India still unable to strike a balance between lives and livelihood

Unless we vaccinate all, dilemma between opening up in a hurry inviting disaster and locking up business, trade will continue to haunt daily wage labourers or businessmen not named Adani or Ambani

Representative Image
Representative Image

Ranjona Banerji

The Government of India will resume vaccine exports after meeting domestic needs, announced a Niti Ayog member this week. This resumption was “very much on the radar”.

I am not sure about this metaphorical radar. It could be a reference to radar detection and ranging, widely used the world over to track moving objects. Or it could be Prime Minister Modi’s version of radar where radio waves are blocked by clouds to achieve electoral victories.

Either way, when will India’s “domestic needs” when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, be met?

As of now, 15.55 percent of Indians have had one dose of a vaccine. According to various studies, one dose of any vaccine, gives you 49 percent protection against the Alpha variant and 31 percent against the Delta variant. Two doses of any vaccine will give you 88 percent protection against the Alpha variant and 80 percent against the Delta variant.

With only 15.55 percent of Indians vaccinated once, that’s a long road to freedom.

But like we play with the definition of radar, we do with the presentation of facts. All Union government sources will consistently flaunt numbers. We have vaccinated 262.97 million people in India. And yet, we are at 15.55 percent. When it comes to both doses, we have managed under 5 percent of our vaccinatable population. Thus, numbers without percentages are meaningless.

We are the second-most populous nation in the world, you know that don’t you? World over, the vaccinated population is 2.45 billion. India’s population is 1.3 billion of which 940 million are eligible (over 18). Go back to 262.97 million vaccinated. It’s a big climb to vaccinating all India, perhaps somewhere between labouring up K2 and Kanchenjunga?

The clamour to get back to “normal” life in India is loud and desperate and no wonder. It’s not just lockdown and virus fatigue. It’s a question of survival, or rather of the means to survival. Right now, whether the virus gets you or your lack of livelihood does, it’s a terrible toss-up. The horrific state of the Indian economy with its high inflation which could be stagnation, with salaries down or non-existent, with payments due, with returns on securities and investments low, with manufacturing down, with small and medium businesses destroyed, only adds to the impending sense of doom.

As we have seen over and again since 2020, if you open up without adequate preparation, disaster ensues. And if you do not open up, you are safe from infection but subject to catastrophic financial losses. Whether you are a daily wage labourer, or a big industrialist not named Adani or Ambani.

The answer was always mass vaccination, and as fast as possible. It was what Joe Biden realised and kickstarted as soon as he became President of the United States. It was what even Donald Trump knew as he ordered the vaccines in 2020, regardless of his bizarre behaviour at other times. It was what the Indian government claimed it was going to do, as it showed off about our vaccine manufacturing prowess. But simultaneously did not order enough vaccines for reasons as yet unknown. Conjecture points to incompetence, criminal negligence, over-confidence, ignorance, inability to listen to experts, and probably inherent stupidity.

The first group eligible for vaccines were our healthcare workers. And they still haven’t been fully vaccinated. Go figure.

And I have not even discussed the deaths from the virus, which the worst-case scenarios calculate to be several times over government claims of just under 400,000 for India.

The only hope for India and for the world is to vaccinate. In a serious manner, minus bells and whistles, minus magic tricks, minus grand announcements, minus justifying your inefficiency by appropriating some random global event like Yoga Day. That is, by not behaving like a lying publicity-obsessed despot.

There is already talk of a third wave when we have not yet recovered from the current wave. The longer we take to vaccinate, the more time the virus has to mutate. Thus, the Delta variant has taken over the globe.

If we have to stop the virus before it reaches Epsilon (a small arbitrary and positive quantity in Mathematics), we need to be honest with the world. Making large promises which we cannot keep only exposes us further. Jingoistic outbursts have sort of stopped the world from equating Delta with India. If we don’t vaccinate India and we don’t deliver to the world, the PR consequences will be nasty.

Do you think the mention of PR might make the incompetents listen?

(The writer is a columnist and commentator based in Dehradun. Views are personal)

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