coronavirus India Latest News

Covid-19 and the invisibilization of rural India

By Barkha Dutt

As the government declares the worst of the second wave of the pandemic over in our cities and gets ready to unlock, in our villages, our citizens have been dying. And they have been dying uncounted, and mostly at home, from illnesses that match the exact symptoms of Covid-19, including plummeting oxygen levels.

On the ground, in every hamlet, even the smallest ones across states, residents say, anywhere between 20-40 deaths have taken place in May. Though rural health care infrastructure in our southern states is distinctly better than in the north, the struggle for testing and vaccines is exactly the same in large swathes of rural India, irrespective of geography.

In Tamil Nadu’s Chennasandiram panchayat of seven villages, the panchayat president Jayakumar Reddy tells me that the surge in sudden deaths in the last two months has made people even more terrified to make the trek to nearby towns and cities — the only places where they have a hope of getting a vaccine.

Among the dead is 27-year-old Vijay, who was discharged from a private hospital and told he was well enough to go home, only to die the next morning, eight hours later. We also meet Shobha, the sister of Rudresh, a young man who travelled from Bengaluru to Hosur in the hope of finding a hospital closer to his home. He ended up riding in an ambulance for 250 kilometres before dying in the vehicle, unable to find an oxygenated intensive care unit (ICU) bed. “No one cares about the poor,” his sister says, barely able to form the words through a cascade of tears.

“We want vaccines,” implores Reddy. “We are all farmers. As poor people, are we going to be completely overlooked?” he asks.

The invisibilization of rural India is the stage of the pandemic we are now at, relegated to the margins of public and policy discourse and attention.

Tragedies abound in our villages where hardly anyone is chronicling them. Not only are their deaths slipping through the official cracks — of deep concern in a week that saw Bihar reconcile its death data in thousands, causing India to breach the 6,000 mark for daily fatalities — the absence of vaccines and testing also means we may not be measuring the trajectory of the second wave accurately. The crests and troughs in Covid-19 cases and the spikes and falls of daily infographics by which we now measure the wellness of our lives have been based mostly on city-driven data.

Reddy reports 20 confirmed Covid deaths in the villages under him in Hosur. He does not think most of them have been certified.

Hundreds of miles away in Ramana village in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, the village pradhan (headman) reports twice as many deaths, 40 in the last few weeks. Ram Gopal, who lost two family members, an uncle and a grandfather, shows us all the related medical paperwork. In one case, no death certificate has been provided. In another “typical pneumonia”, and not Covid-19, is listed as the reason for the fatality.

In UP’s Kannauj, at the cremation ground, residents say four or five hearses have left their villages every day in the past few weeks.

The ethical issue with these deaths remaining uncounted and unrecognised is obvious. But from the perspective of framing public policy too, there is a real conundrum.

If sickness and death in India’s villages remain on the margins of public and media attention, do we really know for sure if cases are coming down? Is the decision to ease restrictions based on data that is entirely city-centric? And once movement between villages and cities resumes, isn’t there a real danger that the virus will also travel up and down, undetected?

In 2020 we saw the poorest Indian citizen suffer as migrant workers, in the hundreds of thousands, fled the cities on foot, sometimes barefoot, to return to the villages.

In 2021, the virus came home for the wealthy and upper-middle-class Indians. Of course, low-income households suffered the most, financial penury compounding their grief and loss.

But as the situation in the metropolises slowly comes under tenuous control, the Delta variant’s damage has once again exposed the great class divide of the virus and our response to it.

(The Op-Eds appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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Investigating the roots of the coronavirus

By Shashi Shekhar

Since early last year, many experts have voiced apprehensions that the coronavirus, which has wreaked such devastation on us, could have originated in a laboratory. But we took little notice of what many dismissed as conspiracy theories. Last week, United States (US) President Joe Biden ordered intelligence officials to submit an investigation report about this within 90 days, completely changing the narrative.

Before this, former US President Donald Trump had also expressed apprehensions that the virus was not natural but, given his character, people did not take him seriously enough. But, even at that time, many scientists, including Nobel Prize-winning virologists as well as military experts, were voicing similar concerns in Australia, the United Kingdom and France, among other countries. All this suggests that there is a pressing need for a thorough investigation into the antecedents of the virus.

The P-4 lab in Wuhan where the virus is said to have originated is run by Chinese air force scientists. A major general heads the facility. China started recruiting scientists to its army in 2015, a watershed year in Sino-US relations. At that time, Chinese officials told their American counterparts that since their defence system was on a par with that of the US, China deserved to be treated as an equal.

