India vaccine Mumbai
An elderly Indian man receives COVID-19 vaccine in Mumbai, India Image Credit: AP

India marked a critical milestone this week, the vaccination of 1 billion people against COVID-19. One billion Indians have now had at least one shot of the vaccine, with over 90 per cent of the coverage provided by the Serum Institute’s Covishield, which is identical to the UK’s AstraZeneca vaccine.

This is an important achievement for many reasons, not least of which is the shaky start to India’s’ vaccine drive earlier this year and the devastating second wave in April and May. Today, India’s case count is far lower, the lowest in over 230 days.

But as doctors and experts keep warning us, we simply cannot lower our guard. Science now shows that it is not one but two doses of vaccines that protect us effectively against COVID. Government data shows that about 30% of eligible Indians have been fully vaccinated so far, so there is still some way to go.

Meanwhile, in some other countries, the effects of even two doses of vaccines have begun waning, leading to a fresh surge in numbers and calls for a third booster dose.

India will soon have to start thinking about this booster especially for frontline health care workers and the elderly who were largely vaccinated from January to April this year. Doctors say the effects of vaccines including AstraZeneca start to wane after about five months after the second dose. So the fight against COVID is far from over.

'Deep into 2022'

As I write this column, the World Health Organisation or the WHO has warned that the pandemic may drag on “deep into 2022” — a year longer than it needed to because poorer countries are simply not getting the vaccines they need.

Which is why anti vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and generally irresponsible people who won’t even wear masks, make me mad. For example, cases in the UK are surging again, for the first time in many months.

There are many factors contributing to this rise, say doctors, from higher transmissions among children who have gone back to school, to waning vaccine effectiveness to complete carelessness. Social distancing and masking are no longer legally required in England since July.

A friend was telling me how most people simply don’t mask up in London anymore, not even on public transport, where it is supposed to be mandatory. They think the pandemic is over and are paying the price for it now, as cases go up again.

Even then, masks in public spaces and indoors have not been introduced despite pleas from the National Health Service (NHS) to do so immediately.

In Delhi, I still see many people masked up in shops and markets, thankfully. People are far more complacent in other cities. I recently taught my first in-person classes, and insisted that both the students and I wore masks throughout. I have an immunocompromised mother at home and will not risk infecting her at any cost.

Era of vaccine passports

Countries like France, which initially saw a lot of vaccine hesitancy, have kept their numbers down with mandatory mask rules and vaccine passports to enter bars and restaurants. Ideally, I would never favour the idea of segregating people based on their vaccine status, but this pandemic is unlike anything we have seen before.

When we refuse to wear masks, refuse to be vaccinated, then we not only put ourselves at risk, but also others we come into contact with. This is not about the rights of individuals because COVID is very simply not about you alone.

COVID deniers will tell you “it’s just the flu”, that the vaccines are a big pharma conspiracy or just that they are scared of side effects. However, leading doctors all over the world have told us one thing: the risk of complications and death from COVID are much greater than any vaccine side effect, where serious effects are very very minuscule. There is also misinformation that vaccines.

Yes, they don’t prevent infection but they do reduce the chances of getting it and significantly reduce severe illness and hospitalisations. That has been proved through data in Israel, the UK and other countries where deaths and hospitalisations have sharply reduced.

There have been countless stories in the media of anti vaxxers who rubbished the vaccines and ended up getting the virus and in some cases dying.

I have had COVID, and I can tell you it is nothing like the flu. So if you haven’t had your shot, please go get it now. And for God’s sake, wear a mask. It’s not a big deal but goes a long way in protecting everyone around.