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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 49, New Delhi, November 21, 2020

Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, November 21, 2020

Saturday 21 November 2020

Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, November 21 2020

According to the World Health Organization, confirmed cases of COVID-19 now exceed 55 million (the exact figure being 55,928,327), with 1,344,003 deaths as on November 19, 2020. India has now surpassed 9 million cases of COVID-19. According to India’s top medical research body ICMR, a cumulative total of 12,85,08,389 samples have been tested up to November 18, 2020, that is, over 120 million people have been tested since February 2020, but this is only 10 per cent of India’s population. That should give us an idea about how long it may take to vaccinate when the time comes for that.

There is currently a huge wave of Covid-19 infections in Europe and the United States and other countries but we are told that it is not so in India. What do we make of this?

We have been told over the past two months that there has been a slowdown in the number of Covid-19 cases in India and that the recovery rates are high and that the doubling time has increased and that the positivity rate is low. But there are considerable doubts being cast on these claims. Reputed epidemiologists and mathematicians doing modelling work have been projecting figures for India, far far greater than anything that official data tells us. In early October 2020, Dr Bhramar Mukherjee, a Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of Michigan, who has been closely tracking, the pandemic gave his estimation to the BBC “India already has around 120-130 million infections ….”

Accurate data of the number of people infected or recovered depends on the diagnostic tests conducted and also on the definition of ‘cured’. There is great confusion about the real figures. Independent health experts say that the Government of India tweaked the discharge protocol criteria so that an infected, asymptomatic person can be declared ‘cured’ and without undergoing the previously mandated RT-PCR test which is considered to be highly reliable. So, we should not be jumping to conclusions regarding declining case counts. Half of the total tests India is conducting are the rapid antigen tests — which are quicker and cheaper, but whose accuracy is as low as 50%. Some media reportage and TV reports suggest that the proportion of antigen tests is over 50%, and up to 80% in many States. So the Covid-19 statistics in India are not giving us the fuller picture.

We don’t know the real truth on the numbers and the scale of the problem in India. How can the government plan a vaccine strategy for a country our size till it has the real numbers?

This pandemic has impacted the whole world in a big way, the toll of death and destruction is staggering. WHO has pushed its member countries to sign up for the COVAX plan — that will buy a vaccine in huge quantities and distribute it in an equitable way globally. But it has been grappling with a major hurdle: how to get high-income countries to join, instead of hoarding early vaccine supplies for their own populations. This is exactly in the air. Economically powerful countries have already struck big deals to block major chunks of projected manufacture by some of the vaccine majors, whose vaccines are in phase 3 or final clinical trials and have announced interim results showing a high success rate. The first is jointly developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and the second one is by Moderna.

Pfizer/ BioNTech have sold in advance more than 80% of the vaccine doses they will be able to produce by the end of 2021 to the US and to UK and others. Similarly, the pharma major Moderna which announced that it can manufacture between 500 million to 1 billion vaccine doses in 2021 has already struck deals with the ’elite few’ — US, Canada, the EU and Japan committing most of its production. So these vaccines won’t be available for other countries in 2021.

We hope the numerous other vaccines under development show promise and that they will be acquired by the WHO for equitable access to the world. We hope India will actively contribute towards supplying vaccines to countries of the global South.

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We are astonished to hear that several well-known artists have been asked to vacate the houses allotted to them by the government in Lutyens’ and South Delhi by December 31 during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these artists have lived in these government allotted homes for decades and have nowhere else to go at this point in their lives. It is shocking to hear that people who have been lauded as representatives of cultures of India around the world would be treated in this way by the government of the day.

Tributes:

Soumitra Chatterjee, the legendary actor from Bengali cinema passed away in Calcutta on November 15, 2020, after having contracted Covid-19. He worked with some of the most prominent film directors in Bengal from the late 1950s to the 1990s from Satyajit Ray for his Apur Sansar, Charulata, Sakha Proshakha, Sonar Kella, Feluda, Hirak Rajar Deshe, Ganashatru to the films of Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar and other renowned filmmakers. He was immensely popular during this period. Soumitra Chatterjee was also a sensitive poet and a theatre actor who identified with left politics. His passing is a huge loss and marks the end of a chapter in the history of cinema in Bengal.

Anjum Singh, the very promising artist from New Delhi whose works focused on urban ecology and environmental degradation, passed away on November 17, 2020.

November 21, 2020 – The Editor

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