Daily Current Affairs 30.04.2021 (Vaccine Maitri may have to wait till July, Myanmar air force bases attacked, To stop a third wave, India has to mask up)

Daily Current Affairs 30.04.2021 (Vaccine Maitri may have to wait till July, Myanmar air force bases attacked, To stop a third wave, India has to mask up)


1. ‘Vaccine Maitri may have to wait till July’

Our needs are far greater and all our partners understand that, says Shringla

India is unlikely to resume its Vaccine Maitri programme for the neighbourhood, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, until at least July, given the sudden shortage of vaccines amidst a surge in COVID-19 cases, and the government’s plan for vaccination for all adults set to start on May 1.

India has had to suspend the export of both commercial and grant-based vaccine doses, including to countries in the neighbourhood which had already paid for the shipments, with the last batch going out at the beginning of April, after the second wave of the pandemic hit.

When asked on Thursday, Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla would not give a timeline for when the supplies will be restored. “Today, our needs are far greater, and all our partners understand that in this context, today what we require is to ramp up our vaccination programme, to 2-3 billion, so we have to ramp up significantly,” he said.

However, at least two officials said South Block is aware of the problems this has created for India’s neighbours. India’s last shipment to Bangladesh was a grant of 1 lakh doses sent on April 2, while commercial shipments have not been sent since February 21, when 20 lakh doses were shipped, according to the Ministry of External Affairs website. Bangladesh had contracted for 30 million doses of Covishield at 5 million doses a month for six months, but only 7 million of the paid shipments actually arrived between January and February.

Sri Lanka placed a commercial order for 1.5 million (15 lakh) doses of Covishield, of which just 5 lakh doses have arrived so far. Sri Lanka and Nepal were last sent shipments through the COVAX alliance on March 6 and 28, respectively, while commercial shipments stopped at the end of February.

Sources said Bangladesh and Nepal have raised concerns about the interruption in supplies officially.

Vaccine Diplomacy

  • Meaning: Vaccine diplomacy is the branch of global health diplomacy in which a nation uses the development or delivery of vaccines to strengthen ties with other nations.
    • Collaborative Effort: It also includes the joint development of life-saving vaccines and related technologies, with the major actors typically scientists coming together to work irrespective of the kind of diplomatic relationship between the participating countries.
    • Benefit for India: It could provide innovative opportunities to promote India’s foreign policy and diplomatic relations between nations in its neighbourhood and across the globe.
      • India had earlier supplied hydroxychloroquine, Remdesivir and paracetamol tablets, as well as diagnostic kits, ventilators, masks, gloves and other medical supplies to a large number of countries to help them deal with the pandemic.
      • India has also carried out capacity building and training workshops for neighbouring countries.
  • India’s Vaccine Diplomacy Plan:
    • Shipments have begun arriving in the Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Myanmar and the Seychelles are next in line to get consignments.
    • In cases of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Mauritius, India is awaiting their confirmation of necessary regulatory clearances.
    • The only exception to India’s regional vaccine diplomacy would be Pakistan, which has cleared the AstraZeneca vaccine for use, but has neither requested nor discussed any doses from India yet.
  • Importance of India’s Vaccine Diplomacy:
    • Strategic:
      • Earning long term goodwill: By financing shipments from India’s assistance programmes for cash-strapped neighbouring countries desperately needing such assistance, India shall earn the long-term goodwill of its immediate neighbours and across Indian ocean countries
        • It is in line with India’s neighborhood first initiative.
      • Advantage over Chinese: China recently offered its vaccines to Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as it held a multilateral dialogue with the four countries and Pakistan on anti-epidemic prevention.
        • Early shipment from India in these countries could help counter China’s vaccine and mask diplomacy in its neighbourhood.
      • Leverage over western countries: While the affluent western world, notably the US and Europe, are focused almost exclusively on their own problems, India is being appreciated for helping its neighbours and developing countries, who could not afford US and European vaccines.
    • Economic:
      • Make India global supply centre: Beyond India’s immediate neighbours, South Korea, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and South Africa have all shown inclinations to purchase vaccines from India which is estimated to be 60% of the global supply of inoculants.
      • Boost Pharma Manufacturing in India: India can become the pharmacy of the world. If Indian vaccines help developing countries to meet their urgent needs, they can become the future long term destination for market expansion of Indian pharmas.
      • Help in reviving the economy: If India becomes the manufacturing hub to corona vaccines across the world, it shall give a boost to the GDP of India.
    • Rescue from cold war over vaccine:
      • The US-China cold war has been accused of making distribution of vaccines “political football”, which caused the inordinate delay in commencing the inoculation programmes by WHO. Thus, early shipment of vaccines by India is seen as a rescue from this bipolar tussle.
    • Earning moral right:
      • India’s vaccine distribution comes at a time when WHO director-General has criticised moral corruption of drug manufacturers from rich countries for delaying distribution of vaccines and targeting shipments to rich countries only. This could help India have a moral right to have greater say in international forums.
    • Disrupts vaccine nationalism:
      • Vaccine Nationalism is the mechanism through which a country manages to secure doses of vaccines for its own citizens or residents and prioritises its own domestic markets before they are made available in other countries through pre-purchase agreements with a vaccine manufacturer.
      • The major drawback of vaccine nationalism is that it puts countries with fewer resources and bargaining power at a disadvantage. India’s intervention by making vaccines available to needy countries disrupted the vaccine nationalism.
    • Facilitating global collaboration:
      • India vaccines supply could cater greatly to the global collaboration which is being done through the WHO-backed COVAX Facility mechanism.

