Current Affairs 29th April

Negative test or vaccination must for agents, candidates #GS2 #Governance #GS3 #SnT

The Election Commission of India (ECI) made it mandatory for candidates and agents to have either negative COVID-19 test results or both doses of a vaccine before entering the counting halls on May 2, when votes of the five Assembly polls are tabulated.

The ECI issued instructions for counting of votes in the West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry elections at a time the country is going through an unprecedented surge of COVID-19. On Tuesday, the ECI banned all victory processions on May 2, and restricted the number of people accompanying winning candidates to collect their certificate of election from the Returning Officer to two.

In view of the second wave of pandemic and in order to ensure completely COVID-safe arrangements during counting, the Commission has been regularly consulting the Chief Secretaries and the Chief Electoral Officers of all five States/UT and has taken their views and safety measures/ protocol to be followed. The poll panel ordered the District Election Officers to be the Nodal Officers for the counting centres to make sure COVID-19 norms are followed.

Vaccine registrations begin for those above 18, amid glitches #GS3 #SnT

Vaccine registrations for those aged 18-44 began with several people able to enrol — after some glitches — but unable to get appointments at hospitals for vaccination.

Though no figure was available for precisely how many in this age bracket registered, Ram Sewak Sharma, Chairman, CoWIN, told The Hindu via text message that “most” of the 8 million who registered on Wednesday belonged to the 18-44 age bracket.

Though vaccines are to be given to all adults below 45 from May 1, as per the Centre’s new policy, this is contingent on the States — and not the Centre — making them available to citizens. The Centre will continue to provide vaccines to the States and vaccinate for free those over 45.

The States, on the other hand, have to negotiate with vaccine companies the price at which they will buy. This again will be from 50% of the vaccines made and cleared by the Central Drug Research Laboratory, Kasauli. The remaining will continue to go to the Centre for its programme.

New Act gives more powers to Delhi L-G #GS2 #Governance

The Ministry of Home Affairs issued a gazette notification stating that the provisions of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Act, 2021, would be deemed to have come into effect from April 27.

The Act, which gives the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi more teeth and significantly waters down the powers of both the elected government and the Legislative Assembly, will clarify the expression “Government” and address “ambiguities” in the legislative provisions to promote “harmonious relations between the legislature and the executive”.

In middle of pandemic

The move comes a day after the Delhi High Court cautioned the Delhi government to put its “house in order” over the issue of inadequate oxygen supply in the city, adding that the Centre would be asked to take over if it could not manage the situation.

Coming as the development does in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Act is expected to trigger another round of confrontation between the L-G and the Delhi government under AAP. The Act defines the responsibilities of the elected government and the L-G along with the “constitutional scheme of governance of the NCT” interpreted by the Supreme Court in recent judgments regarding the division of powers between the two entities. It will also seek to ensure that the L-G is “necessarily granted an opportunity” to exercise powers entrusted to him under proviso to clause (4) of Article 239AA of the Constitution.

This particular clause provides for a Council of Ministers headed by a Chief Minister for the NCT to “aid and advise the Lieutenant-Governor” in the exercise of his functions for matters in which the Legislative Assembly has the power to make laws.

‘Covaxin shields from B.1.617’ #GS3 #SnT

A study has found that people who have been vaccinated with Covaxin have protection against the double mutant (B.1.617) variant first found in India. A preprint of the study carried out by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Bharat Biotech researchers has been posted in biorXiv . Preprints are yet to be peer-reviewed and published in medical journals.

So far, 21 countries have detected the B.1.617 variant. Of those, the majority of cases has been reported from India.

The researchers used the sera collected from 28 people who had participated in the Covaxin phase-2 trial. They also collected sera samples from 17 people who were infected with older strains of SARS-CoV-2 virus and had recovered.

The study found that the neutralising capacity against the double mutant [B.1.617] variant was found to be good in both groups — people who have received the vaccine and those who have recovered from COVID-19. “Compared with people who have recovered from COVID-19, the ability of the sera of vaccinated people to neutralise the B.1.617 variant was found to be two-fold less.”

An earlier study had found that Covaxin neutralises the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the U.K. The assurance of neutralisation of B.1.617 variant with sera of Covaxin vaccinees and recovered COVID-19 sera will provide the much-needed boost for the COVID-19 vaccination programme in India.

The B.1.617 variant has two mutations — E484Q and L425R — of concern. These mutations are found in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein. Though how the two mutations behave individually is well-known, the combined effect of these mutations when present together is not known. “Further studies are needed to understand the transmissibility and infectivity of the B.1.617 variant.

‘Hard to understand why corrective action was not taken sooner’ #GS3 #SnT

India is undergoing a very severe second wave of COVID-19, something that could have been anticipated. What in your view went wrong in terms of anticipation and capacity building?

India prepared reasonably well for the pandemic in its early stages. The lockdown gave the medical system time to expand infrastructure, train staff, and build capacity to absorb patients. The rationale for lockdowns across the world in March-April 2020 was to “flatten the curve”.

It meant taking actions that would bring down the number of cases that needed hospitalisation and treatment enough that they would not breach the limits of the medical capacity of the country. This preparation allowed the country to manage the first wave in 2020, while keeping overall mortality rates relatively low (apart from brief periods of stress in the larger cities).

The number of new cases began to decline nationwide after September (despite localised spikes in some places), and by January 2021, there was a dramatic reduction in hospital utilisation rates. Vaccinations began in January, and this led to the expectation that India would be able to vaccinate its frontline health workers, and the most vulnerable segments of the population by the summer, so even if a second wave hit, it would not be severe, and the country would be better equipped to handle it.

