Let’s keep the spotlight on polio: RID Basker

RI Director C Basker
RI Director C Basker

In a comprehensive address delivered at the National Polio Plus and MR Orientation meet held in Delhi last month that succinctly captured Rotary’s polio story over some four decades, RI Director Basker linked the eradication of polio from India to the steady growth and development of India in the last couple of decades.

India stood at a “critical phase of transformation compared to some 40 years ago. In those days the perception was that in India we burn our brides or that India has no electricity. But this is changing mainly because we are such hardworking people… we’ve become the second largest steel producer in the world after China, and today the motor car is no longer a luxury here. What is more, for over three years, we haven’t borrowed a single rupee from the World Bank. Our health care infrastructure has improved tremendously and thanks to Rotary, polio has been eradicated from India, when the rest of the world was so sceptical of our doing so,” he said amidst applause.

But he cautioned the assembled senior Rotary leaders from India, including DGs and PDGs, that on the polio front we needed to be extremely careful till our neighbours — both ­Afghanistan and Pakistan, continued to report polio cases as the virus can easily cross borders.

Giving the assembled Rotary leaders a sense of the magnitude of work that Rotarians have done on the polio front across the world, Basker said that in 1988, when the global polio eradication campaign was launched, there were 350,000 cases of polio reported every year from 125 countries. Since then, Rotary and its partners — UNICEF, WHO, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the governments of the world, etc — had all come together to immunise 2.5 billion children every year. “Because of the immunisation that we all did 16 million people are walking today who would otherwise have been paralysed. In addition, Rotary has committed over $1.7 billion and contributed millions of volunteer hours to actively participate in the polio eradication campaign.”

The result was that compared to 37 cases of polio reported in three countries — Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2016, and 22 cases in 2017, as of July 26, only 13 cases of polio have been reported in 2018. “This means that we have managed to eradicate 99.9 per cent of polio from the world. For most other things, a 99.9 per cent result would be a remarkable success story. But for polio, nothing short of cent per cent success rate can be called a victory.”

Underlining the danger of complacency that we could now relax as India is polio-free, the RI Director warned the assembled Rotarians that “within 10 years the world could see as many as 200,000 new cases every year if we do not reach zero cases soon. Rotary can’t stop until our world is certified polio-free. That is why it takes at least three years to get such a certificate after no cases have been reported from a country.”

As polio continued to be a challenge till the entire world was reported polio-free, at the Atlanta Convention last year RI had committed to raise $50 million annually over the next three years. “Do remember that every one dollar raised by us will be matched 2:1 by the Gates Foundation, so the total will translate into $450 million for polio eradication activities; not only for immunisation but also for mapping the environment for signs of the virus.”

Even though massive strides have been made across the world in eradicating polio, and “we are now down to only two remaining reservoirs — ­Nigeria and the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, this region is one of the most challenging and complex environments in the world,” Basker added. That is why Rotary had come up with innovations such as getting female vaccinators, involvement of religious leaders, special attention to vaccinating transit population, surveillance and checking of water supply and sewerage systems for any signs of the virus.

“But let’s not forget that our No 1 weapon against polio is the vaccine,” he said, adding that investment and experience in polio eradication has given Rotarians the tools to fight other preventable diseases such as measles, rubella, cholera etc.

To “ensure that our children and grandchildren live in a polio-free world, we will have to meet our global fundraising goal of $50 million a year for the next three years. We have to press the government for funding by writing to our legislators and bureaucrats. Remember that the $1.2 billion promised at Atlanta was only a pledge; we have to ensure follow up. We must keep polio in the spotlight in our clubs.”

One of the proudest days of my life

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Addressing the PolioPlus meet in Delhi, Director Basker said that during the TRF Centennial year, Indian Rotarians had contributed over $20 million, getting the second slot in giving, and in 2017–18 a sum of $19.17 million had been raised, allowing India to retain the second place on the TRF platform.

But on the first day of this Rotary year, July 1, an event had taken place which would catapult India’s giving trajectory to a totally different plane. On that day “as
I sat on the RI Board meet, I got a text message from RI District 3190 PDG Asha Prasanna Kumar saying one Rotarian, D Ravishankar, had contributed ₹ 100 crore (about $14.7 million) to the Foundation.” Thinking that the PDG had made a mistake and “instead of ₹ 1crore had typed ₹ 100 crore, I went out of the Boardroom and called DG Suresh Hari and told him I have got such a message from Asha. So is it ₹ 1 crore or 100 crore? And he said ‘Director, it is ₹ 100 crore!’ I could hardly believe it, and Suresh added, ‘we told you, we are not miracle chasers but miracle makers’.”

So this was the first miracle of the year; DG Hari had followed up with Ravishankar, the President of RC ­Bangalore Orchards, to get this contribution.

Next, added Basker, as they adjourned for a noon break and RI President Barry Rassin was having lunch, “I sat next to him and told him that on the first day of the new Rotary year an Indian Rotarian has contributed $14.7 million to TRF. He put down his fork and asked: ‘What Basker, what did I hear?’ So I repeated the statement, called DG Hari and handed over the phone to President Barry and said speak to the Governor. He did and then said: ‘Basker, this is a miracle; Next to Bill Gates, an Indian has shown how to give.”

As they returned to the Board meet, Rassin invited Basker to make the announcement and “I had the pleasure and privilege of announcing to the RI Board that an Indian Rotarian has donated $14.7 million to become the second largest contributor to TRF in the world. And this was one of the proudest moments of my life. So India is transforming and at RI we continue to hold our heads high on performance, show how generous we are and how hard we work.”

Every person in the hall had been carefully chosen by the Rotary leadership. “Please justify the confidence and the responsibility we have placed in you. Let us not be complacent; we can’t allow polio to return,” he added.

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