2. Myanmar air force bases attacked

No damage done, says military

Two Myanmar air force bases came under rocket attack on Thursday, the military said, as the country grapples with violence in the wake of the February 1 military coup.

A military spokesman said air bases in the central cities of Magway and Meiktila came under rocket fire early on Thursday morning, but no damage was done.

It is not clear who was behind the attacks, but the military has launched air strikes in recent weeks against the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the leading ethnic rebel armies.

The KNU, which holds territory along the border with Thailand, on Tuesday attacked and razed an army post, prompting the military to respond with fresh air strikes.

The rise in clashes between the military and ethnic rebels has prompted some observers, including the United Nations, to warn that the country’s crisis could spiral into a broader conflict. At least 756 civilians have been killed and more than 4,500 arrested in the military’s crackdown on protests, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a local monitoring group.

3. Editorial-1: To stop a third wave, India has to mask up

Public health measures that work best are those that the people voluntarily adopt, drastically reducing transmission

As the smoke from countless funeral pyres rises above our cities, and desperately sick people line the corridors and wards of our hospitals seeking beds, medication and oxygen to relieve their virus-damaged lungs, it is difficult to see a way out of the worst crisis India has faced since the plagues and famines of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The anaemic pace of the government’s vaccination drive is unlikely to slow the ferocity of this second wave of the pandemic, which epidemiological modellers predict could peak by the middle of May and gradually decline. If there is one thing to be learned from the tragedy unfolding before us, it is that unless active measures are taken, this second wave will be followed by a third wave, and perhaps more.

Waves across the globe

If we look around the world, the United States has had three distinct waves since last March, as has Brazil. The United Kingdom had a small first wave, followed by nearly four months when cases were low and the virus seemed to be disappearing. This was followed by two explosive waves, which only subsided after a lockdown and an aggressive vaccination campaign in which 95% of all those over the age of 50 have been vaccinated to date, with the entire adult population to be vaccinated by the end of summer. South Africa saw a first wave peaking last August, followed by a second wave that began around November, and peaked in the first week of January.

Given this pattern, a second wave in India was almost a given. And once this wave recedes, it is highly likely that a third wave will build up, unless active measures are taken to stop it building up. Now is the time to think ahead and find ways to prevent the next wave.

Vaccines are the best option. But given India’s population, the slow pace of vaccination, inelastic vaccine supplies both in India and globally, and limited finances with State governments which have now been given the responsibility of vaccinating the bulk of the country’s population, this is not going to happen quickly enough to blunt either this or future waves.

