Universal vaccination alone can arrest the rollback into poverty and for this, India must do what it takes, writes Harini Calamur
Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

After a year of Covid, there seemed to be the first glimmer of hope around February-March this year. things seemed to be looking up. We were reading about cases dropping, people recovering. Many were taking holidays, both in India and outside. Factories were chugging back into action. People were getting back to work. Many of us were making plans to have meetings in person, rather than on screens. We were planning get-togethers and trying to see if our life would limp back to a semblance of the normalcy we had before the lockdown last year. Little green shoots of the economy seemed to have sprouted. And the beginning of the end of the nightmare seemed to be near.

Then the second wave struck. With it came crumbling all these dreams, and plans and hopes. As cases mounted, people died, cities and states locked down. Those little green shoots of the economy shrivelled under the weight of the lockdowns. And India is staring at a prolonged downturn as a result. Plus, we are seriously talking about the third wave. It is not that India is the only economy in this plight. Much of Europe is still in various stages of lockdown. They are talking about lifting restrictions and issuing vaccine certificates for travel. Japan is reeling under the next wave, and once again, there are talks about pushing forward the Olympics. The only two nations where there seems to be some sort of normalcy returning are the United States and China. But that may not be enough to pull the world out of recession.

Vaccine inequality

At the time of writing, there were 1.6 billion doses of vaccines that had been administered in different parts of the world. But there are great imbalances. These 1.6 billion vaccines are not evenly distributed across nations. 84 per cent of America, 33 per cent of China, 13 per cent of India, and 1 per cent of South Africa have had their first dose, at least. Unless there is massive vaccine production, distribution and inoculation – different countries in the world will emerge out of the pandemic at different velocities, leaving the poorest nations and their people the most vulnerable to poverty and civil war. One more lockdown, one more wave that devastates the health systems and has casualties, will smash the world economic order, pushing millions into poverty, and this time around, pulling them out will be even more difficult.

As we try and build back, it is imperative that we inoculate and protect people who are needed to get the economies back up again. And this is essentially the recommendation by some of the most influential people in international finance. IMF head honcho, Kristalina Georgieva and head of IMF research Gita Gopinath's blog on 'A Proposal to End the COVID-19 Pandemic' is essentially a roadmap to revive the world economy through an aggressive policy of vaccinations.

They call for very aggressive goal setting – 40 per cent of the entire population in all countries to be vaccinated by the end of this year, and 60 per cent by the first half of 2022. To achieve this, they call for not just the ramping up of vaccine production, but also of public health infrastructure. And lastly, they call for upfront financing and upfront supply of vaccines. This is not something that can be done later, after the western nations have protected themselves and isolated the rest of us – but in tandem – so that the world can collectively get out of the pandemic.

$50 billion proposal

The proposal costs approximately $50 billion. And, in the scheme of things it is a fraction of what we will collectively lose, if vaccinations are not taken up on a war footing. The World Bank has already cautioned that this could be a ‘lost decade’ in terms of economic growth and development, if something is not done soon. The world is already facing an economic loss of approximately $16 trillion. The plan proposed by Georgieva and Gopinath looks at mitigating this. And the first step towards this is a $4 billion grant to the COVAX programme that will allow nations to place orders and move around unused vaccines. The proposal also calls for the removal of all restrictions in the flow of raw materials and manufactured vaccines, to ensure that most people are inoculated. And finally the authors call for all nations that have hoarded vaccines to release their unused stockpiles so that it can benefit humanity as a whole.

India has much to gain from this proposal. It is evident from the way in which preparations have been made to combat Covid, as well as the response to the second wave, that we are woefully underprepared to go this on our own. India needs the vaccines; it needs the investments in public health. Right now is not the time to let dogma around self-sufficiency impact the safety of Indians. We need those vaccines and raw materials, no matter where they are produced, to get our fellow citizens inoculated and back at work. This is the only thing that will stave off the slide back into poverty.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker

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