Editorials - 30-04-2021

The government has not really thought through the vaccination and pricing policy

The Central government has transferred the responsibility of vaccinating people in the 18-44 age group to the States, and opened up vaccine pricing to market forces, at a time when discussions around the world are about an intellectual property (IP) waiver for COVID-19 vaccines and providing free vaccines. In a conversation moderated byG. Ananthakrishnan,K. Sujatha Rao and K.M. Gopakumar discuss India’s vaccination policy and its challenges. Edited excerpts:

The Central government has shifted responsibility for vaccination largely to the States. What is your view on the impact of the new policy?

K. Sujatha Rao:We need to vaccinate about 934 million people above 18 and within that, about 300 are above 45 years and 634 million are in the 18-44 age bracket. We need about 1.8 billion doses. Right now, the production is 60 million doses per month. And about 350 million are yet to be vaccinated in the above-45 age group. The Indian government is committed to providing vaccines to those above 45 and needs about 600 million doses against which it has provided about 100 million. So, at this rate, it will take very long, even if it earmarks 30 million doses per month.

The two companies [Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech (BB)] are saying they can produce, from July, 112 million doses or 115 million doses per month. Even then it will take the Government of India almost 6-8 months to cover the target group. Its focus on the target group has an epidemiological basis, as opposed to the current demand that it should also include those aged 18 to 45. But there is a need for that urgency also, mainly because 45% of deaths are in this age group (20-50 years).

What the government is trying to do is keep the vaccines at market prices. These prices are quite high. The State governments may not be able to afford to supply the vaccines free or only the richer sections among this age group, who can afford the prices, will be able to get vaccinated. It is some kind of market segmentation and fragmentation that the government is trying to do in order to get supply and demand to sync at some level.

K.M. Gopakumar:The important objective in the policy is to accelerate vaccination but the way in which the new policy is designed, we may not achieve that, precisely because it fragments the market. This is now divided into three categories at differential pricing. This is going to hamper bulk procurement and affordability. Earlier, there was only one procuring agency, the Central government. Now you have States which will compete with private hospitals to procure vaccines. All this will have implications for accelerating the vaccination target.

From a public health approach, how does the present campaign compare with polio and others?

KSR:I think the government has not thought through this policy. It did not think about supply and kept on setting targets for free vaccination. The eligibility criteria has been increasing steadily. That is good, but it did not keep an eye on supply. It did not expect the second wave [of the pandemic]. The anxiety of this wave has triggered a huge demand for vaccines, and in the lull period from October to March, when the pandemic seemed to be petering out, there was a sense of comfort. There was vaccine hesitancy not only due to confusion on the nature of the vaccines, but also [the view] that the pandemic is on its way out.

Given vaccine hesitancy, the government was cautious. It did not make advance purchase agreements or stockpile vaccines. It thought these two indigenous companies would be adequate to cover everyone by the end of the year. Since it did not expect a second wave, the window was lost for sorting out supply, giving the capital investment required by these companies to expand their production, ensuring that other companies got this know-how and also began production, having advance agreements with imported vaccine manufacturers, and so on.

Did we confine ourselves to too few vaccines?

KSR:Yes. Pfizer did offer to enter the market in February, but it was asked to do a bridging study, which has now been relaxed. Pfizer was not willing to do that. You see, it never really cares for the Indian market. Whatever it was producing was being bought at a huge price in the western market, at $20 a shot. Pfizer knows that its vaccine is affordable only to a small segment of the Indian population. But India could have tied up with the company nevertheless. We had many other policy options, which we did not explore because we thought these two companies would be adequate.

There is a lot of discussion on public-funded vaccine research. One recent report says the AstraZeneca vaccine is 97% public-funded. Do you have any comment on how this has been commercialised?

KMG:. During the TRIPS and access to medicines debate in the early 2000s, we were told that the main justification for IP protection is that it is a mechanism to recoup the investment in research and development (R&D). If there is public investment in R&D, you can separate that from the price of the product. That way you can make the innovation happen as well as ensure access. In the case of COVID-19, as per one calculation, $93 billion was spent by various governments for vaccine research. Moderna is 100% publicly funded, AstraZeneca, 97%, and for Pfizer, though it denies it receives public funding, BioNTech got huge public funding from the German government. Pfizer also got around $2 billion as advance market commitment. All these companies received public funding. After this, there is a complete de-risking of R&D as well as manufacturing, but now they are not ready to give up their monopoly, preventing the scaling-up of production. These companies are not in a position to meet the global demand, but are not ready to share the technology. The developed countries are preventing it. We too have taken a lesson. SII, which has received the technology free of cost from AstraZeneca, and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to expand manufacturing capability, is now indulging in differential pricing, charging a huge amount disproportionate to its expenditure or investment. The problem is monopoly and profit, not the idea of recovering R&D expenditure. We need to treat vaccines as a public good because there has been a huge spending of public funds.

