Editorials - 26-05-2021

The whole premise of the two-state solution is wrong, providing Israel the immunity to continue its ethnic cleansing

For more than 50 years, well-intentioned and more cynical, local and external actors involved in the attempts to bring peace and reconciliation to historical Palestine have religiously adhered to the two-state solution as the only way forward.

The idea of partitioning Palestine between the settler movement of Zionism, and later the state of Israel and the indigenous population of Palestine is not new. It was first offered by the British in 1937 and rejected by the Palestinians already then. The Zionist movement was hardly 50 years old and was already offered by the new British occupiers of Palestine, a chunk of the Palestinian homeland as a future state. This in the 1930s and 1940s would have been akin to an offer to decolonise India by partitioning it between a British India and local India or to propose the decolonisation of Algeria by dividing it between a French Algeria and a local Algeria. Neither the Indian anti-colonial movement nor the Algerian one would have ever consented to such a post-colonial arrangement; nor did the British and French dare to offer it when they reconciled with the fact that they will have to leave their colonial empires and go back to Europe.

Catastrophic event

But even when decolonisation was achieved in India in 1947, not only the British but also the so-called civilised world through the United Nations insisted that the Palestinians should give half of their homeland to the settler movement of Zionism. The Palestinians attempted to convince the international community that the problem was not only aboutdispensing with half of their homeland but that the settler movement of Zionism would not be content with just half of the country and intended to take as much of it as possible and leave in it as few Palestinians as possible. This ominous prediction turned out to be chillingly accurate and true in less than a year after the UN insisted that partition was the only solution for Palestine. Under the guise of UN support, the new Jewish state took over nearly 80% of historical Palestine and ethnically cleansed almost a million Palestinians (more than half of Palestine’s population), and in the way demolished half of Palestine’s villages and most of its towns in nine months in 1948; an event known by the Palestinians as the Nakba, the catastrophe.

Incremental cleansing

In 1967, Israel occupied the rest of historical Palestine, and in the process expelled another 300,000 Palestinians. Like all settler colonial projects, it had to navigate between a wish to take over indigenous territory while downsizing the number of native people living on it. It was impossible after 1948 to repeat a massive ethnic cleansing, so it was substituted by incremental ethnic cleansing (the last stage in this process was one of the root causes that ignited the cycle of violence last week — the proposed eviction of Palestinians from Shaykh [Sheikh] Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighbourhood, as part of an overall attempt to Judaise East Jerusalem).

Incremental ethnic cleansing is not the only way of achieving the old Zionist goal to turning historical Palestine into a Jewish state. Imposing military rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after they were occupied was another means which enclaved the people there without basic human and civil rights. Imposing a version of an Apartheid regime on the Palestinian minority in Israel is another method and the constant refusal to allow the 1948 refugees to return completes the matrix of power that allows Israel to retain the land and disregard a demographic reality by which the Jews are not the majority in historical Palestine.

It is Israel that decides

The two-state solution, offered for the first time by liberal Zionists and the United States in the 1980s, is seen by some Palestinians as the best way of ending of the occupation of the West Bank and at least the partial fulfilment of the Palestinian right for self-determination and independence. This is why the Palestine Liberation Organization was willing to give it a go in 1993, by signing the Oslo Accords. But the Palestinian position has no impact in the current balance of power. What mattered is how Israel interprets the idea and the fact that there is no one in the world that could challenge its interpretation.

The Israeli interpretation, until the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu to power in 2009, was that the two-state solution is another means of having the territories, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, without incorporating most of the people living there. In order to ensure it, Israel partitioned the West Bank (which is 20% of historical Palestine) into a Jewish and an Arab part. This was in the second phase of the Oslo Accords, known as the Oslo II agreement of 1995. The Palestinians were forced to accept it under American and Egyptian pressure. One area, called area C, which consists of 60% of the West Bank) was directly ruled from 1995 until today by Israel. Under Mr. Netanyahu, Israel is in the process of officially annexing this area while at the same time ethnically cleansing the Palestinians living in it. The remaining 40% of the West Bank, areas A and B under Oslo II, were put under the Palestinian Authority, which optimistically calls itself the state of Palestine, but in essence has no power whatsoever, unless the one given to it, and withdrawn from it, by Israel.

