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COVID-19: The Story so far

The pandemic marches on, with utter disregard to the efforts of clinicians, epidemiologists, microbiologists and virologists, national and international task forces, economists, politicians and governments, and all the others busy fighting the virus. The vision brings to mind is that of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver. Every time the miniature enemies try to subjugate him, he roars, breaks all the flimsy bonds tying him down and smites a few thousand of his foes. In our desperation to check the inexorable march of the virus, we have been clutching at straws, shooting ourselves in the foot and limping from one crisis to the other. We then criticize our decisions and come up with even more desperate measures.

Europe thought it had managed to control the deadly virus. But as soon as winter arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, the virus surged again. France, Italy, Germany, Netherland, Spain and the UK are ravaged by the disease. Hospitals are flooded again, and healthcare services stretched to a breaking point in spite of the lessons learnt from the initial months of the pandemic. A fresh round of lockdowns have been initiated but the figures are still rising. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Americans have continued to add nearly 150000 new cases to the global score on a daily basis. A dramatic presidential election and its aftermath have seen election rallies and demonstrations with the Americans refusing to wear masks to these gatherings and many succumbing to the virus. 'America First' and how!

In India, we have chosen the softer options of fudging our figures, choosing a very imperfect strategy of carrying out more of Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs!) instead of a relatively more reliable RT-PCR and raising our hands as regards tracing the contacts of positive patients. Some states have begun night curfews and weekend lockdowns hoping the virus will adhere to administrative diktats of coming out only at night and only on weekends when our citizens are hopefully safely at home and out of harm's way! Caught between the virus and an economy that is in utter shambles, we have been able to control neither of the two. Next to the news reports of less number of new infections, we read the administration's efforts to increase the capacity of Covid-designated crematoria and cemeteries to handle the dead! And we wonder what to make of it.

The sheer number of drugs touted to be effective against the virus is a legion. They came, from the humble antimalarial Hydroxychloroquine to the rather expensive Remdesivir with numerous others in between, underwent emergency use approvals, then randomised controlled trials and finally fell by the wayside, having failed to live up to their promise. But before they were declared ineffective in reducing mortality due to the disease, they did make their manufacturers rich, in the true spirit of the free market economy. The tiny but deadly virus raged on, much like Gulliver.

Numerous vaccine candidates with impressive response rates have begun the last lap of their race to become available to the masses. After a farcical run-up to the Phase 3 trials where the ICMR wanted the results by 15 August causing a massive hue and cry in the scientific community, the actual data are now coming out. In the USA, the incumbent President wanted these results by 03 Nov, the day of elections for the new President. We are now in the phase where countries are weighing their strategies for procurement and distribution of the vaccine to their population. The world pecking order in cornering the vaccine has begun to assert itself, in spite of WHO's the call for a just distribution. It remains to be seen when and how will the countries be able to vaccinate their citizens. Then there is the unsolved issue of maintaining the cold chains, with at least one vaccine requiring it to be maintained at -70 degrees Celsius! Isolated reports of side-effects of the vaccine candidates have been buried in the back pages of daily newspapers and small prints of scientific journals. A world desperate for some solution to the mess with this pandemic eagerly awaits the vaccine(s) to become available. And Science is busily economizing with the harsh truths to keep the hopes of humanity alive.

The toll, meanwhile, crosses 60 million and the deaths have gone past a figure of 1.4 million. These figures are in the public domain and we are not counting the fudging, the lies and underreporting that has gone on across the globe. Reading Albert Camus' The Plague and the accounts of Spanish Flu from 1918 to 1920, one comes to the sad conclusion- the more things change, the more they remain the same. And we continue to hope for deliverance.



Lt Gen U K Sharma, AVSM (Retd)

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