Is there any precedent for States being asked to acquire their own vaccines?

KSR:No, never. The government has had the universal immunisation programme starting from the 1960s. This became a global priority from 1991-92 with the World Health Organization (WHO) piloting it, particularly with the entry of the polio pulse programme. When you do central procurement as a single buyer, you have the advantage of market power and you can beat down the prices. Hepatitis B used to cost Rs. 750 per dose in the open market, and when the Government of India entered [the scene], it came down to less than Rs. 200 and crashed further to less than Rs. 100. When you fragment the market and allow pharma companies to set the price, you are giving away all your advantages to them to make super profits.

In this context, the Central government has a constitutional obligation to stop the inter-State transfer of infectious diseases, under the Concurrent List. The State governments are no doubt responsible for public health. That is why they are running around for oxygen, beds, doctors. Right from the beginning, the Central government, has had national programmes to combat all infectious diseases, and has supplied vaccines, drugs and consumables at very low prices because of market power. The State governments implement the programme. Why is the Centre giving up that advantage today?

Economists have said IPs were never intended for pandemics. What avenues do people have to use laws and conventions to get vaccines?

KMG:There are two types of IP rights that are used to control competition — patents and trade secrets. As far as patents are concerned, the government can issue a compulsory licence and ensure freedom of operation for any potential manufacturer. But there is a regulatory system that acts as an enforcement agency for protection of trade secrets. As a result, even if you have a compulsory licence, it would be difficult for a non-originator company to produce a vaccine very quickly. If you produce a small molecule, the regulatory agency (RA) never looks at what kind of manufacturing process is followed to produce a generic version, like paracetamol. What it looks for is whether it is paracetamol or not and the company gets marketing approval.

In the case of vaccines, the RA insists that the non-originator company follows the process of the originator. But this process is not in the public domain and is kept a trade secret. We don’t have a compulsory licence to reveal that information to the potential non-originator company. The only agency which can do such sharing with the potential manufacturer is the RA. But it treats the dossier submitted by the original manufacturer as a trade secret. India and South Africa approached the World Trade Organization (WTO), asking that they be given the right to waive the protection and enforcement of certain IPs in the case of COVID-19 medical products. That waiver, if adopted, can be used by the regulatory agencies to share the dossiers with potential manufacturers to speed up the process. So, potential manufacturers in India, China or Brazil have the technological capability without the help of the originator, but the regulatory framework insists that replication requires them to prove clinical safety and efficacy, which are time consuming. We need to take two-pronged action. The RAs need to waive clinical trials by developing an accelerated pathway for the non-originator company, and the national RA should share the dossier with the potential manufacturer.

KSR:Even during H1N1, though the [move] had come from Indonesia and WHO was trying to make the process universally available, Pfizer still had control and was not willing to share, and there was some kind of problem in technology transfer. But if the U.S. supports India and South Africa, there are ways to make this a public good. Right now the inequity is unjustifiable. There is now a clamour for distribution of vaccines equitably. Though GAVI set up a mechanism under COVAX, India became the biggest supplier.

In India we have Covaxin, produced by BB, where the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has been a knowledge partner. I don’t know who holds the patent here. I suspect ICMR must be a joint patent holder, and it should be able to leverage that advantage. We have about 20 manufacturing companies and depending on the state of technology and readiness, ramping up production of Covaxin can be done. If BB is saying we have incurred an expenditure of Rs. 350 crore, some compensation can be given to the company, and since ICMR is a partner, they should be able to make it available to other companies to quickly scale-up the manufacture. There is a lot of scope available if the Centre is genuinely interested in ensuring universal vaccination in the least possible time.

Should the present vaccine pricing policy be reviewed?

KSR:There’s no justification whatsoever for the kind of prices that both Adar Poonawalla and Dr. Krishna Ella have given. There is an element of greed and I feel sorry because this is not the moment when these companies should be thinking of profiteering.

We need to treat vaccines as a public good because there has been a huge spending of public funds.

