Lessons from the second wave
The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic came with a vengeance, particularly in South Asia. Since the virus in the first wave did not create as much havoc in the region as it had in some Western countries, there was a quick loosening of restrictions on the movement of people and on the closing of factories and shops. Some of the government officials and members of ruling regimes in the region congratulated themselves for the astute decisions of their respective leaders in containing the pandemic. However, some did it more openly than others, without thinking that the Covid-19 pandemic is not yet over!
India had the most jovial mood of all, indeed, to the point that it organised state elections and religious gatherings in different places of the country with the participation of people in millions, and with practically no public health measures. As a result, it did not take long for the second wave of the pandemic to strike India in the backdrop of policies often devoid of science and more based on faith. The country remained ill-prepared to face the second wave, although it had had sufficient time to do the needful. The global media also narrowed down its attention to India because the ill preparation was markedly noticeable in the capital city of New Delhi. Had it not been for New Delhi, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in India probably would not have made headlines in the international media. This is because, when compared to its massive population of 1.3 billion, the death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic has remained relatively low, particularly in relation to some of the developed countries. In fact, if we were to look at the per-million deaths of the US and UK, 1,901 and 1,909 respectively (as of August 9, 2021), India's per million death figure is only 307. But the mismanagement and the panic were so real that much of its self-congratulation at the end of the first wave came to naught.
Bangladesh, too, was hit by the second wave. But since it got a week or two more than India, it could have taken steps to restrict the impact to a manageable level—at least, until now. It could have done better, but with such a large informal sector, and over 85 percent of the workforce living with daily income, enforcing a "hard lockdown" is difficult. On top of this, the people of Bangladesh are yet to develop a culture of wearing masks. This further exposes them to the virus and increases their chances of contracting it. Not surprisingly, compared to the first wave, Bangladesh saw a steep rise in the rate of infection and the number of deaths in the second wave. The thing that could have made a difference is mass vaccination, but there too, Bangladesh faltered.
Putting all eggs in one basket is always a bad idea. But that is precisely what Bangladesh did with its vaccination policy initially, limiting the Covid-19 vaccine supply to one producer, Oxford-AstraZeneca, and the purchase to one source, the Serum Institute of India (SII), without doing much homework on it or keeping options B and C in place. Little consideration was given to the fact that there could be several waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, and such waves could create an overwhelming need for Covid-19 vaccines that the production capacity of the Serum Institute could not handle. Moreover, since the SII was only producing the vaccine and did not have full ownership of it (not even of all the raw materials), Bangladesh should have been more cautious about putting all its money into this one source only. Unfortunately, the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic halted India's vaccine diplomacy, even discontinuing the shipment of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines to countries that had already paid for the vaccines.
But still, it remains a puzzle as to why the Serum Institute of India could not supply the much-required 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to Bangladesh in the last three months to cover those who had taken only one shot and needed the second jab, which would have been only 500,000 doses per month. Could it be that the US had pulled the rug out from under India by banning the exports of some of the essential ingredients of the AstraZeneca vaccine to promote its own vaccines, namely, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna? Or, did the United States, by enacting the war-time Defence Production Act, want to stop India's vaccine diplomacy with the AstraZeneca vaccine since "some of the essential ingredients" were not India's but of the United States? Moreover, a good amount of AstraZeneca vaccines was allowed to go out of date and rot in several countries, including the US and Canada, although millions around the world needed them. If anything, such instances only show the ugly face of vaccine nationalism. At the same time, it also shows the naïveté of our policymakers for not keeping an intelligent eye on such factors unless, of course, diplomatic manoeuvrings of India convinced Bangladesh to remain focused on one source only! Indeed, one can say with some confidence by looking at some of the Covid-19 vaccinated countries that, if we could have continued with the Covid-19 vaccination from the time it first began in February 2021, we could have reduced the number of Covid-19 deaths—if not the number of infections—during the second wave.
Bangladesh was quick to revive its faltering vaccine policy. The immediate policy shift was to seek out and open up to multiple sources. Soon, Covid-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Sinopharm, including AstraZeneca vaccines from Japan, started arriving in large numbers. Some through the Covax scheme, some as gifts, and some directly purchased from the producing country. This allowed Bangladesh to restart mass vaccination in commendable numbers. In fact, on the first day of mass vaccination on August 7, 2021, more than three million people got vaccinated, which only showed the strength of Bangladesh's vaccination infrastructure.
However, the problem remains with supply. Unless supply is ensured in big numbers, Bangladesh will not be able to maintain its mass vaccination campaign and contain the Covid-19 pandemic in the shortest possible time. This is important not only from the standpoint of health but also from that of the country's political economy. Both are critical when it comes to saving lives.
Time, therefore, is critical here. While keeping multiple sources open, Bangladesh should gear up on the co-production and local production of Covid-19 vaccines. It is important to keep in mind here that the quicker we can vaccinate the population, the quicker Bangladesh will be able to save lives and create a positive image, which will go a long way in not only attracting investors and entrepreneurs—both local and international—but also in getting our exportable items all around the world. Lessons from the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic should not be disregarded. In fact, learning from them remains vital for facing the third wave, which is bound to flood South Asia (including Bangladesh) sooner or later.
Imtiaz Ahmed is Professor of International Relations and Director, Centre for Genocide Studies, University of Dhaka.