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Opinion: We have vaccines but for medical science the pandemic is still a mystery. Nobody quite knows what lies ahead

Many scientists believe Covid spreads in winters when people huddle together in confined spaces. Really? In India, Covid raged during the summers and mysteriously receded during the winters, and is now spreading again as we head towards summers. And Kerala is among the worst affected states despite not having severe winters.

A boy wearing a face mask is seen on a bus (Source: Xinhua)

It was rich in symbolism and sent out the right signals to the world. Narendra Modi took the vaccine shot, but it was Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and not Astrazenaca’s Covishield. A swadeshi vaccine for the prime minister, showing confidence in what Atmanirbhar Bharat has to offer the world.

But this column is not about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “atmanirbhar” campaign or India’s – or even the world’s  – vaccination drive. Instead, I’m exploring a broader, overarching theme here. Scientists may have rolled out a vaccine – in fact, several of them – but have still not quite cracked the riddle that is Covid-19. That might take a while, even years perhaps.

This becomes clear once you explore the conclusions that different medical associations have arrived at after doing their research.  The Indian Medical Association (IMA) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) appear to have fundamentally different expectations from the vaccination drive.

A couple of months ago, a senior ICMR official told me during a live chat on India Ahead that some sort of herd immunity may set in once we vaccinate 30 crore Indians. But recently, Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, scientific advisor to the IMA told me that we may never reach herd immunity in our battle against the pandemic. He went a step further and asserted that vaccines don’t offer a cure for the pandemic, and only make the outbreak less severe and fatal for the vulnerable groups.

I believe these seemingly different conclusions by the IMA and the ICMR suggest we have not cracked the Covid puzzle completely yet. That is also amply demonstrated by the bewildering behaviour of the coronavirus in India. Remember, how scientists believed only a few months ago that India may be able to keep a lid on the pandemic because of its blazing summers – the assumption being that coronavirus becomes less potent in higher temperatures and spreads faster at lower temperatures during the winters.

Then, the thinking evolved globally and some scientists had their Eureka moment. It’s not the temperature that directly makes the difference they said. What happens is, they explained, that during winters people huddle together indoors, often in poorly ventilated rooms, and that can lead to outbreaks. Really? What has happened in India then? The pandemic raged in India during summers and then receded during the winters, and now appears to be spreading again as we head towards the summers. And it’s been raging in Kerala during the past few months, a state which doesn’t have severe winters. The person who cracks this puzzle may just earn himself a Nobel prize in medicine. And no kidding. 

Then, of course, what will further hobble our efforts to rein in the virus is that we don’t know how the different strains of the virus impact children. Perhaps the reason why the vaccines have not been tested on children yet.

Some scientists believe children are more resistant to the pandemic, even the newer strains, others are not so sure. But what is amply clear is in a predominantly young nation like India, with about 40% of the population below 18 years (that’s about 50 crore people), we can never control the pandemic unless there is a vaccine for children. Even if children are more resistant to the coronavirus and may not have severe health problems if infected, they can become carriers of the virus infecting adults around them.

It then appears that our fight against the pandemic is far from over despite the vaccines – unless the virus disappears on its own (that can’t be ruled out too! Dr Jayadevan says nobody quite knows why the pandemic receded in India). For the moment, it appears difficult to keep a lid on the pandemic and it keeps bubbling up as we have seen globally given it’s highly contagious properties.

What all this means is that we may have to resort to mini lockdowns in India – and globally – every now and then to keep the pandemic in check. What we now see in Maharashtra, one of our most industrialised states. And repeated mini lockdowns would mean the Indian economy will not grow to its potential in the near term, making a double-digit growth tougher in the next financial year (2021-22).

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The Indian government and various think tanks, including the IMF, have projected a 10% plus economic growth for India in the next fiscal which will again make it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world (if not the fastest). But this projection, I suppose, was predicated on the assumption that India will win the battle against the pandemic – that is far from clear yet. A second wave of infection can disturb the economic momentum that India seeks to restore livelihood to its poorest citizens.

The bottom line: nobody quite knows how the pandemic will behave in the next few months. It’s confounding scientists globally. As Indians, and global citizens, we have to learn to live with Covid protocols for a while – masks, social distancing, sanitisers. That, along with vaccination, has to be the way forward in our fight against the pandemic.

Think of it like this. Every time you wear a mask, you are helping to contain the spread of the virus. And that may mean that you are helping avoid lockdowns – and that helps the really poor and needy retain their life and livelihoods.

Most of us want to support causes and many Indians I know do their bit for the needy quietly. Wearing a mask and sanitisers is akin to extending a lifeline to the poor and the needy – it’s like supporting a cause, perhaps more effective than supporting a charity or other forms of social service in these troubled times.

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