A Bantustanisation

The Gaza Strip was divided too. But the Jewish part was small and could not be defended from the local national movement’s wrath. So, the settlers were taken out in 2005 and Israel hoped that another Bantustan, like the one in areas A and B, would be established there under the Palestinian Authority’s rule and under the same conditions. But the people of Gaza opted to support a new player, Hamas, and its ally, the Islamic Jihad, which resisted this offer. They supported them not only because there was a return to religion in the face of the ongoing predicaments but also because there was big disappointment from the compliance of the PLO with the Oslo arrangements. Israel responded by imposing a callous siege and blockade on the Gaza Strip that, according to the UN, made it unliveable.

To complete its strategy that included the partition of the West Bank, its Bantustanisation, and the siege of Gaza, Israel passed in 2018 a citizenship law, known as the nationality law, which made sure that the Palestinian citizens who live in Israel proper (which is Israel prior to the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) and who are supposedly equal citizens of the Jewish state, will in essence become the “Africans” of a new Israeli Jewish apartheid state: living in a permanent regime that discriminates against them in all aspects of life on the basis of their nationality.

The endless negotiation on the two-state solution was based on the formula that once the two states become a reality, Israel will stop these severe violations of the Palestinian civil and human rights, wherever they are. But while the wait continued, more Palestinians were expelled and the Jewish settler community in the West Bank doubled and tripled and took over the fertile land, leaving no space for Palestinian expansion. The presence of more than 600,000 Jewish settlers, with a very high rate of natural growth, means that Israel will never consider moving them out; and without that, even a soft version of a two-state solution is impossible.

Decolonise, build a new state

The whole premise of the two-state solution is wrong and that is why it did not materialise. It is based on the assumption of parity and of framing the conflict as one fought between two national movements. But this is not a “conflict” as such. This is a settler colonial reality which began in the late 19th century and continues until today. The late scholar, Patrick Wolfe, described settler colonial movements as motivated by a logic he called “the elimination of the native”. Sometimes it led to genocide, as it happened in North America, sometimes it translated to an ongoing ethnic cleansing operation, which is what has unfolded in Palestine. The two-state solution is not going to stop the ethnic cleansing; instead, talking about it provides Israel international immunity to continue it.

The only alternative is to decolonise historical Palestine. Which means that we should aspire to a state for all its citizens all over the country, based on the dismantlement of colonialist institutions, fair redistribution of the country’s natural resources, compensation of the victims of the ethnic cleansing and allowing their repatriation. All this will be so that settlers and natives should together build a new state that is democratic, part of the Arab world and not against it, and an inspiration for the rest of the region which desperately needs such models to push it forward towards a better future.

Professor Ilan Pappé is the Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies and Senior Fellow of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, U.K. He is the author of 20 books

It is important to hold manufacturers to account on efficacy data

On May 14, 2021, the Indian government announced that over two billion doses of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 will be produced in India from August to December. The government can be applauded on its intent: vaccinating a billion Indians with two doses each should in theory give India herd immunity. But while the number 2.1 billion doses makes sense, little else does. Vaccines don’t save lives; rapid, mass, repeated vaccinations do.

Vaccinate on a war footing

In the 2019 general election, in just five weeks, about 610 million Indians voted at one million polling stations that were supervised by 10 million election officials. If the nation can be mobilised every five years for the general election, there is no reason why India cannot vaccinate one billion Indians in five weeks. On a war footing, India needs to vaccinate 75% of the population in five weeks, not five months.