K.M. Gopakumar

Public health measures that work best are those that the people voluntarily adopt, drastically reducing transmission

As the smoke from countless funeral pyres rises above our cities, and desperately sick people line the corridors and wards of our hospitals seeking beds, medication and oxygen to relieve their virus-damaged lungs, it is difficult to see a way out of the worst crisis India has faced since the plagues and famines of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The anaemic pace of the government’s vaccination drive is unlikely to slow the ferocity of this second wave of the pandemic, which epidemiological modellers predict could peak by the middle of May and gradually decline. If there is one thing to be learned from the tragedy unfolding before us, it is that unless active measures are taken, this second wave will be followed by a third wave, and perhaps more.

Waves across the globe

If we look around the world, the United States has had three distinct waves since last March, as has Brazil. The United Kingdom had a small first wave, followed by nearly four months when cases were low and the virus seemed to be disappearing. This was followed by two explosive waves, which only subsided after a lockdown and an aggressive vaccination campaign in which 95% of all those over the age of 50 have been vaccinated to date, with the entire adult population to be vaccinated by the end of summer. South Africa saw a first wave peaking last August, followed by a second wave that began around November, and peaked in the first week of January (https://bit.ly/3vthhF4).

Given this pattern, a second wave in India was almost a given. And once this wave recedes, it is highly likely that a third wave will build up, unless active measures are taken to stop it building up. Now is the time to think ahead and find ways to prevent the next wave.

Vaccines are the best option. But given India’s population, the slow pace of vaccination, inelastic vaccine supplies both in India and globally, and limited finances with State governments which have now been given the responsibility of vaccinating the bulk of the country’s population, this is not going to happen quickly enough to blunt either this or future waves.

Tested methods that work

So along with vaccination, it is important to practisethe full methods that have been shown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in different parts of the world: mask wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene and a ban on mass gatherings.

These measures sound mundane and boring, but they work. They may not be as effective as mass vaccination, but in the absence of vaccines, they are perhaps the only way to reduce community transmission and slow the spread of the virus. Consider some of the evidence demonstrating the effect of these measures.

A study last year in theAmerican Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygienefound that countries where masks were widely used (either because of government orders or cultural norms) had lower per capita mortality from COVID than countries where there was no universal masking (https://bit.ly/2RcjyW1). A smaller study of transmission among family members in Beijing households, found that face masks were 79% effective in preventing transmission when they were used by all household members (https://bit.ly/3e0mrlN).

A comprehensive review of the scientific evidence for the use of face masks, published in January this year in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS), concluded that “near-universal adoption of nonmedical masks when out in public, in combination with complementary public health measures” (https://bit.ly/3nx7WZR) could reduce community spread, provided the measures were sustained. Mask wearing by itself will not be enough: it needs to be part of a package of measures that include rigorous social distancing, hand hygiene and avoiding mass gatherings.

The question is how can people be persuaded to wear masks? Conventional wisdom in India has it that wearing a mask only works when it is imposed as a police measure, with fines and punishments for non-compliance. Mask wearing and social distancing cannot be sustained throughlathis. Public health measures that work best are those that the public voluntarily adopts because they see it as being in their best interests.

Bangladesh shows the way

But there is evidence from an experimental study in Bangladesh that people will use masks enthusiastically if they are provided free, are comfortable, and accompanied with appropriate instructional material. A team of researchers, led by Mushfiq Mobarak of Yale University, carried out an experiment involving 350,000 adults in 600 villages in Bangladesh to try and understand how to increase mask usage. They found that mask usage tripled when they were given away free and accompanied by well-designed instructional material, as well as reminders from religious and community leaders and volunteers. These interventions increased the percentage of people using masks three fold.

Having volunteers in public spaces such as markets to remind people to wear masks and distribute masks to those who did not have them, as well as frequent messages from religious and community leaders, saw an increase in mask usage from 13%, when none of these interventions existed, to over 40% with them. One key to success was mask quality: masks needed to be comfortable to wear in hot and humid conditions, as well as being effective filters. Importantly, those who wore masks were also more likely to maintain social distancing.

Over the last year, India has built significant capacity to manufacture masks, so supplies should not be an issue. The cost of supplying reusable masks free will need to be budgeted for, but masks are far cheaper than vaccines and the economic benefits of avoiding crippling new waves of the virus should be taken into account.

