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Paul Vallely: Lessons from the catastrophe in India

30 April 2021

It shows the world’s interconnectedness, says Paul Vallely


A Covid-19 patient is taken to a government hospital in Kolkata, on Tuesday

A Covid-19 patient is taken to a government hospital in Kolkata, on Tuesday

WHAT lessons should we draw from India and its nightmare scenario of total health-care breakdown? It would be easy to say that we must avoid the hubris of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who declared the battle against the virus won in February, and authorised mass election rallies, without masks or social distancing, and approved the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival, in which as many as three million people crowded together to take a ritual bath in the Ganges.

That said, this brutal second wave seems “far more infectious and probably far more lethal than the first”, in the words of one senior Indian doctor. One third of the world’s confirmed Covid cases are now in India, and there are a million new infections every three days. Since mutations occur more rapidly when infections are highest, unless this second wave is brought under control, the entire world will suffer.

The intensity of the catastrophe has forced the world’s politicians into a recognition of our interconnectedness. The United States, which had been blocking the export of raw materials to India’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, has lifted its embargo and is sending therapeutics, test kits, and PPE to India. It has pledged 60 million doses of US-manufactured vaccines, too. Britain, which has 65,000 Indian doctors working in our NHS, has promised hundreds of oxygen concentrators and ventilators. Even Pakistan, India’s traditional foe, has offered medical supplies and prayers for a “speedy recovery”.

Yet emergency help is always a sign of earlier policy failure. It is a commonplace that we will all be safe only when the whole world is safe. That is not to argue that we should interrupt the momentum of our own vaccine programme: the repeated lesson of the pandemic is that half-measures will come back to bite us. But vaccinating the UK must go hand in hand with spending more on distributing vaccines to poor nations through the Covax programme.

In October, the World Bank pledged $12 billion for a global vaccine roll-out; but, so far, only $2 billion has been allocated. Meanwhile, the UK continues stealthily to cut its aid budget, despite the fact that spending 7p out of every £10 of our national income is enshrined in UK law.

Under cover of Covid, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, has sneaked out an announcement of $5-billion worth of cuts. Dishonestly, it does not spell out where these will be; instead, it states vaguely what spending will go on. Aid analysts, by comparing this with previous budgets, reveal that this will mean a 41-per-cent cut in humanitarian support, a 68-per-cent cut to conflict resolution and democracy- building, and a 25-per-cent cut in girls’ education.

Save the Children estimates that there will even be nine-per-cent cuts in health care. And so much of our aid is committed to international-aid institutions that the deepest cuts will be in Britain’s direct country-to-country aid. UK ambassadors have been instructed to cut 50 to 70 per cent from the best aid that we provide.

All this is bad news for Africa, which has the world’s lowest vaccination rate, at just one per cent of its people. They were counting on India to provide them with a vaccine. On top of that, they face draconian aid cuts — although, no doubt, we will act belatedly, as soon as the apocalypse hits.

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