COVID-19 vaccines are being given to the public in the US and some other countries. With that a glimmer of hope had emerged despite the virologists’ caution that a lengthy and difficult road lay ahead before the virus was brought under control. But now grim news has come from Britain. A far more infectious strain of the virus has spread swiftly in some areas of the country. It is estimated that this strain is 70 percent more transmissible than present COVID-19 strains.
Initial reports suggest that the strain is not more virulent than existing and earlier variants. According to epidemiologists, current vaccines will be effective against it but alarm bells are ringing across the world because of fear of more dangerous mutations. Besides, medical facilities in countries that are experiencing a rise in infections are already strained to breaking points. Hence, the apprehension that hospitals, even in countries with advanced medical systems may simply become overwhelmed because of the new strain and are unable to cope with the situation.
Britain has reacted fairly quickly to the new strain. In a speech on national television prime minister Boris Johnson informed the people of the mutation, the rush of infections that it had caused and the need to impose stringent restrictions on people’s movement in the areas where it had spread as well as the requirement of enhanced vigilance in other areas. Significantly, he cautioned that Christmas festivities would have to be curtailed; people would have to avoid meeting family and friends as freely as they would have wanted to. Johnson also said that overseas travel from places where the mutation was present will not be permitted.
Britain has acted speedily and responsibly in informing the international community of the new strain. The international community too has also reacted swiftly and many countries, including India, have suspended flights from Britain to prevent the entry of the mutant strain. As all countries have not done so it is clear that no global consensus has emerged on how to prevent the new strain from spreading beyond Britain. Indeed, this reflects the basic inability of the major powers to readily and quickly come together on how to combat the pandemic. This has plagued global COVID-19 mitigation and elimination efforts since the emergence of the virus in China in late 2019.
From early on all scientists agreed that hand hygiene, social distance and the wearing of masks were essential to control the spread of the virus. Despite this unanimity masks became controversial in the United States, the world’s most powerful country and in many ways the science and technology powerhouse of the world. Once it was known that the virus entered the body through the respiratory tract even laypersons could easily understand the importance of wearing masks both for the wearer’s safety and that of others. But in the US many people refused to do so because, they claimed, masks interfered with the human breathing system made by the Almighty. Thankfully such an opposition was not manifest in India though many people did not and do not wear masks because of a feeling that the virus will not affect them.
Three principal reasons for the lack of co-ordinated global responses have been China’s opaque conduct at the emergence of the virus in Wuhan, President Donald Trump’s incoherent approach and disdain for science in combatting COVID-19, and the failings of the World Health Organisation (WHO) leadership in the initial stages in inspiring confidence in the organisation’s ability to provide leadership in controlling the pandemic. Now that President Trump will give way to Joe Biden on January 20 next year there is hope that there will be better multilateral coordination in the health sphere which will lead to controlling the virus.
Biden should quickly restore US membership of the WHO even while emphasising the need for a careful and honest probe into China’s and the WHO response to the virus when it emerged in Wuhan. This is important in instilling confidence in the WHO. On its part China must come clean about its processes in informing the international community about the virus. This is necessary for global cooperation. Also, the Chinese must assure the world that they have effectively closed the wild-life markets which are reservoir’s from where coronavirus’ spread. This is essential to ensure that this kind of pandemic does not occur again.
The equitable distribution of vaccines is a more urgent task. As it is the more affluent countries have got off the mark in inoculating their people. They have not only cornered the vaccines but have the wherewithal to provide the infrastructure needed to take them to all sections of their populations. The poor countries will need both human and material resources for this purpose. For this the assistance of the affluent countries will be needed by them.
One final thought: as London is on the affected list will Johnson be able to travel to India as chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations next month? This question is relevant for it will be incongruous to suspend flights from Britain but allow Johnson and his delegation to come to India. It is likely that both governments will wait till around the middle of January before taking a decision for neither India nor Britain would like such a significant visit to be cancelled. Any decision that is taken should only be on health considerations. All this only shows that COVID-19 problems are far from over the introduction of vaccines nothwithstanding.