News & Events
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1.Start trials for mutant strains
The race is on for a vaccine that can deal with multiple strains of the virus. It is, therefore, critical that India step up its vaccine development efforts. It is not just vaccines that India must focus on. The World Health Organisation has declared that Covid is likely to become endemic, India must begin working on developing drugs to deal with the disease.
Covaxin, the Covid vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech, was given emergency authorisation for use because it could, on account of it being a whole virus vaccine, rather than based on virus proteins, be effective against the new strain of the virus that was emerging in Britain. Given that new strains of the virus are emerging, it is important to determine Covaxin’s efficacy in this context, through tailormade trials, right away, if necessary in South Africa and Brazil, leveraging India’s ties with these countries. The results must be published as they become available, so as not to lose time in wide expert assessment. It would make sense for vaccines that are under development (in pre-clinical and clinical trial), too, to take the mutations of the virus into consideration. This will help India to transition from being the world’s major manufacturer of vaccines and generic drugs to being a developer and manufacturer. The Covid pandemic and the push to develop a vaccine has given impetus to the Indian biotech and pharma sector.
Scientists warn that the Covid pandemic is unlikely to be a one-off event. Part of preparedness is building a robust ecosystem for developing cures. Now, India needs to leverage this momentum to build up domestic drug and vaccine companies rather than simply serving as a development hub for foreign pharma and biotech companies. This is an opportunity to act on the idea of local for global. The move will also give a boost to developing the ecosystem for research and development.
2.A defeat for silence against harassment
More than half the battle against sexual harassment is lost because of victims being inhibited or threatened into silence. The inhibition is a product of social and cultural factors that makes the victim — overwhelmingly a woman — feel more shameful than shamed against. And the threats emanate from the ‘traditional’ power structure that makes a male perpetrator feel empowered enough to get away with his crime. In the case of journalist Priya Ramani being accused of defaming former editor and ex-minister of state for external affairs M J Akbar, not only were these prods applied, but she was also accused of having ‘caused irreparable damage to [his] stellar reputation’.
Ramani was not cowed down by patriarchal and ‘VIP culture’ SOP. By acquitting Ramani on Wednesday, the Delhi district court has given more power to Ramani’s kind. It clearly stated that ‘women cannot be punished for raising their voice against sexual abuse… [or] be punished on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation’. As a high-profile case, this will go a long way in encouraging women to speak up against sexual harassers.
The court underlined that a person’s ‘right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity’. The dice, almost always loaded in favour of the doubly empowered/protected ‘man in high places’ — Akbar, then an editor of a publication, was interviewing Ramani for a job when he allegedly harassed her — and against the abused woman, has been ‘unloaded’. Importantly, the court added that a woman has ‘a right to air her grievance on any platform of her choice… even after decades [of the crime allegedly committed]’. A little push is what was needed for women to not keep quiet about sexual harassers. The court has provided that push.
3.Punjab municipal poll results: Advantage Congress unless BJP can quickly end the farm protests
The clean sweep of the Punjab municipal polls will come as a relief for the Congress with the state heading for assembly elections next year. Punjab is among the few states where Congress has managed to retain its base amid the BJP juggernaut. Captain Amarinder Singh has been facing dissidence from a faction led by PS Bajwa. But the result will strengthen the 78-year-old chief minister’s hand.
The Akali Dal, which pulled out from NDA after the farm ordinances were promulgated and just before the farm laws were passed in Parliament, has also been hit badly. The party with a distinctive Sikh identity will also ponder over how it can fight the 2022 elections, without the crucial votes that the BJP brought to the alliance.
The Punjab results have gained attention in the wake of the farm agitation that originated from the state. While the Punjab result per se won’t worry the BJP too much given its minimal stakes in the state, the spread of the farm fire to Haryana and now Western Uttar Pradesh, both strongholds of BJP, is another matter. With no easy resolution to the farm agitation in sight, the political strategies pursued in north India by the Centre and opposition will be keenly watched.
