Just when the world thought it was safe to go back to a new normal, to exhale fear and inhale hope, a new variant crashed into the headlines. The new ‘variant of concern’ B.1.1.529 — now christened Omicron after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet — discovered in South Africa has triggered a wave of fear.
It is said fear has no bottom. The appearance of Omicron led a trail of red across the financial markets. On Black Friday, a day when north America and other parts of the world celebrate discount shopping, investors bled value, losing trillions in gains painfully accumulated over weeks and months. In India, investors owning stocks lost over Rs 7 lakh crore in a single day as the Sensex tumbled 1,687 points and the Nifty 509 points sliding back to levels seen in August. Almost on cue, as if this was muscle memory, countries imposed travel restrictions — the phraseology of lockdowns and quarantine has reappeared like a Netflix sequel.
There is cause for worry. The key factors for concern with any new variant are transmissibility, lethality and vaccine efficacy. The characteristics of Omicron have raised alarm. It has a larger number of mutations than witnessed in others. More critically, the WHO says “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs”. It is early days as yet but the big worry is about “how the variant may affect diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines."
The appearance of a new variant — scarcely surprising as this is what the virus does mutating between vaccinated and unvaccinated folks — has shaken the smugness of the developed world. It finds itself vulnerable thanks to its complacency about the asymmetry of capacity which has left large parts of the world without vaccines. Till this week, over 4.2 billion people, roughly five of ten persons in the world, have had one dose of the vaccine. Nearly 7.9 billion doses have been administered but barely 6 per cent of those in the low income countries have got even one dose. The maxim ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’ is at play.
The wide chasm between have and have-nots is not unexpected. The WHO 2019 report by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board clearly illuminated the state of affairs. It stated explicitly that “there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy” and pointed out that it would take less than 36 hours for any contagion to spread. “The world,” it said “is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic.”
It is the gap between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated which fuels the rise of variants. The developed world needs to get its cost analysis right. Thanks to the pandemic in 2020, every nation bar China in the G7 grouping took a hit. The services sector, which accounts for over two thirds of these economies, cannot approach normalcy without deploying vaccines globally to control the pandemic. Currently, around 30 million doses are administered per day — a rate at which the virus will have a field day for months.
The WHO estimates that at least 11 billion doses are needed to vaccinate 70 per cent of the world’s population. There has been much lather about donations. The narrative reeks of tokenism — about giving the poorer world with X or Y number of doses well short of the need. There is an urgent need for an objective mechanism for vaccine recognition across the world. More critical is the call to open up vaccine production. Pious words about vaccine patents are not enough. The need is to make it happen to scale up output and availability of vaccines. The richer world needs to come to terms with the fact that the cost of global vaccination coverage will have to be absorbed in their recovery plan. Whether or not the developed world evolves to recognise self-interest — aka averting loss of billions of dollars in economic output —or revert to tired thesis of lockdowns depends on how enlightened the leadership is and on the evolution of the virus.
What the developed world does or does not do has implications — particularly for the developing world. India cannot afford another episode of human and economic distress and, therefore, it must eschew complacency. Yes, the billion plus vaccinations are a definite achievement but much ground remains to be covered. Also, new studies reveal weakening in the potency of the vaccines over a period of time — the EU has placed a nine-month expiry on vaccine efficacy. India must take a call on booster shots. And, there are gaps in public policy which need revival of the Centre-state consultation and collaboration. The PMO must revive the bi-weekly meetings of state health ministers to track cases and oversee health care capacities of beds/oxygen etc, allocate funding for INSACOG to enable monitoring of virus and modelling of the trajectory of infections and open up granular data with ICMR for scholars so India can benefit from real-time analysis.
Finally, there is the importance of public behaviour. Millions of Indians, those vaccinated and unvaccinated, seem to be invested in the kinetics of karma endangering not only their own health but the lives of others. India and Indians cannot afford the loss of lives and livelihoods witnessed in the first two phases. Mask up please!
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