Caution continues to be the need of the hour in combating Covid With inequitable access to the Covid vaccine in different countries, and countries such as Israel and UK registering a surge of cases in variants of the virus, pandemic challenges remain, says PRIP K R Ravindran, chairman of the RI Covid Task Force in an interview to Rotary News. Excerpts...

PRIP K R Ravindran with DGN Pubudu de Zoysa (RI District 3220) at a vaccination booth organised by RC Colombo.
PRIP K R Ravindran with DGN Pubudu de Zoysa (RI District 3220) at a vaccination booth organised by RC Colombo.

You are chairing the RI Covid Task Force; how does it work and what are its priorities?

The Covid pandemic interrupted Rotary activities as never before; last year a committee was formed consisting of top TRF and RI leaders — ­Holger Knaack, Shekhar Mehta, ­Jennifer Jones, John Germ, Ian Riseley and me. It met on a regular basis but given the other responsibilities of each member, it faced a handicap. So early this Rotary year, a new committee (of which I am the chair) was formed with knowledgeable individuals (some of them experts) with global ­representation. The committee is styled similar to the International PolioPlus Committee.

 

As for priorities, it will broadly focus on the following:

  • Providing support and direction to Rotarians on speedy and best response to the Covid-19 crisis.
  • Assisting in the development of relationships and seeking funding from outside foundations and international development organisations to fully utilise Rotary’s ability to advocate for Covid-19 vaccination as demonstrated by our work in eradicating polio.
  • Advise the RI board and trustees on the safety of travel and meetings around the world.

 

The committee members are required to report on the following:

  • Trend of Covid positive cases in their region for both adults and children
  • Incidence of breakthrough cases (fully vaccinated persons being infected)
  • Government position on travel and restrictions
  • Vaccine availability
  • Key challenges/noteworthy events.

 

What kind of impact has Rotary made internationally vis-à-vis this pandemic?

We have actively endorsed the call of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to the G20 nations to assure vaccine equity worldwide. We have also communicated with the president of the 2021 G20 summit, Mario Draghi, PM of Italy, stating that while we appreciate the G20’s Rome declaration indicating “support for global sharing of affordable vaccine doses, when domestic situations permit,” that assurance, just by itself, is not good enough. And that the G20 has an obligation to ensure that every country is in a position to obtain its required stock of  Covid vaccines in a timely way.

We recently signed an MoU with GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation) confirming a collaborative arrangement globally, to further Covid-19 vaccine coverage through social realisation advocacy.

The current international vaccine access is uneven, and mitigation of that gap is crucial. No country is safe unless all the countries are safe.

GAVI is a global public and private sector vaccine alliance, with the shared goal of ensuring equitable use of vaccines and is co-leading the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, (COVAX), as a worldwide initiative, aimed at making sure every country has access to Covid vaccines.

The COVAX initiative is directed by GAVI and partnered by WHO, UNICEF and CEPI. Rotary and GAVI have come to an agreement in principle to work together towards the vision of “One World Protected against Covid.”

We have agreed that the current international vaccine access is uneven, and mitigation of that gap is crucial.  No country is safe unless all the countries are safe and only vaccinating the whole world will determine the course of the pandemic. The more people get vaccinated, the less transmission occurs in the community, reducing everyone’s risk of infection.

In many countries Rotarians could use the experience gained through our polio efforts to support COVAX in the delivery of the vaccines and in other ways. To begin with, GAVI/COVAX has shortlisted 9 countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, for a more active partnership.

 

There is always a question mark on the numbers given out by governments. Would you agree with the given statistic that only 4.5 million people around the world have succumbed to this virus? What is your estimate?

I don’t think these figures are correct and there is a huge underreporting. The Economist magazine states in its September issue that its single best estimate of the actual world death toll is around 15.2 million people. Their studies indicate a 95 per cent chance that the true figure is between 9.3 million and 18.1 million additional deaths. This number is the gap between how many people died in a given region during a given time period, regardless of cause, and how many deaths would have occurred in the normal course if a particular circumstance (such as a natural disaster or disease outbreak) had not occurred.

That, I think, is a reasonable way of calculating the actual toll.

 

What do you think are the most stringent challenges the world faces in its efforts to eradicate this virus?

Scientists have come up with several Covid vaccines in a record time. Manufacturing the lifesaving shots has been another huge achievement. Output is forecast to surpass 12 billion doses by the end of the year and could double again by mid-2022.

Unfortunately, the problem we face is inequitable vaccine supplies; only a fifth of people in lower-income countries have received the first dose, compared to 80 per cent in higher- income nations.

 

What about the resistance to vaccination in some countries, including India?

That’s the other problem; the strong anti-vaccine lobby. It is here that Rotary can play a major role in combating such views. Over 99 per cent of Covid deaths in June occurred in the unvaccinated. Yet, despite growing evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, resistance to them continues to grow in some quarters. The slow rollout of vaccines in most African countries poses the danger of the virus replicating and new, more dangerous variants emerging and spreading around the globe.

PRIP K R Ravindran and RC Colombo president Nithi Murugesu examining a Covishield vial.
PRIP K R Ravindran and RC Colombo president Nithi Murugesu examining a Covishield vial.

Rotarians world over can play a major role in explaining that vaccines are safe, and tell people where we reached because we vaccinated children against polio. Once there were 1,000 cases a day globally; today we have just 2 wild poliovirus cases across the globe.

We can lobby that vaccination should be made compulsory for everyone who wants to travel in an airplane, train or bus, attend a movie, eat at a restaurant, shop at a store, work in an office or visit any other indoor space.

From Sep 1, in Sri Lanka, no unvaccinated person is being allowed.

 

When do you think Rotary clubs can start meeting again physically?
I am neither an expert nor a fortuneteller! Virus variants are tearing through places where people gather in large numbers without observing strict pandemic protocol.

The CDC recently issued a warning that even fully-vaccinated persons should take precautions. Research confirms Covid outbreak risk at camps and large events where prevention strategies are not implemented adequately.

Rotarians can play a major role in explaining that vaccines are safe, and tell people where we reached because we vaccinated children against polio.

I would discourage any large indoor event for sure. Recent reports show that 12–24 per cent of people hospitalised for Covid are fully-
vaccinated. We know that the delta variant has surged in the highly- ­vaccinated Israel, and that in the UK, the majority of recent deaths have been among the vaccinated.

Things may change in a few months, but if we must have meetings, club or district, they should ensure the room is well-ventilated.

During the Crimean war Florence Nightingale settled on the principle that would later prove key to her legendary nursing career: the importance of opening windows to ensure an inflow of fresh air.

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