How India can beat coronavirus faster
Prof. Sayantan Banerjee April 7, 2021
The country rejoiced when the first consignments carrying the much-awaited vaccine reached different parts of India. The time had finally come when people could take a jab (two jabs, to be precise) and move closer to restoring normality in lives.
Little did we care that a vaccine becomes effective in turning an epidemic into an endemic only when a certain percentage of the population is immunised against the virus.
With the restoration of regular life beginning with a frantic pace, masks have started to disappear, and people have begun huddling again in crowded public transports.
Religious and social gatherings, including crowds in sports stadiums, have become nonchalant to the disease called COVID-19. Allowing crowds inside stadiums was not a very good idea that the concerned bodies realised soon, but it was already too late. Let's not talk about political gatherings in poll-bound states.
People seemed to become complacent in adhering to basic norms required to keep the head of the infection curve down. A surge was probably imminent as new mutants of the virus started sweeping various parts of the globe.
But we are allowing it to spread more at a time when we cannot possibly afford another country-wide or even state-wide lockdown. That would result in another severe blow to the economy, if not adding more sadness to an already depressed nation.
Managing regional contact networks served as a key to fight the pandemic. With a population of more than 1.3 billion and with the presence of an extensive travel and contact network across the country, it was ubiquitous to break the chain of infection by identifying and tracing the contacts of people who were infected.
Identification of the hub of these networks became increasingly important; isolate the hub, and a significant portion of the job gets done.
Public health experts repeatedly stressed the importance of testing and tracing, urging the general masses to continue practicing basic hygiene norms, including frequent washing of hands and sanitising, wearing masks, and maintaining social distancing.
As the days went by and the infection curve started to show a steady decline, social distancing bade a silent farewell. Yes, a working nation can hardly follow social distancing, especially when a majority has to depend on public transport for reporting to work.
With the ever-increasing price of fuel, it is also difficult to always rely on personal vehicles as well, if any. But we could have practiced the other two.
However, masks seemed to hinder our freedom, a deterrent to our right to breathe, a rule that ought to be broken, like other rules in place - so seems our fellow citizens' thinking process.
We are letting this virus start winning over us again. The worst affected state of Maharashtra alone recorded more than 16,000 cases around mid-March this year.
The numbers were hovering around only 3,000 at the beginning of the same.
We seem to be wielding the vaccine as the only weapon that we have against the virus. Yes, we do have that. A vaccine is, if effective, a sure-shot way to end the transmission of the disease.
But merely possessing the weapon will not let us see the winning light. We would also need to know how to use it effectively. We should not rejoice before we win this battle. We must not let our guards down and make the efforts of all those actively or passively involved in mitigating the crisis go in vain.
While managing regional contact networks served as a key to managing the disease's spread across the country, the same could be used to unleash a successful vaccination drive.
The historical success story of effective usage of vaccines tells us that immunisation of the hubs and potential hubs of the contact network was a crucial point in eradicating smallpox.
Our country's policymakers were more than correct in achieving the target of eliminating COVID-19 when they started vaccinating the frontline workers, including healthcare personnel.
But the next step seems to be out of sync. They started vaccinating the senior citizens of the country, followed by people aged 45 or more.
As research suggests, they are more vulnerable and have a higher chance of non-recovery from the disease than the younger strata of the population.
But the question that remains is - how much they are a part of this contact network. According to a 2019 study conducted by the Council of Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) on how India's urban population moves, it was found that about 37 per cent of India's urban population, including those who are unemployed, use public transport.
This figure excludes shared cabs and shared auto-rickshaws, adding which would take the figure to more than 60 per cent. Additionally, individuals in the age group of 18-34 are statistically more likely to avail of public transport than those above 45 years of age.
This information suggests that the strata of the population with more exposure to the virus consist of not the senior citizens but the younger ones.
In one of the most extensive contact tracing studies done in our country for Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, involving more than 5 lakh contacts traced from over 84,000 infected individuals, some critical findings have emerged.
The research article, appearing in one of the top-rated peer-reviewed journals, 'Science', reported that the young adult age group (18 - 44 years) attributed to the highest transmission rate compared to others.
Also, children were found to infect other children, and that too much efficiently. On the policy level, we must establish vaccination centers running in parallel for the young adult age group and not wait until the 45+ population gets vaccinated completely.
A more effective policy-level decision would have been to target the population concerning their occupation, people who have a higher propensity to come in contact with many individuals.
The delivery agents working tirelessly to deliver your goods, the bank, post-office, and other PSU staff ensuring that daily activities move on smoothly, airlines personnel guaranteeing safe travels from one place to the other, academicians, including teachers, professors, senior students, laboratory personnel, library staff, who are reporting to work to make sure that education doesn't stay paused - all form the hubs of the contact networks our society produce.
It's like chess, where merely castling the king by a rook would not serve your purpose, but one should also know how to use the rest of the pieces as well strategically to checkmate the opponent.
Perhaps we made the wrong move, and it might get too costly. But we can turn around and turn around fast, only if we stand together and bring back our guards in place. The vaccine will do its job, and it just needs our support. Please wear a mask and stay safe.
(The author is Faculty, OM & QT area, IIM Indore.)