Up to May 23, only 10.9% of the population had received one dose and only 4% had been fully vaccinated with two doses. On average 1.5 million Indians have been vaccinated every day since the vaccination programme started on January 16. If in the 150 days between August and December this year, about 2.1 billion doses are produced, India requires not just the production but the administration of at least 14.4 million vaccines per day. But it lacks the infrastructure to administer the produced vaccines at 10 times the current rate. It will fail in this critical task unless it mobilises the armed forces for logistics. Every health worker not working in a hospital and every medical, paramedical, and nursing student will have to be on vaccine administration duty. Unless every Indian is protected either by vaccination or herd immunity, India will remain unprotected.

Spreading viruses mutate. The only way a host can break the cycle of replication and mutation is if the host’s immune system neutralises the virus. Immunity is acquired in only two ways – either by natural infection or vaccine-derived immunity. The problem with the current rate of vaccination is that in the large population groups which remain unvaccinated or under-vaccinated, the virus is spreading, replicating, and mutating. Unless it resorts to mass, rapid vaccinations, India will be condemned to new variant pandemic cycles that will keep surging and receding with cyclical and devastating consequences on lives and livelihoods.

Like influenza, SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay. There is a high possibility of another wave of infections, with another strain if not this. Many more will get infected. The aim is to downregulate the virus with rapid, mass and repeated vaccinations from an epidemic to an endemic infection that has seasonal outbreaks with lower number of cases, morbidity and mortality, allowing us to safely open up and keep the economy open.

Sadly, many decision-makers forget that vaccinating the nation is not a one-off; we will have to repeat this herculean exercise every season with updated and re-engineered booster vaccines to prevent the next pandemic cycle which will be driven by new and emerging variants.

All vaccines are not equally effective – high efficacy equals high economic benefit. The primary driver of the choice of a vaccine manufacturer is not just the ability to produce large quantities in the time frame required; it is the efficacy of the vaccine following peer reviews, publications and rollout. Equally important is the ability of the manufacturer to quickly re-engineer and produce updated vaccines against the prevalent strains and future ‘variants of concern’.

Both the Russian Sputnik V and the Chinese Sinopharm vaccines were rolled out widely and ahead of sufficient phase 3 trial data. Mostly low- and middle-income countries have given emergency use licence to both these vaccines and millions have been vaccinated with them. Both vaccines remain under review by the European Medicines Agency. On May 7, the World Health Organization listed Sinopharm for emergency use and is expected to do the same for Sputnik V shortly. However, absence of transparency in clinical trial protocols and of the data and its analysis have cast doubts on approval of these vaccines in developed countries with access to other vaccines.

Surge in the Seychelles

Policymakers and vaccine manufacturers would be wise to pay close attention to what is happening in the Seychelles with respect to the efficacy of vaccines. Despite being the most vaccinated nation in the world, with more than 60% of its population fully vaccinated, the Seychelles is battling a surge of the virus and has had to reimpose a lockdown. In the fully vaccinated population in the Seychelles, 57% were given Sinopharm (donated by the United Arab Emirates), while 43% were given AstraZeneca (produced by the Serum Institute of India). On a per capita basis of reported cases, the Seychelles outbreak is worse than India’s. All vaccines do not necessarily demonstrate the efficacy that the manufacturers tout. Manufacturers must be held to account not just on their production targets but on efficacy data. Transparency in clinical trials including post-vaccine rollout analysis is mandatory.

Until all Indians are protected, none of us is protected. The government’s announcement that 2.1 billion doses will be provided in five months, without any mention of a central vaccine agency managed by experts to govern the purchase, procurement and production centrally for all States, will create and promote vaccination asymmetry. It will exacerbate the pre-existing healthcare iniquity and inequity in India. To the rich-poor, rural-urban, digital divides we now appear to be adding a new vaccination divide.

India has to learn from its colossal mistakes. It must set aside its hubris and exceptionalism. It must on a war footing coalesce behind the only weapon that works — vaccination. The pandemic cycles have left in their wake incalculable but preventable loss of life, human suffering, financial ruin and economic decrepitude. If we fail, generations of Indians to come will ask why we did not come together and do the right thing.

