NYTimes: A lethal, fast-paced second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has brought India’s health care systems to the verge of collapse and is putting millions of lives and livelihoods at risk.
On Sunday and Monday, the country recorded more than 270,000 and 259,000 cases, respectively, of Covid-19, a staggering increase from about 11,000 cases per day in the second week of February. Reported coronavirus infections shot up from about 20,000 per day in mid-March to more than 200,000 by mid-April.
The newspapers and social media are scrolls of horror and failure of the health system. There are reports of lines of ambulances with patients waiting outside the largest Covid facility in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat because ventilator beds and oxygen had run out.
On Friday in the northern city of Lucknow, Vinay Srivastava, a 65-year-old journalist, shared his falling oxygen levels on Twitter, tagging government authorities for help. Overburdened hospitals and laboratories wouldn’t take calls from his family. The last tweet from Mr. Srivastava’s handle described his oxygen saturation level at 52, way below the 95 percent, which is considered normal. Nobody helped. He died on Saturday.
When I left India in February of 2020 I feared that COVID would rip through its dense, urban populations which were already under stress from some of the world’s worst air and water pollution. I feared that COVID would overwhelm India’s weak public health care system and leave its low-capacity state flailing. As it happened, I should have worried more about America’s poorly cared for nursing home populations, its high obesity rate, and its low state-capacity. It was the US state that ended up flailing, as it and the public became absorbed by media spectacles, impeachments and scandals du jour even as thousands died daily. The virus mocks us all.
All of this will require some rethinking. Today, however, I want to point to a foreign policy disaster in the making. America’s role as the guarantor of a globalized, mostly peaceful, and orderly world–already deeply hurt by four years of “America First,”–is now under further threat by an increasing perception that we are vaccine hoarders. Conspiracy theories are running wild in India on WhatsApp and elsewhere that we have hundreds of millions of spare doses. It isn’t true, of course. We ordered more doses than we needed because we didn’t know which vaccine would work and so we smartly placed multiple bets. Our advance-purchases from Pfizer and big investments in Moderna and related parts of the vaccine supply chain have paid off big time. As the US is vaccinated, our investments will benefit the entire world. Our investments in Novavax, AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson were also smart investments but those bets have yet to pay off in a big way. We don’t have hundreds of millions of doses stockpiled but maybe tens of millions of some AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines.
We have, however, used the Defense Production Act to prioritize American vaccine manufacturing at potentially great cost to India. As The Economist reports:
Production lines in India, making at least 160m doses of covid vaccine a month, will come to a halt in the coming weeks unless America supplies 37 critical items.
A shutdown of vaccine production in India would be a disaster for India and also for the United States. Our image in Asia will be tarnished at a time when we want to be making allies to counter Chinese influence. Moreover, the US benefits tremendously from a globalized world. Indeed, the US cannot supply its own vaccine needs without inputs from the rest of the world so flouting the rules will boomerang, leaving us and everyone else worse off. Autarchy is very bad for vaccine production.
The Biden Administration has some leeway. We have over 60 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines on hand and more arriving every day. We do not need to pause our own vaccination efforts to help others. We can donate what AstraZeneca stockpiles remain at no cost to us. A I said in my testimony to Congress, forget being humanitarians, there are health, economic and political reasons to vaccinate the world.
So let’s make it clear that we have an American plan to vaccinate the world before perceptions solidify that we are the villain and not the hero of the story.