4.Warning signs: It is too early to lower the guard against Covid. Speed up the vaccination drive
Confirmation that the South African and Brazilian mutations of the novel coronavirus have entered India, coupled with discernible laxity in social distancing measures and slow pace of vaccination, pose threats to the gains made since October in the anti-Covid fight. Maharashtra is seeing an uptick in Covid cases, especially Mumbai where local train restrictions have been eased. In response, the state government has threatened a lockdown. This could be just a scare tactic: The economy can ill afford another standstill order. But government’s plea for caution from citizens isn’t misplaced.
India’s inability to unlock with greater confidence, evident in Maharashtra’s lockdown threat, is exacerbated by the slow vaccination. Israel is witnessing the benefits of vaccination in terms of infections plummeting, having covered a good percentage of its population. Tuesday saw just 1.3 lakh vaccinations in 6,293 sessions, of which 56,000 were healthcare workers returning for their second dose. The Monday turnout was 2.3 lakh beneficiaries in 9,935 sessions. Given the initial target of 100 inoculations per session, the low capacity utilisation of 20-23% on these two days calls for changing strategies. This unused capacity could have easily been plugged by people with comorbidities and those in the general population not falling in the priority lists.
With India’s comfortable stock of vaccines, it must show greater ambition. Allowing the private market comprising private hospitals and clinics – which account for nearly two-third of patient footfalls – to start vaccinating on demand is the easiest way to scale up. Union health minister Harsh Vardhan noted that the vaccines are still under emergency use authorisation to argue against a private market. However, there is no reason the private sector cannot undertake the same precautions. If the Co-WIN app, which again witnessed glitches during the second dosing, has limitations in facilitating such a mass vaccination process, decentralised models of data entry and analysis must be pursued.
Vaccine hesitancy remains an issue. Government and its health experts must expend greater efforts to tackle misinformation, doubts about vaccine safety, and their efficacy against mutations. Bharat Biotech’s quick release of a preprint research paper on Covaxin’s efficacy against the UK coronavirus variant is worth following. Results of how the two Indian vaccines square up against the SA and Brazil mutations are keenly awaited. Meanwhile, the messaging on masking must be amped up again. Given slow vaccination progress, masks are our lifesavers. Don’t pull them down yet.
5. In J&K, the unfinished democratic agenda
Over 20 foreign diplomats are in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), meeting political and civil society stakeholders and assessing the ground situation in the Union Territory (UT). The Centre has organised the visit — this is the third such batch of diplomats — to showcase its claims of normalcy and progress in J&K, 18 months after the decision to effectively abrogate Article 370, bifurcate the erstwhile state, and turn it into a UT. In the aftermath of the August 2019 move, there was widespread international concern over the detention of leaders, a crackdown on connectivity and rights, and the implications for regional geopolitics and security. The government has, since then, substantially restored connectivity, released key regional leaders, including former chief ministers, and held local body elections, which saw the participation of mainstream Kashmiri forces. With this, the government believes that its move to overhaul the constitutional status of J&K is slowly paying dividends.
The Centre’s willingness to both open up democratic space in J&K and engage with foreign interlocutors on the issue is positive — though it would have been more credible if the diplomats were allowed to meet diverse stakeholders, including those who operate within the Indian Constitution, but are sharply critical of the Centre’s policies. More importantly, the task of restoring democracy in J&K remains unfinished.
First, the government must prioritise the protection of civil liberties — do remember that juxtaposing liberty against security only breeds alienation, and while there must be no let-up in countering terrorism, ensuring citizens in J&K enjoy the same rights as citizens elsewhere in India, at all times, is important. Second, it must recognise that the situation remains politically fragile. The mood in the Valley, as reflected in the local elections and the support garnered by the Gupkar alliance, remains one of distrust of the Centre and its moves. One way to address this is by beginning the process of restoring statehood — home minister Amit Shah said this would be done at an “appropriate time”; that time should come sooner rather than later. This then will enable the third step — free and fair elections to the assembly elections, with widespread participation and legitimacy. For the sake of Indian democracy, pluralism, and its own image globally, the Centre must focus on the twin tasks of both managing peace and cementing democracy.