The then President Barack Obama was reportedly displeased with this contention. An Australian news report from that period claimed that the Chinese defence ministry had stated that World War III would be fought and won using biological weapons. This report carries some credibility since it was during this period that China is said to have prepared select military divisions to deal with biological weapons.

US intelligence agencies claim that in November 2019, three scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were infected by the virus. It was only in December that the Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organization (WHO) about this. It is also being questioned why Chinese President Xi Jinping restricted all internal movement in the country at that time but did not place any restrictions on international flights and travel by sea. Through these routes, the virus spread across the world.

Another question is what led China to begin using the RT-PCR test in hospitals in January 2020. Was it already prepared for the virus? The speed with which China brought the pandemic under control is staggering. While the world is grappling with the virus, China is well on the road to recovery. It is the only major country in the world where the annual budget is not in the red. Today, it would seem that biological weapons have replaced nuclear weapons as the currency which determines a nation’s superpower status.

China has been behaving like a major economic and military superpower for quite some time now. In 2001, former US President George W Bush had projected it as his country’s biggest rival. Had it not been for 9/11 that same year, the US and China may have started the battle for supremacy in right earnest. For several years after 9/11, the US was preoccupied with its fight against terror, pushing most other issues onto the backburner. This is why the help that scientists in Wuhan continued to get from many countries in the West, including the US, went largely unnoticed. Most of them could not have known that they may have been helping to create a virus which would one day bring the world to its knees.

But all this knowledge must be proceeded on with great caution. Every calamity or natural disaster brings in its wake a host of conspiracy theories. So, it is imperative that we investigate all claims thoroughly and scientifically. It cannot be forgotten that in the first decade of this century, the US, supported by its allies, destroyed much of Iraq on the grounds that it was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, a contention not borne out as facts unfolded. The world paid the price and the US got needlessly entangled in a war that ultimately yielded no results but which changed the geopolitical map forever.

(The opinion piece appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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How Indian-Americans shaped US response to India’s 2nd wave

By Frank F Islam

The United States has provided aid worth at least half-a-billion dollars since the devastating second wave of Covid-19 struck India. US tech and financial companies such as Google, Microsoft, MasterCard and others have donated money, medicine and medical devices to India to combat the virus.

A lot of the credit for this must go to the Indian-American community, whose response has been extraordinary. Apart from raising money, Indian-Americans also put pressure on the political establishment right from the Oval Office down to statehouses to urge them to send aid to India.

As a result of these efforts, the Joe Biden administration backed New Delhi’s call for temporarily waiving the intellectual property rights of Covid vaccines, which, partially, opens the door to allow India to produce them locally.

The Indian-American community’s response has been two-layered: One within the community and the other focused on mainstream America.

At the grassroots level, various community organisations representing the large Telugu, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Bengali and Malayali communities primarily raised funds for the various regions to which they belong. At the national level, organisations such as the American India Foundation, Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, Indiaspora and Sewa International have led the mobilisation efforts.

Those speaking on behalf of India have included Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, both of whom announced multi-million-dollar packages on behalf of their respective organisations. Indian-American lawmakers such as Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi called for help not just on humanitarian grounds, but also to ensure US national security. Indian-American public health experts such as Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, chipped in with explaining the dangers of the new variants, what India needed, and what the US could do.

In my five decades in the US, I have never seen the community step up in such large numbers. In the past, they have indeed helped in the aftermath of natural disasters in India. They have also helped out when India’s national interests were at stake, lobbying to mobilise support for the country. This included efforts following the US sanctions against India after the 1998 nuclear tests, and prior to the signing of the historic US-India Civil Nuclear Deal in 2008.

There are two reasons why the Covid-19 relief efforts have been more successful and are being sustained now. Unlike relief efforts in the past, this time around, India was dealing with a pandemic of which the US is intimately aware. It did not require any hard-selling. The second major difference is the growing size and prominence of the Indian-American community.

In 2001, when the Gujarat earthquake struck, the Indian-American population stood at 1.7 million and there were very few Indian-Americans in leadership positions. This is no longer the case. Members of the Indian-American population, almost four million now, are leaders in business, politics, academia and health care, among other fields.

With its leadership in mobilising America’s efforts to help combat the pandemic in India, the Indian-American community has demonstrated what it can accomplish when it comes together for a common purpose. It has also demonstrated that although the community has made great progress, this is just a fraction of what it can achieve. There are many stories waiting for the Indian American community to script, as it continues to help India in its hour of dire need.

