Not so long ago, on September 25, 2019, while delivering the keynote address at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York, Prime Minister Modi talked about the future direction of India’s growth story. He emphasized, this story was built on four pillars, namely Democracy, Demography, Demand and Decisiveness. Today, except perhaps the first pillar – Democracy, all three other pillars have been greatly impacted, especially by Covid-19 pandemic, just round a year’s time. Interestingly, while delivering the 74th Independence Day speech on August 15, 2020, the Prime Minister indicated: ‘Covid-19 is not an obstacle big enough to hamper self-reliant India’s growth’
That said, out of those 3 pillars, ‘demography’ of the country, I reckon, offers a key differential economic advantage to the nation. According to the Prime Minister’s own words: “This growth is facilitated by India’s demographic dividend and young and talented people.” Alarmingly, the collateral damage of the new Coronavirus pandemic has significantly affected this critical growth pillar, as well. Thus, I would cite this ‘pillar’ as an example, to drive home the point – how Covid-19 is impacting the demographic dividend, impeding the economic growth of a country, like India.
At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear today, the new Coronavirus ‘maze’ is refusing to signal any clear pathway to get back to the ‘old normal,’ while the ‘new normal’ is yet to crystallize.From this perspective, let me deliberate in this article, with examples from the following two important areas:
A paradox that is directly related to Covid-19 transmission in various countries.
The collateral damage on ‘demographic dividend’.
These illustrations will vindicate that there isn’t any other meaningful option – for an indefinite period, but to wait (or rush) for vaccines, in the prevailing quandary.
As the world awaits scientifically proven, safe and effective vaccines, duly approved by the drug regulators, to come out of Covid-19’s lethal shackles, several paradoxes further add to the complexity of the problem. Many of these seem to be quite difficult to untangle. One such paradox, for example, the observed case-fatality ratio (CFR). It indicates, the number of deaths either per 100 confirmed Covid-19 cases or per 100,000 population. The latter represents a country’s general population, with both confirmed cases and healthy people.
As analyzed by the Johns Hopkins University - among the twenty countries most affected by COVID-19 worldwide as of August 09, 2020, the United Kingdom (UK) had over 300,000 confirmed cases along with 70.16 deaths per 100,000 of its inhabitants. Peru and Chile had the second and third highest total per 100,000 of the population with 64.55 and 53.45 respectively, while the U.S. followed – with 49.65.
Similarly, while India shows a CFR of 2.0, other countries – quite different, particularly in economic and demographic parameters, are also not doing too badly, some are doing even, better as far as the CFR is concerned. These nations include, Pakistan 2.1, Vietnam 1.8, Thailand 1.7, Myanmar 1.7, Philippines 1.7, Australia 1.6, Malaysia 1.4, Bangladesh 1.3, Sri Lanka 0.4, Maldives 0.4 and Nepal, to name a few.
From these numbers, it appears, the CFR has neither any bearing on the degree of overall economic development of a country, nor how robust is the nation’s health care infrastructure, beside others. In that case, in which areas a country should focus to keep Convid-19 death rate low? A specific answer to this question is awaited. Till then does it not remain a paradox?
Impact on demographic dividend:
Besides the direct impact of rapid transmission of the Coronavirus infection and its associated fall outs, the livelihoods of many and crippling blows on the national economy, Covid-19 pandemic is silently making serious collateral damages. One of these is a significant impact on the demographic dividend, especially for a country like India. As many would know, ‘demographic dividend’ broadly refers to the growth in an economy that is the result of a change in the age structure of a country’s population, where the proportion of the working population out of the total population is high.
This issue has been well-captured in the August 11, 2020 report – ‘Youth & COVID-19: Impacts on jobs, education, rights and mental well-being,’ of the International Labor Organization (ILO). The report captures the immediate effects of the pandemic on the lives of young people (aged 18–29) with regards to employment, education, mental well-being, rights and social activism. Over 12,000 responses were received from young people in 112 countries. A large proportion of these came from educated youths with access to the Internet. Some of the key findings of this survey may indeed be a cause of worry for many, such as:
The pandemic is inflicting a heavy toll on young workers, destroying their employment and undermining their career prospects.
38 per cent of young population is uncertain of their future career prospects due to the pandemic. They expect COVID-19 crisis to create more obstacles for them, besides lengthening the transition from school to work.
Mental well-being is lowest for young women and younger youths between the ages of 18 and 24 years.
One in six young people (17 per cent) – employed before the outbreak, stopped working altogether, most notably they are younger workers – aged 18 to 24 years.
Among those who thought that their education would be delayed or might fail, 22 percent were likely to be affected by anxiety or depression, compared to 12 percent of students whose education remained on track.