Reaching out the right way

Communication at the level of communities is the key to getting people to protect themselves this way. People need to be explained the reasons for mask wearing as well as the right way to wear a mask. Imaginative and creative communication campaigns are essential. In Bangladesh, community-level leaders as well as religious leaders were used to reinforce mask wearing and social distancing messages. Most Indian States have reasonable, well-functioning networks of health workers at the village and community levels who can be used in health campaigns.

These solutions may seem simplistic, but if the country is to reduce the impact of future waves, it is essential that they are put in place. Viruses are the most basic of organisms. And often, basic changes in human behaviour can drastically reduce the ability of a virus to transmit. Vaccines are the ultimate solution. But in the meanwhile, it is important to focus on what can be done right now if further disasters are to be prevented.

Thomas Abraham is adjunct associate professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of ‘Twenty-First Century Plague: The Story of SARS’ and ‘Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication’. He has been a communication adviser to

the World Health Organization

Telangana’s recent ban on 16 organisations by invoking the Telangana Public Security Act is a smokescreen

The Government of Telangana, on March 30, 2021, issued a notification (G.O. Ms.73) banning 16 organisations under the Telangana Public Security Act, 1992 (TPSA), declaring them as ‘unlawful associations’ and ‘new front organisations of the proscribed Communist Party of India (Maoist)’, which was made public three weeks later on April 24, 2021. The belated public announcement was made at a time when citizens organisations and collectives in the State and country were trapped in the coils of the pandemic and largely left by an abdicating state to fend for themselves in life and death.

Health crisis, faltering steps

The ban comes during a surging second wave of COVID-19, in which Telangana has fared poorly. On April 19, the High Court of Telangana described the State government’s affidavit in response to PILs urging for greater transparency in control, containment and care as ‘wishy washy’ and ‘disappointing’ and wondered whether the State was competing for the first place in the COVID-19 surge — and we might add, the failure in governance reflected therein.

Logically therefore, the attention of the government should be directed at managing the public health crisis and the distress caused to the people at large, demonstrating due diligence in fulfilling its constitutional obligations under Part IV of the Constitution. This is one part of the tragic story unfolding before us.

Omnibus labelling

The second part is of older vintage (Article 21 rights) and stretches seamlessly over three decades from pre-COVID-19 to COVID-19 times — today ironically from the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Centre to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi-ruled State: the banning of the ‘unlawful organisations — Telangana Praja Front (TPF), the Telangana Asanghatitha Karmika Samakhya (TAKS), Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika (TVV), Democratic Students Organisation (DSU), Telangana Vidyarthi Sangham (TVS), Adivasi Students Union (ASU), Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), Telangana Raithanga Samithi (TRS; not to be confused with the ruling party), Tudum Debba (TD), Praja Kala Mandali (PKM), Telangana Democratic Front (TDF), Forum Against Hindu Fascism Offensive (FAHFO), Civil Liberties Committee (CLC), Amarula Bandhu Mitrula Sangham (ABMS), Chaitanya Mahila Sangham (CMS), and Revolutionary Writers Association. From workers’ collectives, to women’s groups, students’ groups, Adivasi collectives and civil liberties groups — this list trawls in anyone who is likely to resist or protest on any count by merely dubbing organisations as a ‘front’ or ‘new front’, or as ‘urban guerillas’. We cannot forget that less than seven years ago, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi rode to power on the strength of these movements.

The reason for the proposed ban is the fact that these activists are ‘moving in urban area by adopting various guerilla tactics… to wage war against the state’. Interestingly, the rationale is strengthened by the fact that they have ‘joined hands with several organisations and [are] alluring the members into their folds [sic] inciting inflammatory statements, meetings and rallies highlighting various issues against the State and Central Governments’. The G.O. goes on to state that these organisations are organising protests in the ‘barren lands’ of Chhattisgarh besides demanding the release of G.N. Saibaba, Varavara Rao, Rona Wilson and other leaders of various front organisations who were arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, and ‘repealing of UAPA Act, Farm Laws, CAA/NRC etc’. Even the reasons for the ban are a medley that stretches from ‘waging war’ to protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA. This omnibus labelling of organisations and so-called crimes in themselves are ground for challenging the ban.

The Bhima Koregaon case is ongoing. Even the investigation is as yet indeterminate. Construing support for the Bhima Koregaon accused as a crime under the TPSA is a criminal mis-reading and deliberate mis-application of an already draconian law.