(The article appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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coronavirus Education India Latest News

Covid-19: CBSE Class 12 Board Exams cancelled in India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 1 chaired a review meeting regarding the Class XII Board exams of Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). Officials gave a detailed presentation on the wide and extensive consultation held so far and views received from all stakeholders, including State governments.

In view of the uncertain conditions due to Covid and the feedback obtained from various stakeholders, it was decided that Class XII Board Exams would not be held this year. It was also decided that CBSE will take steps to compile the results of class XII students as per a well-defined objective criteria in a time-bound manner.

The Prime Minister said that the decision on Class 12 CBSE Exams has been taken in the interest of students. He stated that COVID-19 has affected the academic calendar and the issue of Board Exams has been causing immense anxiety among students, parents and teachers, which must be put to an end. 

The PM said that the Covid situation is a dynamic situation across the country. While the numbers are coming down in the country and some states are managing the situation through effective micro-containment, some states have still opted for a lockdown. Students, parents and teachers are naturally worried about the health of the students in such a situation. The PM said that students should not be forced to appear for exams in such a stressful situation.

The Prime Minister stressed that the health and safety of our students is of utmost importance and there would be no compromise on this aspect. He said that in today’s time, such exams cannot be the reason to put our youth at risk.

The PM said that all stakeholders need to show sensitivity for students. The PM directed officials to ensure that the results are prepared in accordance with well-defined criteria, in a fair and time-bound manner.

It was also decided that like last year, in case some students desire to take the exams, such an option would be provided to them by CBSE, as and when the situation becomes conducive.

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India targets 10 M vaccinations per day by July-August

The government on Tuesday said there will be enough Covid vaccines in India by mid-July or early August this year to inoculate up to 10 million people every day.
During a media briefing, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) director-general Dr Balram Bhargava said that Centre will be able to fulfil its goal of vaccinating the entire adult population of India by December 2021.

“We need to be patient. We have administered nearly as many vaccine doses as the United States. There is no shortage of vaccines. By mid-July or August, we will have enough doses to vaccinate 1 crore people per day. We are confident of vaccinating the whole population by December,” he said.

The assertion comes just days after the Union health ministry said that 12 crore doses of vaccines will be available in India in the month of June itself.
Currently, the nationwide vaccination program is progressing at a slow pace due to shortage of doses. 
Specifying norms for opening districts, the ICMR chief said that the Covid positivity rate should be below five per cent for a week, over 70 per cent of the vulnerable population should be vaccinated and there should be community ownership to implement Covid-appropriate behavior.
He said the positivity rate is less than five per cent in 344 districts while 30 states and UTs have reported a decline in active Covid-19 cases since last week.
The ICMR DG added that 239 districts have registered more than 10% positivity rate.
There has also been an almost 69 per cent decline in Covid cases since the peak recorded on May 7, he said.
The government also clarified that mixing vaccines is not a protocol till further update and there is no change in the schedule of the two-dose Covishield and Covaxin vaccines.
India has been administering doses of Covishield and Covaxin since the inoculation drive began in January. Russia’s Sputnik V was recently added to the immunization program and is being administered in select hospitals.

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Hyderabad drugmaker to make Canada firm’s mRNA Covid vaccine

Hyderabad-based Biological E said on Tuesday it has entered into a licensing agreement with Providence Therapeutics Holdings to manufacture the Canadian company’s mRNA Covid-19 vaccine in India.

Biological E., which also has a separate deal to produce about 600 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 shot annually, will run a clinical trial of Providence’s vaccine in India and seek emergency use approval for it, the company said in a statement.

Providence will sell up to 30 million doses of its mRNA vaccine, PTX-Covid19-B, to Biological E, and will also provide the necessary technology transfer of the shot, with a minimum production capacity of 600 million doses in 2022 and a target capacity of 1 billion doses.

Financial details of the transaction were not disclosed.

“The mRNA platform has emerged as the front runner in delivering the first vaccines for emergency use to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mahima Datla, Biological E.’s managing director.

Messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines prompt the body to make a protein that is part of the virus, triggering an immune response. US companies Pfizer and Moderna use mRNA technology in their Covid-19 shots. The drug regulator has approved clinical trials of another mRNA vaccine developed by local firm Gennova Biopharmaceuticals, and the government has said it will fund the studies.

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Time has come for global pandemic treaty: WHO Chief

The head of the World Health Organization has called for launching negotiations on an international treaty on pandemic preparedness and response to better ready the world for the next disease outbreak.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysesus said Monday during the final day of the World Health Assembly in Geneva. “The safety of the world’s people cannot rely solely on the goodwill of governments.”