Joseph Britto is former consultant and honorary senior lecturer in Paediatric Intensive Care at Imperial College at St. Mary’s Hospital, London

The experience of oncologists who rely on steroid-based protocols offers lessons in preventing and managing cases

The alarming rise in India recently in the incidence of mucormycosis — a rare fungal infection — in patients who have been diagnosed and treated for COVID-19 has come as no surprise to those of us in the medical oncology community. This outcome was our greatest fear as the administration of dexamethasone and other steroids began to become common. As oncologists who rely on steroids in many of our protocols, and having managed several cases of mucormycosis, we are acutely aware that treatment protocols need to differ from patient to patient due to the complexities in clinical presentation and an individual’s tolerance to treatment.

However, we find ourselves in a different position today because of the magnitude of cases being reported, and the inability of treating physicians to create individualised treatment protocols under this burden. Some States, including Tamil Nadu, have declared mucormycosis as a notifiable disease under the Epidemic Diseases Act. Guidelines and protocols need to be adapted and modified rapidly to arrest this growing epidemic.

Why did the risk of mucormycosis overwhelming us come as no surprise? The estimated burden of mucormycosis in India is 14 per 100,000 in a study published inCurrent Fungal Infection Reports(https://bit.ly/3oOe4xv). This is almost 70 times higher than what is reported in other countries. In a multi-centre study across several tertiary-care hospitals in India, published inClinical Microbiology and Infection(https://bit.ly/3fkLzV8), the rough estimate of proven mucormycosis was around 40 cases on an average over a 21-month period observed at each centre.

Focus on diabetes

It must be made absolutely clear that mucormycosis is not transmitted from one individual to the other, the way COVID-19 is. The most common cause is uncontrolled diabetes mellitus (raised blood sugars). Other causes include the treatment of some cancers; steroids, chemotherapy or immunotherapy, and solid organ or stem-cell transplantations. The common sites of presentation include rhino-cerebral involvement (i.e., the fungus can damage the nose, paranasal sinuses, the eyes and the brain), and pulmonary involvement (i.e., the fungus can cause pneumonia).

Raised blood sugars being a cause is of particular concern for multiple reasons. According to a study inThe Lancet(https://bit.ly/3bV2fAC), the number of people with diabetes increased to 65 million in 2016 in India. The highest prevalence of diabetes was observed in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Delhi. The crude prevalence of diabetes above 20 years of age has increased to 7.7% in 2016, from 5.5% in 1990. Further, there is an underlying higher genetic susceptibility to diabetes in Indians; some of these cases could get unearthed only after exposure to steroids.

The treatment of COVID-19 is, unfortunately, only worsening this situation. In a lab study published inNature Metabolism(https://go.nature.com/34dEn6L), SARS-CoV-2 can potentially multiply in pancreatic cells and contribute to increased blood sugar levels in COVID-19 patients. Steroids form a very important aspect of treatment for COVID-19 because they lower death rates by reducing the cytokine storm phase which can develop in some patients. However, steroids when used excessively or prematurely, and without medical supervision can be harmful. Besides causing reduced immunity levels, steroids can also increase blood sugar levels which can cause additional harm if left unchecked. Dexamethasone, methylprednisolone or prednisone are among the steroids used in the treatment of COVID-19.

Treatment approach

Mucormycosis is associated with very high morbidity and mortality. Its treatment requires a multi-disciplinary team approach that includes microbiology, pathology, radiology, infectious diseases, surgery, pediatrics, hematology, intensive care, dermatology, and pharmacology. A multi-disciplinary approach is simply not feasible on a large scale, especially in areas with limited medical access.

Surgery for mucormycosis can be debilitating requiring major resections. Additionally, there are limited antifungal drugs available for mucormycosis. The gold standard drug is liposomal amphotericin B, which is priced out of reach for many. Amphotericin B deoxycholate (conventional) is cheaper, but is associated with an unfavourable toxicity profile including kidney problems, abnormalities in electrolyte levels; reduced sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium levels can lead to other toxicities. Some other expensive treatment options include posaconazole and isavuconazole. All these medicines often have to be administered for prolonged durations, making treatment protocols difficult to sustain on a large scale, given the cost implications and difficulty in drug administration due to its side-effects.