Tested methods that work

So along with vaccination, it is important to practisethe full methods that have been shown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in different parts of the world: mask wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene and a ban on mass gatherings.

These measures sound mundane and boring, but they work. They may not be as effective as mass vaccination, but in the absence of vaccines, they are perhaps the only way to reduce community transmission and slow the spread of the virus. Consider some of the evidence demonstrating the effect of these measures.

A study last year in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found that countries where masks were widely used (either because of government orders or cultural norms) had lower per capita mortality from COVID than countries where there was no universal masking. A smaller study of transmission among family members in Beijing households, found that face masks were 79% effective in preventing transmission when they were used by all household members.

A comprehensive review of the scientific evidence for the use of face masks, published in January this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), concluded that “near-universal adoption of nonmedical masks when out in public, in combination with complementary public health measures” could reduce community spread, provided the measures were sustained. Mask wearing by itself will not be enough: it needs to be part of a package of measures that include rigorous social distancing, hand hygiene and avoiding mass gatherings.

The question is how can people be persuaded to wear masks? Conventional wisdom in India has it that wearing a mask only works when it is imposed as a police measure, with fines and punishments for non-compliance. Mask wearing and social distancing cannot be sustained through lathis. Public health measures that work best are those that the public voluntarily adopts because they see it as being in their best interests.

Bangladesh shows the way

But there is evidence from an experimental study in Bangladesh that people will use masks enthusiastically if they are provided free, are comfortable, and accompanied with appropriate instructional material. A team of researchers, led by Mushfiq Mobarak of Yale University, carried out an experiment involving 350,000 adults in 600 villages in Bangladesh to try and understand how to increase mask usage. They found that mask usage tripled when they were given away free and accompanied by well-designed instructional material, as well as reminders from religious and community leaders and volunteers. These interventions increased the percentage of people using masks three fold.

Having volunteers in public spaces such as markets to remind people to wear masks and distribute masks to those who did not have them, as well as frequent messages from religious and community leaders, saw an increase in mask usage from 13%, when none of these interventions existed, to over 40% with them. One key to success was mask quality: masks needed to be comfortable to wear in hot and humid conditions, as well as being effective filters. Importantly, those who wore masks were also more likely to maintain social distancing.

Over the last year, India has built significant capacity to manufacture masks, so supplies should not be an issue. The cost of supplying reusable masks free will need to be budgeted for, but masks are far cheaper than vaccines and the economic benefits of avoiding crippling new waves of the virus should be taken into account.

Reaching out the right way

Communication at the level of communities is the key to getting people to protect themselves this way. People need to be explained the reasons for mask wearing as well as the right way to wear a mask. Imaginative and creative communication campaigns are essential. In Bangladesh, community-level leaders as well as religious leaders were used to reinforce mask wearing and social distancing messages. Most Indian States have reasonable, well-functioning networks of health workers at the village and community levels who can be used in health campaigns.

These solutions may seem simplistic, but if the country is to reduce the impact of future waves, it is essential that they are put in place. Viruses are the most basic of organisms. And often, basic changes in human behaviour can drastically reduce the ability of a virus to transmit. Vaccines are the ultimate solution. But in the meanwhile, it is important to focus on what can be done right now if further disasters are to be prevented.

4. Editorial-2: Long and tortuous

End of multi-phase Assembly polls is a matter of relief after the surge in COVID-19 cases

With the eighth phase in West Bengal on Thursday, a long and tortuous election process has concluded in four States and one Union Territory to the relief of most electors and candidates. The election spectacle was overrun by COVID-19 towards the end of the agonisingly staggered phases of voting. The current cycle has added to a growing list of concerns that have emerged regarding elections in India in recent years. If electoral bonds for making contributions to political parties emerged as an opaque instrument well before the current round of elections, a serious cause of worry through all the eight phases has been the persistent doubts over the fairness and autonomy of the Election Commission of India (ECI). The ECI made unprecedented seizures of cash and other items that were meant to be used to influence voters. In the absence of a party-wise break up of such preventive measures, parties opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have alleged that they were specifically targeted in search operations. The selective eagerness of central agencies in investigating crimes turns up the heat on non-BJP State governments and parties, and during elections, this raised the possibility of tilting the balance in the contest.

