As the world grapples with the enormous number of COVID 19 infections caused by the Omicron variant of the virus the emphasis of governments, especially, in advanced countries, is to ensure that their hospitals are able to handle the inflow of patients; the Omicron spread is so rapid and extensive that hospitals in some countries are getting overwhelmed. This is especially so in the United States where the situation is getting worse by the day. Indeed, according to a leading American newspaper, the situation in California is so bad that its Department of Health allowed COVID positive healthcare workers who were asymptomatic to “return to work immediately without isolating”.
While India is experiencing the beginning of a third wave and cases are rising the authorities are assuring the people that the infection caused by the Omicron variant is relatively mild requiring fewer hospitalisations. At the same time they are rightly warning the people to take all precautions because the variant is so transmissible, and may infect such a large segment of the population, that the country’s health system may inevitably come under pressure. In this context the comments of Dr Anthony Fauci, Chief of America’s Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to the American President, as reported in reputed news network, merit special attention.
Fauci said “Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmission, will ultimately just about find everyone”. These are sobering words though they were said in the American context. The silver lining is what he added “Those who have been vaccinated …and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected but will very likely, with some exceptions do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalisation and death”. Fauci’s comments were echoed by the acting Commissioner of the American Food and Drug Administration who said “Most people are going to get Covid”. Medical experts all over the world point to the far greater vulnerability of the unvaccinated in contrast to the vaccinated and those who have got booster vaccines. The American worry is that around twenty percent of its population has refused to get COVID vaccines despite the best efforts of the American administration.
In 2020 the wearing of masks became controversial in some of the then worst effected American states. Some Americans held that masks were contrary to the God given breathing systems of the human body! This raises the fundamental question: can personal freedom and choice extend to such an extent as to jeopardise the health and wellbeing of the country. The rational view has to be that it should not. However, the American system obviously thinks otherwise. Hence, it finds it very difficult to make it mandatory for all eligible people to get vaccinated and wear masks. Indeed, this is so not only in America but in other Western countries it is so too. They all rely on persuasion and influence.
The issue of individuals refusing to get vaccinated has got highlighted in a big way over the past ten days is because of Novak Djokovic, the Serbian, one of the greatest tennis players of all times. He has deliberately avoided getting himself vaccinated and tested COVID positive last month though a later test showed that he was COVID negative. Djokovic is a nine-time winner of the Australian Open tennis tournament and wants to play in this year’s edition which begins on January 17.
Djokovic sought and got an exemption from Australian requirements that a foreigner who wishes to enter the country should be fully vaccinated. Obviously, the tournament organisers were willing to accede to his request because of his great status in the sports world. However, this decision met with a storm of popular protest in Australia which led the immigration authorities to detain Djokovic when he arrived in Australia on January 6. They also prepared to deport him but an Australian court quashed that decision and set Djokovic free. As I write these lines it is not clear if the Australian authorities will finally allow him to stay and play in the tournament.
The real issues in this Djokovic controversy are two: one, the fact that Djokovic is a great international celebrity instead of setting an example by taking the COVID vaccine refusing to do so and two, the obsequiousness initially shown by the Australians in not refusing him to enter the country to participate in the Australian Open. By doing so the Australians ignored the fact that all governments including the Australian are advocating vaccinations as necessary in dealing with the pandemic. They did so at a time when Australia is itself going through a rapid rise in infections because of which the authorities have had to put in strong restrictions on the general public. Exceptions for celebrities erode the very effort governments are making to combat the pandemic.
Most advanced countries, including America, have always ensured that they have sufficient stocks of vaccines for all their eligible populations. In America some vaccine stocks have got wasted because of the refusal of twenty percent of Americans to get the vaccine. At the same time there continues to be a critical lack of vaccines in a majority of countries of the world. Leave alone booster jabs in most of these countries large sections of vulnerable people have not been able to get even a first shot. So much for vaccine equity.
The continuing lack of real global coordination continues to hamper global efforts to combat the virus.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.