I haven't visited my children or grandchildren for nearly a year and a half, neither have they visited me. They live in the USA, and I in Europe. Since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a travel ban on non-citizens from either side to the other. It was lifted on the last day of the Trump administration in office, only to be re-imposed by the Biden administration on its first day.
Countries in Europe, which once introduced free travel among themselves, have been erecting barriers to protect their people from the onslaught of the coronavirus. At some point last year, Portugal was inviting tourists with the claim of being a Covid-free country. Soon, however, neighbouring countries in Europe included it in their so-called "red list", as the rate of infections there surged.
I haven't also been able to visit my extended family and friends in Bangladesh for more than a year. This is the first time in more than a decade that I haven't been able to visit the Ekushey Boi Mela, often fondly referred to as a praaner mela ("a fair close to our heart"). I often wonder where my "praan" is though, and I am not sure how it is doing in this era of the "pandemic war".
What started as mankind's war against their common enemy of Covid-19 has now turned into a war that we are fighting against each other. During the past half-century, our planet has seen a surge in globalisation, albeit with brief periods of interruption. That was not only in terms of the movement of goods and services, but also that of people. Low-cost means of transport and accommodation boosted travel and tourism. All of that is now not only in danger of losing momentum but also the war that nations are quietly fighting against each other has serious negative implications for humankind as a species, and in particular, for the future of their fight against their common enemy.
The nationalistic approach towards fighting the pandemic is leading countries to adopt a narrow approach of focusing only on their own territories, trying to protect their own people from potential carriers of the virus from outside. In doing so, they tend to erect barriers to entry from outside—at least for a period. But today, no country can remain isolated for too long, certainly not those who are dependent on outsiders for tourism, trade or have large segments of the population living outside their territories. The problem is, as soon as the barriers are lifted, movement of people from countries where Covid-19 is still raging may cause a reversal of the hard-won temporary reprieve from the virus attack. Portugal last year, and Chile currently, are examples of such reversals.
It was hoped that with the development and roll-out of vaccines, the situation will improve and the virus will eventually be defeated. For that to happen, it would be necessary to attain what is called "herd immunity" by bringing at least 70-80 percent of the population under the vaccination coverage. But it is not easy to reach this goal for a variety of reasons.
First, vaccines are still not available in a large number of countries (as of April 2, 53 countries did not receive any doses). Many of the countries that have access to vaccines do not have the proper supply and delivery mechanisms in place to meet their requirements. Second, there are still many vaccine sceptics who are unwilling to become inoculated. Although their number is gradually declining, it remains more than 30 percent in many countries.
Third, even in the small number of countries that have been able to obtain access to adequate amounts of the vaccine, a variety of reasons—ranging from supply bottlenecks on the side of manufacturers to logistic shortcomings—are causing a slower than expected/required speed in the roll-out of vaccines. Countries in the European Union, for example, have ordered more vaccines than are needed for their populations. And yet, up to now, they have been able to give at least one dose to only less than 15 percent of their populations.
Fourth, within individual countries, there is the issue of all sections of people not getting access to vaccines. Gender (women turning up in lower numbers), economic class and regions (poorer people and those living in remote areas having difficulty accessing the vaccine), and race and ethnicity (racial differences impacting ease of access) are among factors that play crucial roles in vaccine equity.
Against this backdrop, second and third waves of the virus are ravaging many countries. While the frustration, fatigue and dilemmas faced by governments and citizens are understandable, it is interesting to observe the reactions that include threats of banning export of vaccines, heated exchanges with the manufacturers, and banning of travellers from countries with high infection rates. Again, the war against the pandemic is turning into a pandemic war (or skirmishes) that humankind is resorting to.
How helpful are these responses in the fight against the pandemic? Take a look at the countries that have been able to enforce strict controls on the entry of foreigners—e.g. Australia and New Zealand. While they have been, by and large, able to contain the virus, it has not completely left those territories, and one hears of domestic cases here and there and of repeated lockdowns. Also, difficulties have been faced by countries in accessing vaccines, irrespective of their level of development.
Even a high rate of vaccination (in Chile and the USA, for example, with 37 percent and 30 percent of the populations respectively having received at least one dose by April 2) has not enabled countries to significantly curb the rising infections. This is because as soon as some regular activities of normal life are allowed, the virus raises its head and starts spreading again. And that cycle is likely to continue until the human race as a whole attains anything close to the kind of herd immunity mentioned earlier. Nobody on this planet can be safe from the virus unless everybody is safe. But with all the constraints, challenges and distrust facing us now, that utopia maybe far away.
While we wait for that goal to be attained—something that may take many years—can't there be some interim solutions? Different countries are trying different means. Thailand, for example, is considering opening up a few of its tourist spots to those who can prove that they are not Covid-19 positive. The EU is mulling over introducing vaccine passports—documents providing evidence of vaccination or of PCR test results—as a means of facilitating travel. While one can see the desperation in such economic approaches, they may also give way to many issues ranging from ethical to logistical.
Under such circumstances, I wonder when I, like so many others in similar conditions, will be able to visit my near and dear ones again, not to speak of undertaking travel for simple leisure and pleasure. When can I do things where my praan is? Is my praan going to remain alive till then or will it continue to simply exist? The answers to these questions are what I am waiting for these days.
Rizwanul Islam is an economist. He is the author, most recently, of Coronaghatay Orthoniti O Shromobajar (Baatighar, Dhaka, 2021).