OPINION: As a US doctor battling COVID, my father in India was worried. Now, it's my turn to be tormented

by Anita Shet | Johns Hopkins University
Friday, 7 May 2021 10:20 GMT

A man is consoled by his brother after their father died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a crematorium ground in New Delhi, India, April 28, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Barely three months ago, the world was applauding India for conquering COVID-19, but complacency crept in - a phenomenon that can happen in any country

Dr Anita Shet is the Director of Child Health, International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Engraved at the entrance of the Parliament of India are the Sanskrit words from ancient Indian texts circa 800 BC, ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’, which can be translated as “the world is one family.”

These were the words that my father whispered haltingly on the phone to me as he was wheeled, breathless, into the emergency room in southern India a few weeks ago. The idea was integral to his philosophy.

Just last year he had worried incessantly about me during the suffering that unfolded, particularly among health workers, halfway across the world in America. And now it was my turn to be tormented, as I struggled to hold back my terror and ponder instead on the meaning: how the collective lessons of the pandemic year 2020 brought the world together as never before.

The United States has now fully vaccinated almost one third of its people, and is viewing the horizon ahead with hope. But one wonders if the horrors of 2020 can truly be left behind when far away in India, the new coronavirus surge has wrought unprecedented anguish and chaos.

Barely three months ago, the world was applauding India for conquering COVID-19.

At the first blush of 2021 a hopeful new post-pandemic dawn was apparent. India had developed an indigenous vaccine, and her unparalleled vaccine manufacturing units buzzed with activity, promising one billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021. The nation embarked on the largest and most ambitious vaccine campaign in the world to protect not just her own 1.4 billion people, but those across the globe as well.

At a time when higher-income countries were garnering vaccines for their own benefit, the Indian government donated millions of vaccine doses to neighboring countries of Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and others, including island neighbors of the United States such as the Eastern Caribbean states of St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis.

While India’s stark reversal of fortunes can be attributed to several reasons, a singular lesson for the world is the ephemeral nature of victory. A sense of complacency and confidence allowed people—and the government—to let down their guard, a phenomenon that can happen in any country.

Politics took center stage, and election campaigns in several states were fiercely attended by maskless confident crowds, providing a perfect passageway for the partially mutated coronavirus. Circulating viral variants, such as B.1.617 and others, made quick work of slicing through vulnerable populations.

The world was looking to India as the vaccine-generating powerhouse that was ready to immunize half the world against COVID-19. But the pathway was strewn with obstacles: promised funds did not materialize, the supply chain for vaccine raw materials was disrupted, and severely affected employees were unable to work in manufacturing units.

Setbacks faced by vaccine manufacturers in India can reverberate across the world, leaving smaller nations scrambling for vaccines, crippling the World Health Organization’s COVAX program that aims for global equitable access of vaccines, amplifying current immunization gaps and heightening the potential for disease outbreaks. Of significance, Indian companies manufacture routine vaccines for over 65% of the world’s children.

Beyond reflecting on how vaccines can indeed bring us closer, we need immediate action.

First, nations that have lower case burdens should shed self-congratulatory attitudes, and—rapidly—make COVID vaccines accessible and equitable, address vaccine hesitancy, and ensure unbroken vaccine supply chains. We now know with certitude that no one is safe until everyone is safe and vaccinated.

Second, a coordinated crisis response is warranted to contain infection spread and political instability. Mutual international cooperation such as India’s deployment in 2020 of medical professionals to the Middle East, where countries in turn dispatched critical medical supplies to India, are exemplars of goodwill that can create ripples of positive global change.

Third, successful collaborations are greater than the sum of their parts—whether it is with public-private partnerships, government and industry, community and policy makers. The partnering of government and private industry for making COVID vaccines, or expanding India’s oxygen supply are examples of the way forward.

Finally, the collateral damage caused by COVID-19 cannot be ignored. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted women and children, and it is time to be attentive to maintaining routine immunizations, nutrition, and primary health care. Global groups within the World Health Organization provide guidelines for maintaining these services, and local groups such as the Johns Hopkins Maternal and Child Health Center in India are actively engaged in providing focused support for these activities.

My father ultimately recovered, but thousands of others were not so fortunate.

India today burns with a fever that, still, we do not respect enough. This same fever can keep flaring throughout the world if we continue to let it linger. Only with caution, humility, and commitment can the global family heal again. The goal is a world free of pandemic-related adversity—and for this path, there are no shortcuts.