When a patient is recovering from COVID-19 infection, it is certainly going to be a challenge to perform debilitating surgeries and administer these antifungal drugs for a prolonged duration. In the case of rhino-cerebral mucormycosis especially, surgery is usually required in addition to antifungal drugs. If these surgeries cannot be performed, the outcome is dismal. It is also important to keep in mind that treatment for mucormycosis will require prolonged hospital admissions. Given the health-care constraints we are faced with, this infection should be avoided at all costs.

Monitoring is essential

What can be done to reduce the number of cases and the intensity of mucormycosis? Steroid use at home for COVID-19 should be only under the supervision of a health-care worker. The control of blood sugars during steroid intake is crucial to avoiding mucormycosis. When patients are medicating themselves at home, monitoring of capillary blood glucose is essential. If high blood sugars are encountered, a tele-consult with a doctor is advisable. Going a step further, health authorities may consider arranging for blood glucose monitoring for patients at home on steroids, and also promoting awareness campaigns on the importance of controlled blood sugar levels.

Patients on steroids for COVID-19 should report symptoms of mucormycosis at the earliest. Among other symptoms, they should look out for facial swelling on one side, protrusion of the eyeball, new-onset visual disturbances, headache and vomiting, new onset swelling or ulcers with blackish discolouration, and prolonged fever. COVID-19 treatment experts and policy-makers may consider widespread training of health-care personnel including Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and nursing professionals to raise awareness on mucormycosis while educating people locally.

The prolonged requirement for hospital admission linked to COVID-19 will also lead to a rise in other hospital-acquired infections necessitating the use of multiple antibiotics. We are staring at the grim reality of managing large numbers of patients with other long-standing side-effects of steroids. Additionally, the concern is the alarming increase in multi-drug resistant bacterial infections for which we are grossly unprepared.

Dr. Nikita Mehra is Associate Professor of Medical Oncology, Adyar Cancer Institute (WIA), Chennai

Excess deaths data show that COVID-19 causality is being underplayed

Chennai saw over 12,000 more deaths in 2020 than the average of the five preceding years — a 20% increase over those years and a 10.66% increase over 2019 alone, the highest single year change in a decade. Officially, the city recorded just 4,000 deaths from COVID-19 in 2020. It is unclear how many of these ‘excess’ deaths were uncounted COVID-19 deaths or were due to other causes including lack of access to health services. This pattern is likely to repeat itself in 2021. More deaths have been reported in the first four months of the year than during any similar period in the last decade. The ‘excess mortality’ in 2021, which could include other deaths, is also nearly four times the reported COVID-19 death count of 730 deaths for the same period.

Excess mortality

Chennai’s municipal corporation maintains information on every death certificate issued for over a century. The data presented here are based on deaths counted by the date on which the actual death took place, as reported in the death certificate. The city corporation says that it registers virtually every death that takes place within the city corporation limits.

With the rising population, the number of registered deaths has gradually gone up every year. While data since 2010 have been analysed, the five most recent pre-pandemic years (2015-2019) provide the best comparison as their mortality statistics are closest to what a ‘normal’ year should have looked like. Between 2015 and 2019, Chennai saw 62,457 deaths every year on average (the average was substantially driven up by high mortality in 2019, which registered an increase of 7% from 2018). In 2020, Chennai saw over 74,000 deaths — an increase of 19% over the five-year average and 10.7% over the 2019 figure. From the end of March 2020 through April and part of May, the city was under lockdown. As would be expected for a city that sees over 100 deaths in road accidents alone every month, monthly deaths in Chennai declined in March and April. However, from May to September, there was a large spike in deaths, particularly in June, when more than 50% more deaths were reported than the previous five-year average. With the decline of the first wave by September 2020, excess mortality in Chennai began to fall too, but remained more than 10% above the five-year average. From February 2021, this ‘excess mortality’ began to rise too, and in April 2021, deaths were over one-third higher than the five-year average. The data for April 2021 in particular are likely to be an underestimate as people have up to a year to register deaths.

