India’s COVID Crisis – Threat to the Entire World by Professor Jayantha Lal Ratnasekera

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The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in the latter part of April, in India, continues to be threatening. Though there has been a significant decrease in the daily count of fresh corona patients, from 400,000 in the first week of May to 200,000 in the fourth week, the situation is still far from satisfactory. The total number of corona deaths has passed the 300,000 mark, and the total number of COVID-19 patients has exceeded 275 million as of May 28, 2021. Even though the vaccination process has been accelerated during the past few days, India’s healthcare system has not fully recovered yet. Still, there is a severe shortage of some drugs, hospital beds, oxygen, ventilators, etc., in many areas. Furthermore, the rapid spread of the black fungus disease (Mucormycosis) has aggravated the health crisis.

Obviously, a number of factors contributed to this unexpected surge in April, and the emergence of new, more infectious virus variants is considered to be one of the main reasons. Experimental data show that the variant B.1.1.7, first found in the UK, is the dominant virus variant in the state of Punjab. A new, more dangerous variant called B.1.167, first identified in India late last year, was found to be dominant in the state of Maharashtra. B.1.167 variant, which is already found in more than 50 countries, is said to be containing two mutations having an increased transmissibility. Further, the slow progress in the vaccination process till April, has been another contributory factor to the devastating second COVID-19 wave. India, while being the leading manufacturer of anti-COVID vaccine, has commenced the vaccination process in January 2021, but the progress has been rather slow. By mid-April, the first dose of the vaccine was administered to 10% of the total population, and both two doses were given to 2% of the population.

However, since the vaccination process got underway in January, the attitude of the majority of people in India including the political authorities towards the pandemic has changed significantly. The arrival of the vaccine made everyone complacent and there was a misapprehension among many that India had already tackled the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2021, the Bharatiya Janatha Party passed a resolution praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his leadership in turning India to a “victorious nation in the fight against COVID-19”. Under these circumstances, travel restrictions were relaxed, and political rallies and religious ceremonies, with mass gatherings, were allowed. Elections were held in a number of states and thousands of people gathered at political rallies. In a rally held in West Bengal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he was thrilled to see such a large crowd. Simultaneously, a number of religious festivities were held and the Hindu pilgrimage, Kumbh Mela, drew millions of worshippers. As reported by The Hindustan Times, more than 9 million people bathed in the Ganga river during the period from January 14 to April 27, 2021, as a ritual of the Kumbh Mela festival. Thus, the false assumption that India had contained the pandemic contributed to the disastrous second wave of the pandemic.

However, what we should understand is that the current COVID crisis in India will not be limited to its territory; it is a real threat to the entire world. The first coronavirus patient was found in Wuhan city, Hubei Province, in China, December 2019, and, in January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, as the virus had spread outside China. Later in March 2020, the WHO declared the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 virus as a Global Pandemic.

Though the pandemic has been troubling the entire world for more than one and half years now, some of the countries, especially the so-called developed countries, were reluctant to accept its global nature. Instead of joining hands with the WHO to curb the virus, some countries have been trying to control the virus on their own. However, the current Indian COVID crisis has shocked the entire world and forced even the developed nations to change their approach and attitudes as regards the pandemic.

Firstly, we should not forget that with more than 1.5 billion people, India alone accounts for about 1/6 of the entire world population. This means the Indian crisis definitely will not be limited to its own territory. As emphasised by Dr. Saumya Swaminathan, WHO’s chief scientist, “the virus does not respect borders, or nationalities, or age, or sex or religion”. When the number of infectious persons increases in such a populous country, there is a high probability of the emergence of new virus variants. Every single infection provides the virus an opportunity to evolve and produce a mutation. In other words, when the number of COVID infections in a country is high, then the probability of emergence of new variants is also high. In turn, these new virus variants might spread into other countries. For example, it was reported that on a recent flight from New Delhi to Hong Kong, 50 passengers were tested positive for COID-19. As mentioned above, the more dangerous variant B.1.167 has is found in more than 50 countries.

It has to be noted that the threat of B.1.167 variant spreading from India to the neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka is even higher. In fact, a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 patients was observed from early May, in Nepal. The total number of corona patients in Nepal has already exceeded 540,000 and total number of corona deaths has reached the 7,000 mark. With a relatively weaker healthcare system, only 2.2% of the total population of Nepal has been vaccinated to-date. Dr. Netra Prasad Timsina, Chairman of the Nepal Red Cross Society has warned that if the present trend is not arrested immediately, Nepal will have to face a situation very much similar to the current Indian one, in a few weeks’ time.

Likewise, the threat to Sri Lanka also cannot be underestimated. A few weeks ago, it was reported that an Indian national was found infected with the B.1.167 variant in a quarantine centre. Also, there were news reports about attempts by Sri Lankans living in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, to come to Sri Lanka, illegally, by boat. With the deteriorating conditions in the refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, these illegal attempts might increase further. Furthermore, it has been a long tradition of Sri Lankan fishermen to have contacts with their Indian counterparts in the deep sea.

The negative impact of the on-going Indian COVID crisis is not limited to the possibility of the virus spread. More importantly, India is supposed to produce 70% of the world’s COVID vaccine requirement, and the Serum Institute of India was given the rights to produce AstraZeneca vaccine. India is supposed to provide a large quantity of the vaccine to low and middle-income countries under the Covax facility backed by the UN and WHO. However, India has temporarily suspended the export of the COVID vaccine due to its domestic crisis. Although the Indian authorities have announced that they might recommence the export of vaccines in October, the temporary suspension has already adversely affected vaccination roll-outs in many countries including Sri Lanka. Moreover, the pharmaceutical industry in India is the third largest in the world in terms of volume, and 20% of the global exports of generic drugs is done by India. Obviously, if the Indian pharmaceutical industry happens to be in jeopardy, it will have dire consequences for the healthcare systems around the world. In such a scenario, a severe shortage of drugs around the world could also be anticipated.

In addition, India is the fifth largest economy in the world and India’s contribution to the global economic growth is extensive. With a relatively high annual growth rate of 4 to 8% during last few years, India has had a significant impact on the world economy. If India’s economy contracts drastically due to the present crisis, it will have a devastating effect on the economies of many countries. If the travel restrictions in respect of India continue for a long time, they will affect many businesses around the world. Furthermore, India provides a large number of back-office staff for many sectors in Europe and the US. Considering all these issues, it is imperative that all countries help India come out of this crisis. US President Joe Biden was one of the first world leaders to announce the readiness to support India, and the US has already sent several flights with essential goods to India. It is noteworthy that even Pakistan has come forward to help India in this difficult time. Russia has sent a stock of its COVID vaccine, Sputnik V, to India and granted permission to India to produce its vaccine.

So, the current COVID crisis in India poses a threat to the entire world and has taught the world many lessons. It has demonstrated that Covid-19 is a real global health emergency threatening humanity, and as such a concerted global effort is needed to tackle it at this crucial moment. It has reminded us that all nations are interconnected as never before, and no one will be safe until everyone is safe.

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Disclaimer: India’s COVID Crisis – Threat to the Entire World by Professor Jayantha Lal Ratnasekera - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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