Bangladesh is in a precarious position given how Covid-19 has engulfed the entirety of its neighbour, India, causing unimaginable havoc on ordinary people whose helplessness we are witnessing on a daily basis. Dr Farah Husain, head of the Covid ICU unit at the Lok Nayak Hospital in Delhi, a public Covid-designated hospital that has served more than twelve thousand patients, in a CNN interview declared that what is happening in India is "nothing short of an apocalypse". She also mentioned that "every family in India is attacked by Covid". The aggressive double-mutant variant of the virus has been the key culprit in India. It is deadly in terms of virulence and is much more transmissible than others. Its official name is B.1.617, and the "double mutant" is a bit of a misnomer, as it actually carries 13 mutations. More importantly, it contains the E484Q mutation, considered an "escape mutation" because it enables the coronavirus to evade immune protection with monoclonal antibodies, which may decrease the effectiveness of vaccines.
B.1.617 has been spreading fast in India. It is now the dominant strain in Maharashtra in southwestern India. Maharashtra is India's second-most populous state and home to its financial centre, Mumbai. No matter how difficult it is, vaccines are still the best shot to protect people from this curse. But India has a long way to go in vaccinating its entire population. As of May 1, only about 2 percent of the 1.4 billion people of India has been vaccinated.
While we are witnessing this horror from a neighbouring country, we must remember that we are going through a crisis of our own and should take all measures necessary to avoid a repeat of the Indian scenario in Bangladesh. Closing the border is an important step that the government has already taken. But even if the border is reopened, Bangladesh must ensure that there is no movement of people but only of goods between the two countries until the current surge there has ended and a plateau in infections is reached. Until then, air, train and bus travels between the two countries should remain suspended as passengers can carry the virus without their knowledge and testing has its limits. This may prove to be difficult going forward but it is the most reasonable way to ensure our country is safe. It does not take much to realise that vaccinating a high percentage of the population in Bangladesh is the only way for us to beat the coronavirus and restore normalcy.
Bangladesh has now approved both the Russian Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm vaccines for emergency use against Covid-19. Like India, it is also facing a second wave of the pandemic and needs to secure more vaccines after the former has halted export of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot in response to a record surge in their domestic infections. Bangladesh, with its 170 million people, had been relying on the AstraZeneca vaccine so far, and around 6 million of its citizens have been inoculated. But now that vaccines from the Serum Institute of India will be more difficult to procure, the government's decision to source vaccines from Russia and China are laudable. It was supposed to receive three crore shots in six months from Serum Institute. Serum delivered the first 50 lakh doses in January but shipped only 20 lakhs in February. No shipment has been made since. The Sinopharm shipment to Bangladesh is apparently on its way and 5 lakh shots will likely arrive soon. This is definitely a great start. While mRNA vaccines in the West show great efficacy and promise, we must not wait for this biotechnology to arrive in Bangladesh anytime soon. Besides, we should take charge of our own destiny.
Last week, the government approved in principle local co-production of Sputnik V and Sinopharm vaccines. There should be no stone left unturned to produce these vaccines in Bangladesh as soon as possible to adequately respond to the most important national emergency of our time. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has already announced that the government would procure vaccines at any cost. "We're bringing more vaccines, no matter how much money is required," she said. So, money should not be a problem. It is time to declare a national goal to vaccinate 80 percent of our population within the next twelve months, and putting resources and manpower together to accomplish this goal on a war footing is the best way for Bangladesh to come out of the clear and present danger that we face as one of the most densely populated nations on Earth.
Covid may not leave us for good and we may have to take vaccines every year. We must ensure that we have a steady supply of vaccines in the future. Eradication of this disease may be questionable. Through a combination of lockdowns, physical distancing, travel restrictions, mask wearing, and urgent vaccination efforts, Bangladesh has embarked on the initial stages of a Covid-19 elimination campaign but how far we can go will depend on what we can do as a nation. We should be self-reliant and take charge of the Covid situation in our country through sheer determination, and we can demonstrate to the world how a country like Bangladesh can beat the virus with a collective will to safeguard our population, particularly the vulnerable groups and the poor. We call for renewed commitment from the government to reinvigorate our national programme on vaccination to end this crisis in our land as soon as possible.
Golam Newaz teaches at the Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, USA.