All over the world, cities and countries have accepted that the official toll from COVID-19 does not represent the accurate or full toll. The U.K. and some jurisdictions in the U.S. like New York City report both confirmed and suspected or probable COVID-19 deaths. The latter category includes people who did not test positive prior to death. Despite this being part of India’s official protocol on the counting of COVID-19 deaths, it is not being followed in practice. Officials in States including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra and Delhi have told this author that they only count deaths among people with a positive test prior to death as COVID-19 deaths. Reporting from States including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has indicated similar trends.

To get past this lack of data, some reporters have attempted to collate data from crematoria and burial grounds. However, this method too is fraught with error — crematoria do not maintain complete records; in some cities, a few crematoria are carrying out all COVID-19 cremations giving the impression of a greater increase in cremations than the data warrant; and many cremations and burials are being carried out following COVID-19 protocols even when the death in question is not necessarily from COVID-19.

Mortality statistics

Given the inadequacy of official data and the loopholes in novel sources, many researchers are turning instead to estimates of ‘excess mortality’ — the difference between deaths from all-causes in pandemic years and those in ‘normal’ years. Countries around the world including several Latin American, European and North American countries publish updated data on their usual and current mortality. India, however, has not published mortality statistics since 2018. Some better-run States and cities have published this data themselves. Mumbai’s ‘excess mortality’ for 2020 closely mirrors these findings about Chennai; in 2020, Mumbai reported 1,12,000 deaths as against its 2015-19 average of 90,100 deaths, an increase of nearly 20%.

These findings on Chennai raise important questions. One, even relatively well-administered cities like Chennai and Mumbai reported a 20% increase in mortality in 2020, and Chennai is seeing a further rise in 2021. This should put an end to speculation over whether or not the pandemic drove death rates up. Two, these differences cannot be explained away by the official death toll from COVID-19. London, a city of comparable population to Chennai, has reported over 15,000 excess deaths from March 23, 2020 to now, an increase of nearly 30%. However, the city has seen over 19,000 deaths with COVID-19 mentioned on the death certificate. That is a clear indication that although mortality has risen, the city is certifying many of the deaths as COVID-19-related, unlike Indian cities. Finally, Chennai’s data suggest that other cities and States would do well to release their all-cause mortality statistics and provide estimates of excess mortality. Cities like Chennai and Mumbai with strong administrative systems are also likely to have stronger health systems — they might be missing some COVID-19 deaths, but we have greater reason to fear that States with under-developed capacity might be missing many more.

Rukmini S. is an independent journalist

State universities require funding if online education is to continue in India

A year since the outbreak of COVID-19, online education remains a chimera in India. Notwithstanding their preparedness, higher education institutions were directed by the government to shift from classroom education to online education. This was mandated even though the government spent merely 3.2% of its GDP on education in 2020-21. University administrations too released orders overnight in haste. They instructed teachers and students to move to online classes without taking cognisance of changes needed in infrastructure, training, etc.

Differences within institutions

The financial health of state universities in the country is an open secret. While centrally funded elite institutes such as the IITs, IIMs, NITs and Central universities launched video channels and uploaded e-content on institutional websites and digital platforms, a majority of the state universities still struggle without proper Internet connectivity and bandwidth in their campuses. State universities are only able to provide salaries on time. The move to online learning especially came as a surprise for overburdened teachers given that there are several vacant faculty positions in universities across India. This move also came as a shock for the students, many of whom are distressed by the COVID-19 situation. Many of them also lack the facilities to attend online classes. Teachers and students had a sense of déjà vu as they had a similar experience when the annual scheme of teaching and regular courses was replaced by the semester scheme of teaching and the choice-based credit system earlier.

