By NAGESHWAR PATNAIK in Bhubaneswar, Janaury 6, 2020: Even as the global death toll due to the COVID-19 pandemic reached almost two million before the turn of the New Year, the New Decade rekindles the hope of effective and efficient public health administration and medical innovation to change the course of the pandemics.

The pandemic across the world has surged interest in the study of infectious disease transmission and how public health interventions could change the course of the pandemic.

At the very outset, one must look back at the long journey of the most dreaded pandemic i.e smallpox, we’ve ever successfully eradicated. 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of smallpox eradication.

Variola virus which causes smallpox infected at least 50 million people annually in the 1950s and killed around 300 million in 20th century. In comparison, 100 million people died in wars and armed conflict in the same period.

This virulent disease, which kills a third of those it infects, is known to have co-existed with human beings for thousands of years and taking more lives for more centuries than any other single infectious disease, even plague and cholera.

No one knows how many died of small pox in India over the years. But few millions succumbed died due to smallpox over the centuries and India reported 188,003 cases in 1974 as the intensified surveillance discovered the hidden focus and only 1,436 cases in 1975 as the containment measures intensified.

And it was one of the worst smallpox epidemics of the 20th century and occurred three years before smallpox was eradicated in 1980. Introduction of better control measures, especially vaccination, naturally led to decreased smallpox mortality and eventually eradication.

Coronavirus peaked in middle of the last year, but hospital beds are being filled once more by those suffering the worst symptoms. It took almost a year for the scientist to come up with proper vaccine to battle with COVID-19. Only four days ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed the Comirnaty COVID-19 mRNA vaccine for emergency use, making the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine the first to receive emergency validation from WHO since the outbreak began a year ago.

In India, the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Bharat biotech vaccines against Coronavirus disease have got the Drug Controller General of India’s nod for restricted emergency use, with the priority vaccination of health workers, frontline workers and older populations scheduled to begin in January.

But it is the Oxford drug that is cheap to manufacture and, unlike the Pfizer one, can be stored in a domestic fridge – that is the key to quick and easy mass vaccination. The government has asked the companies manufacturing the two vaccines — Covishield and Covaxin — to ready with “a significant amount” to over 30 vaccination hubs across the country.

According to the government’s Covid-19 vaccines operational guidelines, around 30 crore of the population will be vaccinated on priority in the first phase. This includes healthcare and frontline workers as well as people with co-morbidities and those aged 50 years and above. The government has rolled out a plan to complete this phase by August 2021, and that the first shots may be given sometime in January.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine costs around Rs 500 per dose, but it will be given free to those who need it under the Central government’s vaccination drive. Bharat Biotech has not disclosed the price of its Covid-19 vaccine. But the vaccines are free not just in Delhi but the entire country according to Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan.

Vaccines work. Mass vaccination led to the global eradication of smallpox in 1979 and this new decade hopefully will see the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The other major challenges, the new decade faces are survival of democracy and capitalism. In the early 1990s, the world had accepted that capitalism was the main key to progress. At the same time, programmes for poverty alleviation in Asian and African countries gained momentum.

Never in the history of mankind had such a large number of people risen above the poverty line. Along with this, all credit was given to democracy and globalisation for an increase in basic amenities across societies.

But the 9/11 air planes crash by Osama bin Laden’s jihadists on the iconic World Trade Center’s skyscrapers is the greatest act of terror that the US had ever seen. This marked a turning point of history: a direct threat to West and its project of globalisation.

The threat of terrorism coincided with the return of China as a global power with its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Bin Laden’s attack on the US revealed a Western weakness that has deepened with 20 years of crisis: war, economic collapse, rising inequality; retreating democracy and increasing political polarisation.

Terrorism and Coronavirus has arguably accelerated the decline of democracy and globalization not only in the devastated US, but also in other major countries. Hence it is no surprise that protest rallies are being held in many parts of the world at the moment.

In India, farmers have been camping around Delhi in total chill for over a month now. But one can see mass protest in Pakistan and Nepal for various reasons. Even in totalitarian country like China is also witnessing turmoil to maintain peace in Hong Kong. Some days back, a protest, dubbed Black Lives Matter in the US, took a violent turn.

A Freedom House survey done in September last year 2020 listed grave human rights violations and a ruthless assault on the democratic system in many nations. If this trend continues, it will prove serious for democracy. But the good news is that the first coronavirus vaccines are being rolled out now. Is this the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and glimmer of hope in the darkest days of crisis?

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