Challenging UAPA

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, is widely challenged by everyone with a rudimentary understanding of the Constitution as being against every constitutional guarantee. As Indian citizens, it is our right to seek its repeal on clearly reasoned grounds which must be heard by courts. Pending repeal, it is our constitutional right to challenge its application in every case in which we believe its application is a travesty of the Constitution. Protesting against the UAPA or seeking its repeal cannot in itself be construed as an unlawful activity, as this notification by the Telangana government seems to suggest. Can we forget the numbers of protesters against the CAA or diligent journalists indefinitely held in custody on manifestly unjust grounds under the UAPA?

This brings us to protests against the CAA and Farm Laws which the G.O. 73 expressly mentions. There has been widespread protest against the farm laws in the State as well as against the CAA. While Telangana Chief Minister, K. Chandrashekar Rao, refused to take a definite stand on the Farm Laws in the legislative debates on this issue, his stand on the CAA is clear and unequivocal. The Telangana Assembly passed a resolution (https://bit.ly/3gO7TYr) against the CAA, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register on March 15, 2020, stating that the CAA violated the constitutional guarantees of equality, non-discrimination and secularism, and will ‘endanger the lives of vulnerable groups who do not possess adequate documentary proof of citizenship’ — and went on to state that, ‘there are serious questions as to the legality and constitutionality of the CAA, NPR and NRC’. There is no indication that the State Legislature has reversed its stand on this question. On what grounds then, has the Chief Secretary of the State issued a notification that directly contravenes the resolution of the State legislature? Have we forgotten that Telangana is not a State where the BJP is in power?

Issue of timing

The timing of this notification merits close scrutiny. In paragraph 2, G.O. 73 states that these 16 organisations ‘have as their objective interference with the public administration or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community… thereby constituting the danger to public peace…’ At a time when the government is facing the heat for mismanaging public health and safety, and therefore endangering public security, the response is to blow out a smokescreen invoking draconian legislation to declare the demand for governmental accountability as an unlawful activity that is evidence of participation in an unlawful association. This amounts to the criminalisation of citizenship, no less. It is state repression that breaches public peace. Not the demand by citizens for state accountability.

Kalpana Kannabiran is a sociologist and lawyer based in Hyderabad

The pandemic is an opportunity to re-imagine educational assessments and evaluations

Despite the pandemic unleashing in full force, the debate over the last month has entailed a mindless conversation over holding or postponing board examinations instead of exploring alternatives. Rather than viewing this unprecedented situation as a unique opportunity for re-imagining educational assessments and evaluations in a world that no longer looks the same, the government insists on the possibility of holding exams in person and posing a further threat to the lives of loved ones.

Alternative ways of thinking

Students and parents have valid concerns about the future, which include admissions to higher educational institutions. Nonetheless, considering we are in a worldwide crisis where India cannot afford to have gatherings of small/big groups, why aren’t virtual educational committees being organised to rethink approaches on assessing student learning? For instance, one of the challenges is deemed as students ‘cheating’ if the exams were to be conducted online. However, if question papers were designed in a way that encouraged students to critically engage with the material, contest perspectives and build opinions, no book would be able to provide all the answers.

Relatedly, in light of the right to education that affirms the importance of formative assessments, teachers could be invited to engage in evaluating student’s performance across the year. If there are concerns around the tendency of schools to self-bolster their performance, reports, portfolios, samples of responses and grades could be shared across a pool of schools so that teachers can anonymously assess and provide insightful feedback on student performance, until a sense of self-accountability and trust can be cultivated. Opening up possibilities of evaluating students on their performance through the year will contribute towards making evaluation and learning much more holistic.

Further, inviting higher educational institutions to facilitate online entrance exams could be another option to explore as students gear up for college admissions. Eventually, the goal could be to involve students in self and peer evaluations so that the ability to reflect while participating in learning communities and giving/receiving feedback prepares them for what lies ahead.

The National Curriculum Framework of 2005 affirms the importance of embracing the emotional, social, physical and intellectual growth of children within a framework of human values. Thus, a question to consider is whether academic performances can continue to be the sole representation of student growth or we can begin to redefine student success based on social, emotional and spiritual development benchmarks.

