The Oxford Word of the Year in 2020 was ‘lockdown’. The Oxford Word of the Year for 2021 is Vax aka vaccine! Every living room conversation and political colloquy begins or ends with the predictable ‘because of the pandemic’. Google the word ‘pandemic’ and it throws up over 4 billion results — and every few hours a few million are added.
It is verily Year III of the global pandemic. The virus has afflicted over 280 million and killed over 5.4 million — and this winter, it is adding nearly a million cases a day. As the world, wary and weary, heads into 2022, public mood is stranded between hope and despair. Hope rests on the speculation that the advent of Omicron signals the waning of virus and the pandemic. The despair is caused by experience of patchy public policy leaving people wondering if this too is a false dawn.
The lexicon defines ‘Epiphany’ as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Epiphany is also described as the moment when one sees or understands something in a new or lucid manner. In this season of epiphany, as the world wrestles with known unknowns and awaits answers to questions, here are a few posers.
Isn’t It Time For A New Playbook: Two years into the pandemic, the world is stuck with the Wuhan Model of lockdowns. Zero Covid is at best an ambitious rhetoric popular in China — and nobody for sure knows how many are tested, infected and felled by the virus! There is a grudging recognition that shutdown of flights don’t work. Neither do omnibus policies. In 1973, W J Rittel and Melvin M Webber observed that public policy questions are often wicked problems. The political class seems to expect the phalanx of pharma giants to underwrite political risk. It is true that vaccines have saved lives and pharma solutions are necessary but can they be the bulwark of public policy?
How Many Vaccine Doses: It was just a year back that the world was told the antidote to the virus was a dose of vaccine. In over 50 weeks since the first jab was delivered, governments propelled the second dose and are now scrambling to define “fully vaccinated” as booster doses are in vogue. This week, Israel announced it would introduce the “fourth dose”. Every few weeks, a new study surfaces to place a new expiration on vaccines —six months or three months — triggering debate and distress. Arguably, efficacy is affected by sketchy vaccine coverage across the world. But surely those who extend their arms deserve clarity — even if it means budgeting and creating a calendar for a jab every six months!
The Pricey Cost of Covid19 Testing: Data from the portal World Meter reveals that over 4.1 billion folks have taken Covid19 tests. On the basis of available figures, roughly 10 million tests are conducted every day in countries which reveal the data — India conducts over a million RTPCR tests a day. The scale of testing across the world raises questions about the inflated costs of testing. The cost of an RTPCR test ranges from Rs 500 or roughly $ 8 in India, over $ 150 in the US and more elsewhere. A recent study by Lancet shows that a price tag of $ 5 per test is ‘most likely to be cost-effective under a rapid transmission scenario’. Extensive testing is critical for managing the pandemic. Wouldn’t cheaper testing enable public policy response to contain disruptions in the economy?
Masks and Mass Behaviour: The appearance of Omicron has got governments playing the message of ‘mask-up’ on a loop once again. Masks (along with social distancing) are a potent guard against infections. The primary line of defence though has been wrecked by politicians who have mocked at mask mandates. Famous for his chant of ‘hands, face, space’, British PM Boris Johnson has infamously starred in mask-less images violating his own call. In India, the duplicity of the political class stands unmasked in images streaming from political rallies. There are limits on the number of people at weddings and funerals, but none for political rallies whether in Bengal or Uttar Pradesh. Must politicians — and public at large — revel in endangering themselves and others? Can the political class show some contrition and correct their behaviour?
The Inflationary Consequences: The raging virus has wreaked havoc with demand and precipitated disruptions in the production and supply chains across economies. The consequence of policies cooked in the G7 balance sheets is visiting emerging economies. Mercifully, not every economy is going Turkey but developing countries can ill-afford the cost of debt and their people the rising cost of living. What US Fed Chief Jerome Powell does or doesn’t do has implications for what RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das can or cannot do. As inflation reigns well above sanctified levels, its persistence presents a challenge to growth aspirations. As with the virus, inflation is a global pandemic. Do the central bankers have a grip on it and can they assure economies will not land in a high cost low growth terrain?
The management of the pandemic is but only one of the issues occupying significant global attention. There is the unravelling of geopolitical fault lines — China’s expansionist agenda and Russia’s dare across Ukraine. And yes, the Oxford Word of 2019, ‘climate emergency’ is visible in its myriad forms across the globe.
As the world travels through uncertain times, bon voyage and here is wishing you all a healthy and peaceful 2022.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India