A transition from conventional classroom teaching and learning to online education needs to be done in a phased manner. State universities should first equip their infrastructure (both hard and soft) with wholehearted government support. A sledgehammer approach to adapt to a new setting won’t serve anybody’s interests. On the contrary, it may prove to be a counterproductive exercise.

There are 993 universities, 39,931 colleges, 3.73 crore students and 14.16 lakh teachers in India, according to All India Survey on Higher Education (2018-19). If such a drastic decision was to be taken, there should have been wider consultation between the government and all the academic stakeholders to find a way forward. With Internet penetration still low in India, it is incumbent on the government to allow suitable financial aids to state universities to obtain appropriate IT tools, platforms, devices, provide training, etc. before initiating such an exercise. Else, given the difference in students’ access to digital education, their performances are also bound to differ. This creates an asymmetrical society and leads to anxiety among the students. Most importantly, education is denied to the less privileged student community.

Study material

Another predicament in online education is the preparation of appropriate study material. Policymakers need to acknowledge that merely uploading scanned lecture notes or power point presentations does not serve any meaningful purpose. There is no imaginative thinking and exploring, no application-based learning for students. For practical field and laboratory-based learning, the whole idea of online education could prove to be a disaster.

Given that there is talk of more COVID-19 waves, it is imperative for the government to embrace a pragmatic approach by engaging all academic stakeholders and investing generously in online education as suggested by the Fifteenth Finance Commission in its report. Development of massive open online courses (MOOCs), direct-to-home (DTH) content development, digital classrooms and provision of devices (laptop/tablets) for 25 lakh students belonging to the socially and economically weaker sections of society, especially in state universities, would help.

Milind Kumar Sharma teaches in the Department of Production and Industrial Engineering, M.B.M. Engineering College, Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur, erstwhile University of Jodhpur. Views are personal

With no short road to universal vaccination, lockdowns should be precise and painless

Several States have extended the coronavirus lockdowns beyond May 31, while fresh cases appear to show a downward trend, but India’s COVID-19 battle lacks strategic focus. Although a cessation of activity has been imposed, there is not much clarity on the future threat from virus variants, notably B.1.617 that now has three sub-types and the dominant one, B.1.617.2, is estimated to be 50% more transmissible than another variant of concern, B.1.1.7. Neither is there a road map for vaccine availability ahead, with direct imports by States hitting a roadblock and vague assurances of a domestic ramp-up from July substituting for firm commitments. Some States are unwisely taking the foot off the testing pedal, making it that much harder to map the course of transmission. A miasma of confusion has come to pervade COVID-19 policy, where the Centre no longer has an appetite for leadership, even if it means shunning responsibility for universal vaccination, and the only tool available with States is a lockdown. But as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has pointed out, a lockdown does not provide a solution, and comes with its own economic side-effects that hit the working class poor the hardest. The time has come for a pandemic policy reset that reflects scientific insight, encourages safe public behaviour through persuasive communication, monitoring, and, importantly, incorporates medical interventions of scale.

The medium-term outlook does not point to a steep rise in vaccination by the end of the year to cover most of the population, making it imperative for States to prepare for potential future surges. Although claims have been made of a large volume of three vaccines becoming available between August-December, the road to universal immunisation is going to be long. The process is complicated by the finding in Britain that it takes two doses of Covishield for 60% protection against the dominant virus variant that is also found in India; the second dose, therefore, should be administered after eight weeks, not 12 or 16. What States can do immediately is to arrive at a good lockdown protocol, sparing people frequent shocks. Tamil Nadu’s recent move to intensify the lockdown, and, inexplicably, allow even jewellery and clothing shops to open for a day before that, led to massive crowding triggered by induced demand. Clearly, measures to shut down everyday activity lead to fear and panic, and leave less affluent sections, the disabled, migrant workers and many single individuals unable to cope. The golden mean would be to shut all non-essential shops, encourage remote transactions, open street sales and home deliveries, actively monitor compliance with COVID-19 protocols in public places and vaccinate workers in services, including domestic workers, on priority. Free food distribution must be a central feature of lockdowns.

