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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.

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This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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