“At present, pathogens have greater power than [the] WHO. They are emerging more frequently on a planet out of balance. They exploit our interconnectedness and expose our inequities and divisions,” he added. “We need a generational commitment that outlives budgetary cycles, election cycles and media cycles, that creates an overarching framework for connecting the political, financial and technical mechanisms needed for strengthening global health security.”

The theme of the weeklong World Health Assembly was “Ending this pandemic, preventing the next one.” Earlier in the day, health ministers from the WHO’s 194 member states agreed to study recommendations for sweeping reforms pitched by an independent panel of experts, who found various loopholes and crucial failures in the global response to COVID-19 in early 2020. The ministers will meet again on Nov. 29 to decide whether to begin negotiations on the pandemic treaty.

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Getting more movement throughout the day

Working or learning from home? It’s more important than ever to ensure you move throughout the day. Doing so will help keep your mind and body healthy and agile. Here are a few tips to move more throughout the day.

  • Take designated breaks:While your workplace likely afforded you regular opportunities to move around, such as getting up to speak to a colleague or attend a meeting, home workspaces often involve a lot less natural movement. Set a timer for regular intervals. Every time you hear the beep, stretch, move about or take a walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. You’ll be giving your eyes a much needed break too. If possible, consider even building a midday walk or jog around the neighborhood into your schedule.

  • Track your movement:Wearable tech can help you stay accountable throughout the day. The timepieces in the G-SHOCK line-up feature step trackers and other cool heart smart health and fitness functions that can help you enhance your workout. In addition to counting steps, the GBD800-1B for men and the GMDB800-1 for women track calories burned, exercise intensity levels and activity goal achievements when connected to the G-SHOCK app. They also feature daily, weekly and monthly activity graphs so you can set goals and track your progress over time.

  • Mix it up:There are four types of exercise, according to the National Institutes of Health — endurance, strength, balance and flexibility — and each type has different benefits for your body. Varying your workouts can ensure you gain the benefits of all four types. Need some inspiration? There are plenty of free routines available online, many of which offer modifications to work for different fitness levels. Just search for what you’re looking for and you’re bound to find some great follow-along programming to meet your needs. And remember, a workout doesn’t need to be a certain length to be beneficial. If you have only a few minutes to squeeze movement into your day, be sure to take it.

Using new tools, it’s easier than ever to stay accountable to your fitness goals, even when you are spending a lot of time at home.

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COVID antibody cocktail used to treat Donald Trump now launched in India

Drug major Roche India on Monday announced the launch of its first batch of antibody cocktail against COVID-19 in India. The antibody cocktail — Casirivimab and Imdevimab –– is priced at Rs 59,750 per dose.

The Roche’s antibody cocktail was given to then US President Donald Trump when he contracted COVID-19 last year.

In a statement, the company said: “Each of the 1,200 mg dose of the drug contains 600 mg of Casirivimab and 600 mg of Imdevimab. The price of each dose will be Rs 59,750. The maximum retail price for the multi-dose pack will be Rs 1,19,500. Notably, each pack can treat two patients.”

The drug will be marketed in India by Cipla and the second batch will be made available by mid-June.

“The first batch of the antibody cocktail (Casirivimab and Imdevimab) is now available in India while a second batch will be made available by mid-June. In total they can potentially benefit two lakh patients as each of the one lakh packs that will be available in India offers treatment for two patients,” according to a joint statement issued by Cipla and Roche.

The drug will be available through leading hospitals and COVID treatment centers.

The Central Drugs Standards Control Organization (CDSCO) had recently provided an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the antibody cocktail in India. Earlier, it has also received a EUA in the US and several EU countries.

“Roche is deeply committed to supporting the ongoing efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, mitigate the deadly second wave and save lives. We are optimistic that the availability of Antibody Cocktail (Casirivimab and Imdevimab) in India can help in minimizing hospitalization, ease the burden on healthcare systems and play a key role in the treatment of high-risk patients before their condition worsens,” said V Simpson Emmanuel, Managing Director and CEO, Roche Pharma India.

The antibody cocktail is to be administered for the treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 in adults and pediatric patients (12 years of age or older, weighing at least 40 kg) who are confirmed to be infected with SARS-COV2 and who are at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 disease and do not require oxygen.

The cocktail drug has been shown to help these high-risk patients before their condition worsens, reducing the risk of hospitalization and fatality by 70 per cent. (ANI)


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