials and investment in manufacturing capacity. The recently announced Indo-Pacific Quad COVID-19 vaccine partnership must be made fully operational as soon as possible.

India — a densely populated country with millions of internal migrant workers, where frequent lockdowns could derail the economy and push millions back into poverty — needs an efficient system of health surveillance for COVID-19, which could provide it with a huge amount of health data and would be immensely useful in preparing for future epidemics. All public and private health facilities should be on a national health database linked to India’s gigantic national database, Aadhaar. The health data should be shared with friendly countries like the United States.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a lethal, equal-opportunity disease that can strike anyone regardless of religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, political ideology or wealth. Therefore, the health benefits distribution system must be fair, equitable and accessible to all. Any community or neighborhood left behind could become the next hotbed of a virulent virus attack. We are one nation under COVID-19 for some time to come.

Narain Batra, of Hartford, is a contributing columnist for The Times of India, author of The First Freedoms and America’s Culture of Innovation, and a professor of communications and diplomacy at Norwich University.

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