Redefining education

We have an opportunity to redefine meaningful education and even though it does require a concerted change across curriculum in K-12 schools, the entrance criteria determined by higher educational institutions and what we value as communities and societies, we have to start somewhere. Viewing this crisis as a signal for urgent change, core issues can be engaged with and re-evaluated to prevent students from being trapped in the current system of cramming, rote learning and anxiety. The government needs to give complete autonomy to educational committees composed of students, teachers, educational leaders, scholars and researchers who can advocate, organise and implement this change nationally and internationally. Raising the quality of educational assessments and evaluations by involving higher educational institutions may even prevent a mass exodus to international universities so that young leaders can be nurtured to engage with underlying national challenges and add value by advocating for and sustaining the fabric of a diverse and non-stratified India.

Kamiya Kumar is a Doctoral Student, Teachers College, Columbia University, and teacher, Bluebells School International

End of multi-phase Assembly polls is a matter of relief after the surge in COVID-19 cases

With the eighth phase in West Bengal on Thursday, a long and tortuous election process has concluded in four States and one Union Territory to the relief of most electors and candidates. The election spectacle was overrun by COVID-19 towards the end of the agonisingly staggered phases of voting. The current cycle has added to a growing list of concerns that have emerged regarding elections in India in recent years. If electoral bonds for making contributions to political parties emerged as an opaque instrument well before the current round of elections, a serious cause of worry through all the eight phases has been the persistent doubts over the fairness and autonomy of the Election Commission of India (ECI). The ECI made unprecedented seizures of cash and other items that were meant to be used to influence voters. In the absence of a party-wise break up of such preventive measures, parties opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have alleged that they were specifically targeted in search operations. The selective eagerness of central agencies in investigating crimes turns up the heat on non-BJP State governments and parties, and during elections, this raised the possibility of tilting the balance in the contest.

Free, fair and periodic elections are an essential feature of a democracy. Elections are the ultimate opportunity for the people to hold their elected representatives accountable. Election cycles are usually not disrupted, even in challenging situations, for this reason. Ironically, elections can also be easily manipulated into an easy escape route from accountability. This set of Assembly elections in the midst of a pandemic did not generate any meaningful debate on public health or accountability. By denying the crisis in action and messaging, political parties contributed to the current surge in infections. The BJP was particularly irresponsible organising huge rallies, with people violating the mandatory health protocol. The spike in infections from that is already beginning. Considering the unprecedented situation of the pandemic, these elections should have been a quick affair, with limited campaigning. What happened was the opposite. Massive rallies continued even after COVID-19 numbers began to grow exponentially. These Assembly elections would most likely be remembered for worsening a health crisis than for heralding political change. The nature of the results, to be announced on May 2, will likely pale before the magnitude of the unfolding crisis.

Biden is on course to fulfilling agenda despite opposition at home and challenges abroad

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, U.S. President Joe Biden made clear that his administration would continue pressing forward with promises made during his election campaign last year, including vigorously meeting the health challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, kick-starting the engines of the U.S. economy to provide sustainable job opportunities in the digital era, and reasserting the position of his country as a driving force for democracy worldwide including pushing back on China’s aspiration to be a regional hegemon in Asia. Mr. Biden’s first 100 days in office have been coterminous with arguably the most fraught times in recent U.S. history, given the devastation wreaked by the coronavirus on life and economic activity — making the U.S. the worst performer worldwide until recently surpassed on this grim scale by India. However, the Democrat has risen to the challenge posed by the virus, when compared to his predecessor Donald Trump’s response, in terms of signing into law a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill and funnelling direct payments of $1,400 per person to more than 160 million households. Reports suggest that this shot in the arm could boost economic growth this year to 6% or higher, and revive the nearly 8.4 million jobs lost to COVID-19 by 2022. Whether this will be enough to mollify the likely anger of wealthy Americans for the tax hikes he proposes to slap them with is unclear. Yet, it is not the economy but the wounds of racist hatred that he will have to work even harder to heal. The recent conviction of the police officer responsible for the death of African-American George Floyd represents but the first step toward bridging the chasm between prejudiced, overzealous law enforcement and racial minorities.

Notwithstanding the considerable progress made by the Biden administration in domestic politics, it is in the international arena that much work remains unfinished to repair the damage wrought by his predecessor, an isolationist who prioritised transactionalism and bilateralquid pro quoover strengthening the U.S. as a global voice for plurilateral cooperation and regional engagement. Mr. Biden, contrarily, has thrown down the gauntlet to China, assuring its President Xi Jinping that Washington would continue to maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific “not to start conflict, but to prevent one”. Recognising the multi-dimensional character of Beijing’s challenge to the rules-based international order, Mr. Biden has also vowed to stand up to “unfair” trade practices, including disallowed subsidies for Chinese state-owned enterprises and industrial espionage, as well as speak out on perceived violations of fundamental freedoms and rights relating to, for example, Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea and in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region, respectively. Whether facing conservative opposition to domestic policies or hostile pushback on the global stage from geopolitical rivals, Mr. Biden must hold fast to the values that saw him elevated to the White House.