The Govt. must hear out the social media industry, and shed its arbitrary rule-making

It does seem that most if not all global social media giants will miss complying with the new IT rules of intermediaries, which come into effect today. It would be unfortunate if this non-compliance were to trigger a further worsening of the already poor relationship between some social media players and the Government. The new rules were introduced in February. Among other things, they require the bigger social media platforms, which the rules referred to as significant social media intermediaries, to adhere to a vastly tighter set of rules within three months, which ended on May 25. They require these platforms to appoint chief compliance officers, in order to make sure the rules are followed, nodal officers, to coordinate with law enforcement agencies, and grievance officers. Another rule requires messaging platforms such as WhatsApp to trace problematic messages to its originators, raising uneasy questions about how services that are end-to-end encrypted can adhere to this. There are indeed many problems with the new rules, not the least of which is the manner in which they were introduced without much public consultation. There has also been criticism about bringing in a plethora of new rules that ought to be normally triggered only via legislative action.

But non-compliance can only make things worse, especially in a situation in which the relationship between some platforms such as Twitter and the Government seems to have broken down. The latest stand-off between them, over Twitter tagging certain posts by BJP spokespeople as ‘manipulated media’, has even resulted in the Delhi Police visiting the company’s offices. Separately, the Government has been fighting WhatsApp over its new privacy rules. Whatever the back-story, it is important that social media companies fight the new rules in a court of law if they find them to be problematic. The other option, that of engaging with the Government, may not work in these strained times. But stonewalling on the question of compliance can never be justified, even if it is to be assumed that the U.S. Government has their back. Facebook, on its part, has made all the right noises. It has said that it aims to comply with the new rules but also needs to engage with the Government on a few issues. What is important is that the genuine concerns of social media companies are taken on board. Apart from issues about the rules, there have been problems about creating conditions for compliance during the pandemic. As reported byThe Hindu, five industry bodies, including the CII, FICCI and the U.S.-India Business Council have sought an extension of 6-12 months for compliance. This is an opportunity for the Government to hear out the industry, and also shed its high-handed way of rule-making.

In addition to the oral examination by the Magistrate, Mahant Naraindas of Nankana who has just been committed to the Sessions, put in a lengthy written statement which was read out in the court to-day. The Mahant said that he had been apprehending attack from Akalis and renovated the gates, walls and entrances of the Nankana temple not with a view to attack but for his own shelter and protection. Holes in the doors were made in order that he might watch what was happening outside and not for shooting. He was asleep on the 20th February morning when he was roused by the noise of shots. He stirred out only once to inform the police but Akalis chased him. So he concealed himself in his house for fear of Akalis. It was only when the Deputy Commissioner arrived that he came out and saw Akalis lying dead. More than two cans of kerosene were daily used in the temple. He therefore bought oil in large quantities which cost him cheaper. He denied having shot anybody or ordering firing. He also stated that he had approached the Local Government, members of the Executive Council, Commissioner, Mahatma Gandhi and others for advice and assistance, but without avail.

External Affairs Minister, Swaran Singh declared in the Rajya Sabha to-day [New Delhi, May 25] that the Government had not taken any “fixed position” on the question of recognition of Bangla Desh. “If at any stage we feel recognition is necessary we will not hesitate to do so.” Replying to a five-hour discussion on Bangla Desh, Mr. Swaran Singh said the Government would not hesitate to accord formal recognition if it was in the “interest of peace, our national interest and in the interest of the people of Bangla Desh.” In the Lok Sabha a strong demand for recognition of Bangla Desh followed by material aid to the freedom fighters was made by several members. Mr. Swaran Singh, however, pointed out that the question had to be viewed from a larger angle. “There were certain norms which have to be carefully weighed such as the extent of the territory controlled, the quantum of support, the extent of writ and the repercussions of recognising a country which till now was part of Pakistan.” Mr. Swaran Singh also pointed out that the situation continued to be fluid.