Young people whose education or work was either disrupted or had stopped completely being most twice as likely to be affected by anxiety or depression as compared to those who continued to be employed or whose education was not affected.
The new Coronavirus has left one in eight young people (13 per cent) without any access to courses, teaching or training — a situation, particularly acute among the youth in low-income countries and one that serves to underline the sharp digital divide that exists between regions.
The paper acknowledged that even before the onset of this crisis, the social and economic integration of young people was an ongoing challenge. Nevertheless, COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every aspect of peoples’ lives, adversely impacting the demographic dividend. The paper cautioned, unless urgent action is taken right now, young people are likely to suffer severe and long-lasting impacts from the pandemic. Intriguingly, not many remedial measures in this space are visible just yet, not even in India.
A global rush to cling on to vaccines as a ‘safety belt’:
Amid such grim scenario, there exists an understandable global rush to cling on to get Covid-19 vaccines at an unprecedented record time, despite huge safety concerns of their users, if the development process is rushed through. The reason being, any previous vaccine development process has typically taken a decade or longer. Just to give a feel of it, according to reports:
Name of Vaccine
Number of years to develop
Some countries promised even sooner:
Let me give two recent examples – one from India and the other from Russia.
According to the media news, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was planning to launch the Covid-19 vaccine by August 15 this year. Another report also indicated that on July 2, ICMR wrote to all 12 trial sites for the Covid-19 vaccine candidate - Covaxin, that all clinical trials had to be completed by August 15, in time for a public launch.
However, bioethics experts have questioned how all three phases of testing for a vaccine candidate, yet to even begin human trials, can be crunched into a timeframe of a month. Be that as it may, The Ministry of Science and Technology has since clarified that none of the Coronavirus vaccine candidates, including India’s Covaxin and ZyCov-D, are likely to be ready for public use before 2021.
Meanwhile, on August 12, 2020, Russia launched the world’s first registered COVID-19 vaccine ‘Sputnik V’ – again amid huge safety concern, as all three phases of clinical trials are yet to be over. This vaccine, apparently, will be first given to doctors and teachers after which there will be a mass vaccination campaign in October 2020. However, according to the Russian Health Minister, “Clinical trials of a Coronavirus vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Centre are over, paperwork is underway for the vaccine’s registration.”
Amid this rush, there comes good news. On August 10, 2020, the USFDA Commissioner assuredphysicians and other healthcare providers that vaccine and therapeutics approvals for the COVID-19 pandemic will be “based on good science and sound data.” And: “Nothing else will be used to guide our decisions,” he reiterated. By the way, six Covid-19 vaccine candidates from around the world are now in phase three of human trials.
Currently, India is recording the highest count of fresh Covid-19 cases in the world while also reporting the most daily deaths from the virus. As on August 16, 2020 morning, the recorded Coronavirus cases in the country reached 2,590,501 with 50,099 deaths, despite all measures that the country is taking. The steep ascending trend continues, unabated. As I wrote on July 13, 2020 in this blog – what will be the ultimate fallout of this global health crisis, it will ultimately assume what form, when and how long? Similarly, clear reasons are not still available as to why many Covid-19 related catastrophic impacts in different nations, neither have any bearing on the degree of overall economic development of a country, nor how robust is the nation’s health care infrastructure, and the likes.
The answer to the question – Why many Covid-19 related things are happening, the way these are happening, even in India, continues to remain a paradox. Some experts are trying to attribute reasons to these, though, almost on a daily basis, which are also subsequently changing, as days pass by. In tandem, many significant collateral damages caused by the pandemic, are also surfacing, such as, weakening of an important growth pillar – demographic dividend, of a large country like India.
In the midst of all, the rush for a new Covid-19 vaccine development in a near impossible timeframe of around a year is gaining momentum. However, as the reports indicate, ‘despite the unprecedented push for a vaccine, researchers caution that less than 10 percent of drugs that enter clinical trials are ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The rest fail in one way or another: They are not effective, don’t perform better than existing drugs or have too many side effects,’ the report emphasized.
Incidentally, there doesn’t seem to be any other robust solution, either. On August 15, 2020, while addressing the nation on its 74th Independence Day, Prime Minister Modi said, ‘three Coronavirus vaccines are at different stages of testing in India and the government has a plan to ensure that a vaccine, when approved, reaches every Indian.’ The takeaway message from various developments on the global fight against the new lethal Coronavirus remains somewhat paradoxical. With the efforts to save lives and the livelihoods becoming more and more challenging, and the economic growth retarding faster every day, as it were. Thus, vaccines have to come sooner – but, no matter what?
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.