Free, fair and periodic elections are an essential feature of a democracy. Elections are the ultimate opportunity for the people to hold their elected representatives accountable. Election cycles are usually not disrupted, even in challenging situations, for this reason. Ironically, elections can also be easily manipulated into an easy escape route from accountability. This set of Assembly elections in the midst of a pandemic did not generate any meaningful debate on public health or accountability. By denying the crisis in action and messaging, political parties contributed to the current surge in infections. The BJP was particularly irresponsible organising huge rallies, with people violating the mandatory health protocol. The spike in infections from that is already beginning. Considering the unprecedented situation of the pandemic, these elections should have been a quick affair, with limited campaigning. What happened was the opposite. Massive rallies continued even after COVID-19 numbers began to grow exponentially. These Assembly elections would most likely be remembered for worsening a health crisis than for heralding political change. The nature of the results, to be announced on May 2, will likely pale before the magnitude of the unfolding crisis.

5. Editorial-3: Creating critical thinkers

The pandemic is an opportunity to re-imagine educational assessments and evaluations

Despite the pandemic unleashing in full force, the debate over the last month has entailed a mindless conversation over holding or postponing board examinations instead of exploring alternatives. Rather than viewing this unprecedented situation as a unique opportunity for re-imagining educational assessments and evaluations in a world that no longer looks the same, the government insists on the possibility of holding exams in person and posing a further threat to the lives of loved ones.

Alternative ways of thinking

Students and parents have valid concerns about the future, which include admissions to higher educational institutions. Nonetheless, considering we are in a worldwide crisis where India cannot afford to have gatherings of small/big groups, why aren’t virtual educational committees being organised to rethink approaches on assessing student learning? For instance, one of the challenges is deemed as students ‘cheating’ if the exams were to be conducted online. However, if question papers were designed in a way that encouraged students to critically engage with the material, contest perspectives and build opinions, no book would be able to provide all the answers.

Relatedly, in light of the right to education that affirms the importance of formative assessments, teachers could be invited to engage in evaluating student’s performance across the year. If there are concerns around the tendency of schools to self-bolster their performance, reports, portfolios, samples of responses and grades could be shared across a pool of schools so that teachers can anonymously assess and provide insightful feedback on student performance, until a sense of self-accountability and trust can be cultivated. Opening up possibilities of evaluating students on their performance through the year will contribute towards making evaluation and learning much more holistic.

Further, inviting higher educational institutions to facilitate online entrance exams could be another option to explore as students gear up for college admissions. Eventually, the goal could be to involve students in self and peer evaluations so that the ability to reflect while participating in learning communities and giving/receiving feedback prepares them for what lies ahead.

The National Curriculum Framework of 2005 affirms the importance of embracing the emotional, social, physical and intellectual growth of children within a framework of human values. Thus, a question to consider is whether academic performances can continue to be the sole representation of student growth or we can begin to redefine student success based on social, emotional and spiritual development benchmarks.

Redefining education

We have an opportunity to redefine meaningful education and even though it does require a concerted change across curriculum in K-12 schools, the entrance criteria determined by higher educational institutions and what we value as communities and societies, we have to start somewhere. Viewing this crisis as a signal for urgent change, core issues can be engaged with and re-evaluated to prevent students from being trapped in the current system of cramming, rote learning and anxiety. The government needs to give complete autonomy to educational committees composed of students, teachers, educational leaders, scholars and researchers who can advocate, organise and implement this change nationally and internationally. Raising the quality of educational assessments and evaluations by involving higher educational institutions may even prevent a mass exodus to international universities so that young leaders can be nurtured to engage with underlying national challenges and add value by advocating for and sustaining the fabric of a diverse and non-stratified India.

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