Reporters are going to hospitals and cremation grounds whilst battling fear and guilt

In the beginning of March, the COVID-19 health bulletin sent every evening by the Delhi government started showing an upward trend from a few hundred cases daily. On WhatsApp, a fellow reporter predicted, “And just like that we’ll reach 1,000”. That happened in no time. The cases and deaths have just been soaring since.

Suddenly, even before reporters realised it, we were outside hospitals and cremation grounds covering what is unarguably one of the worst horror stories of recent times. For those of us watching this tragedy unfold every day, the distressing visuals will possibly never leave our minds.

Covering stories of COVID-19 victims and their families for the last two weeks has meant being a witness to their desperation, pleas for help, and sorrow. I saw a son holding his mother as she lay on his shoulder and gasped for breath outside a hospital. They were looking for a bed. Unable to get one, she died minutes later. A 65-year-old man risked his life and stood in queue to get an oxygen cylinder refilled for his infected son-in-law who was being looked after by his daughter back home. An eight-year-old lost his father to COVID-19 and stood inside the cremation ground, unable to make sense of what had happened. His COVID-19-positive mother, wearing PPE, could not even offer to hug him. I have seen families wait an entire day to cremate their loved ones because cremation grounds have run out of space for the day. Private and government hospitals have been sending SOS messages on media groups and posting on Twitter asking for oxygen supply. It’s been nothing but reporting pure mayhem.

Journalists are perceived to have “connections”, so many of us are also flooded with calls and messages from friends, extended family, and even strangers asking for help in arranging hospital beds or oxygen cylinders. While we’ve been able to help some, we have only been able to tweet the requests of some others, which yielded no results. Social media has been truly helpful during these times, connecting people who need help with those who can provide help.

Amid this havoc, there’s the dreaded feeling of getting infected, for reporters are out on the field every day. Despite each of us wearing two masks, a head cover, a face shield and gloves, and despite our drive to share people’s stories, the scare of contracting the virus and endangering the lives of family members remains at the back of our minds. Working in a profession which runs solely on passion is one thing, but the guilt of possibly infecting elderly parents cannot be ignored.

The days are spent shuttling between hospitals and cremation grounds, battling guilt and fear. The nights are spent reflecting on the immense pain and misery surrounding us. Then there is helplessness. The toll this takes on our mental health reflects in the painful adjectives we write in our news reports, the unusually high number of calls we make to close ones and sometimes, the tears that flow freely without any trigger.

The Central Sikh League has accepted the draft constitution of Sikh Leagues whose objects include (a) the attainment of Swarajya by the people of India by all legitimate, peaceful and constitutional means, (b) the promotion of unity, fostering of patriotism and public spirit among the Sikhs and development of economic resources. The principle of direct membership of General Sikhs League has been abolished. The League shall now be governed by a council of 101 members exclusive of ex-officio members. Eighty-one of the 101 members are to be elected by District Sikh Leagues according to a scheme to be prepared shortly by the executive council and 20 shall be nominated by these elected members.

The President, Mr. V. V. Giri, to-day [April 29] appealed to all States in the country to adopt the three-language formula “unreservedly” and implement it “effectively”. Mr. Giri said the Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh had already taken “active steps” to implement the formula which, besides emphasising the importance of Hindi, took due account of the claims of English and the regional languages. He hoped the other States would follow their example. “It is time that our languages are used consciously as a cementing rather than dividing force”, the President said while inaugurating the golden jubilee celebration of the Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, T. Nagar [Madras], this morning. He said that according to the three-language formula, the mother tongue should be encouraged and developed to the maximum extent so that it could become the effective medium of teaching and intercourse within the State. It should also become the language of the courts and legislatures in due course. English, a well-developed international language, had been and continued to be the binding force of the intelligentsia of the country. It was the language of science and technology and “we cannot discard it in the foreseeable future”. Hindi, drawing fresh strength from Sanskrit and other major languages, should be cultivated extensively so that it could serve as a common medium and reflect the national consciousness as Sanskrit did in the past and Persian and English did in recent times.