FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 29, 2021 - 12:00am

Agreat tragedy is unfolding in India today.

Over the past week, confirmed infections have been running at over 300,000 per day. The death toll, always a lagging indicator, is bound to spike as well. The surge in infections spread to nearby Nepal.

The spike has completely swamped the already fragile Indian health care system. There is a serious shortage of oxygen tanks to support the seriously infected. In the congested cities of New Delhi and Mumbai, people are dying in the streets. Funeral pyres, the traditional method for cremating the dead, shroud the cities.

India broke all records for daily infections. India has surpassed the devastating tallies of Brazil. It could soon be competitive with the numbers in the US – over 30 million infected and a death toll now nearing 600,000.

The US, Britain and France are now rushing medical supplies to India. Whatever they can muster will be a drop in the bucket. India has a population of about 1.3 billion – second only to China but without the powerful governance infrastructure.

Last year, India was the poster boy for managing infections. It kept infections and deaths to very small numbers, its congested cities and large population notwithstanding. India’s apparent success at managing infections baffled scientists, some of whom began studying the Indian diet to seek answers.

Two months ago, a spike in infections was noted. Government was slow in imposing the economically costly restrictions required. Large crowded religious festivals were allowed last month. This has turned out to be a fatal decision.

The weak health care system was challenged further by the emergence of new variants of the COVID-19 virus. From being the poster boy for infection management, India has quickly transformed into the worse case scenario for this pandemic.

India has the world’s largest vaccine manufacturing base. The COVID-19 vaccine it produced and the European vaccines co-produced in India were expected to supply the vaccine-starved emerging economies. Because of the present surge, India has reserved its vaccine production for itself.

This has implications for us. We were expecting vaccines produced by Bharat to supplement our supply. That is not going to happen anytime soon.

Heal as One

The first lesson we take away from what is happening in India is that no nation can be safe unless all nations are safe. It is a simple scientific principle defied by the politics of the day.

For as long as infections surge in one nation, the threat of infection hangs over those nations that might have so far controlled their own infection rates. The best response is to guarantee equal vaccine access everywhere. But vaccines could not be produced as fast as they are needed and governments in the rich countries are under domestic political pressure to move ahead quickly with their vaccination programs.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly denounced “vaccine nationalism” in no uncertain terms. But the political facts on the ground encourage it. In the US, for instance, Trump-era contracts require American vaccine makers to prioritize their domestic requirements.

In our case, “vaccine nationalism” constrained our efforts to acquire enough of the vaccines we need. Supply, not funding, is the problem. We have sufficient funding in the form of loans from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But, like all of the poorer economies, we have to wait in line until the wealthier economies meet their own requirements.

The wait will not be long, however.

Pharmaceutical companies amazed us by coming up with vaccines in less than a year after the COVID-19 virus broke out. China, weeks into the pandemic, supplied the virus’ genetic code to everyone.

The vaccine makers again surprised us by the speed with which they were able to supply doses of the drug. But even if they run their factories around the clock, the global demand for doses is simply too large.

Vietnam long prided itself in its self-reliance. When the pandemic struck their first impulse was to wait until their own labs are able to produce the vaccines they will use. When that turned out to be less than promising, Vietnam decided to order from abroad. They are now at the back of the vaccine line.

Israel is another story altogether. Even as Pfizer was still putting its vaccine through trials, Israel offered to purchase doses at twice the price. Now virtually all adults have been inoculated. Israel will be the first country to enter the new normal.

The US is the country most devastated by the virus. But the Biden administration implemented the most ambitious vaccination drive in history. Infection and death numbers have begun to show the effects of such massive vaccination. The world’s largest economy is now relaxing restrictions.

As the vaccine supply situation improves over the next few weeks, we should be able to scale up our own vaccination drive. From late May, we expect vaccine delivery in the millions. Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez remains confident we could inoculate 70 percent of the adult population before this year ends.

It appears we have managed to contain the surge using the blunt instrument of community quarantines. In the coming months, we need to strictly enforce minimum health requirements to prevent another surge. The virus has proven to be resilient. We can defeat it only by superior fiscal and institutional stamina.

There are no better options than the ones we have chosen. The effort to contain infections is run by the best managers there are, advised by the best scientific talent we could muster.

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