Three factors belied this expectation: first, the dedicated volunteer networks, special COVID-19 facilities, and emergency measures that the administration and health system had taken, were scaled back and in some cases wound down, just as cases were beginning to rise.

Second, the vaccination campaign was slower to roll out, largely because of a lower sense of urgency. And third, we didn’t invest enough resources to study the emergence of new variants quickly enough.

All these factors were predicated on the assumption that the worst was behind us. So, when the wave began, from a preparedness point of view, we were, in some ways more unprepared than we were towards the end of last year.

Was there enough research being done on why we saw a major dip in the months of January and early February? Did that make the government and people complacent?

There was research, but there was no overarching compelling explanation for why recorded numbers dipped so rapidly and so much at the start of the year. The last sero-survey carried out by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) showed exposure rates of 1 in 5 amongst the respondents sampled, but with wide variations across urban and rural, and within urban between different categories of populations.

So, the prevailing popular theory of “herd immunity” was not really backed by evidence. The falling numbers coincided with a continued opening of the economy; new cases didn’t rise despite increased mobility, reinforcing the sense of confidence. The lack of a compelling explanation for the fall, in my view, led to the willingness of many people to believe that the worst was behind us.

When the Lancet Commission on COVID-19 India Task Force was convened in January, several Task Force members expressed their grave concerns that the prevailing optimism was misplaced, and that a second wave was imminent. Unfortunately, those fears have been completely validated.

What is harder to understand is why corrective action was not taken at the beginning of this wave when numbers started to rise in Maharashtra and Punjab. There were enough indications that the situation was going to get difficult.

And even if no one predicted the intensity of the wave, the fact that it was happening should have immediately triggered actions to limit large gatherings and reinforce safe behaviour. None of that happened till it was too late and we are seeing the consequences play out.

We are being told that new mutants are more infectious than the last time around. How much of the current situation, just in terms of spread, can be laid at the door of the mutations?

It is too early to answer this question precisely. The Lancet Commission Task Force has recommended that the Indian SARS-COV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG), led by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), set up in December 2020, be supported so it can achieve its goal of testing 5% of all cases every month on a continuous basis.

We also recommend that in the short term, laboratories are equipped with TaqPath test kits to identify the B.1.1.7 and other variants. Right now, we are a long way from systematically gathering and analysing this information.

What public health interventions, do you think, need to be made urgently for the mitigation of some of the appalling shortages in medical resources we see?

In the short-term, the immediate priority is to save lives. Enough has been said on the shortages that hospitals face immediately, in terms of beds, logistics around the supplies of oxygen, and availability of drugs.

The more fundamental issue is of a structure that supports patients at home and helps triage patients effectively, so that only the most critical go to hospital, and those that need to, get the help they need. Mumbai has done that well, and we are seeing the results in terms of hospitalisation rates, and overall management of the pandemic. Reducing movement and activity (through voluntary or imposed closures) is necessary step right now — to break the chain of transmission and stabilise the numbers. In April, we saw the rise of new cases growing at the rate of nearly 7%. This has to be brought down urgently.

Scaling up of vaccinations is also key as a medium-term strategy to boost protection and reduce the severity of illness and eventually (hopefully) transmission rates. The supply constraints that the vaccine manufacturers are facing right now could not have come at a worse time, given the intensity of the wave. We need to ramp up production and distribution urgently.

Finally, our health care staff: doctors, nurses, attendants, administrators and ambulance drivers are under enormous stress and strain. Supplementing them with senior residents and medical students, retraining, counselling and supporting them: these are all steps that need to be planned for immediately.

Is the second wave it? Or are more waves and troughs anticipated?

I don’t believe anyone expects this wave to be the last. But the intensity of the next wave will depend on how well we learn the lessons from this one.

If we can ramp vaccinations by an order of magnitude over the next few months, prepare our primary care system to effectively supervise home care and triage patients, ensure a steady supply of the inputs that hospitals need to effectively treat patients, and if we can collectively practise COVID-safe behaviours moving forward, the subsequent waves we face can be managed.

WHO pledges aid for India #GS2 #IR

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday pledged oxygen concentrators, laboratory supplies and mobile hospitals for India.

We need to act with speed, expand hospital capacities and equip them with medical supplies. The WHO will be procuring laboratory supplies, including 1.2 million reagents, to help India meet the huge demand and need for testing in India. It will also be providing mobile field hospitals. It is also chartering flights to bring 4,000 oxygen concentrators to help meet the increased demand.

U.S. will send India vaccines, reiterates Biden #GS2 #IR

U.S. President Joe Biden elaborated on hisphone conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Mondayto discuss the COVID-19 outbreak in India. He said the U.S. was sending “a whole series of help” to India, including Remdesivir and vaccine inputs.

“With regard to India, I spoke at length with Modi, the Prime Minister. We are sending immediately a whole series of help that he needs, including providing for those — Remdesivir and other drugs that are able to deal with this and prevent, in some cases, but recover — help recovery.

He was walking away from the lectern at the end of his remarks on COVID-19 on the North Lawn of the White House, but returned briefly specifically to answer questions on India.

“Secondly, we are sending the actual mechanical parts that are needed for the machinery they have to build a vaccine. And that’s being done as well,” Mr. Biden said, adding he told Mr. Modi that the U.S. would be able to send actual vials (of vaccine) to India.”

“The problem is, right now, we have to make sure we have other vaccines, like Novavax and others, coming on, probably. And I think we’ll be in a position to be able to share — to share vaccines, as well as know-how, with other countries who are in real need. That’s the hope and expectation,” he said.

The White House announced on Monday that it was making available some 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine for use by other countries over the course of May and June.

‘India helped us’

Co-Chairs of the Senate India Caucus, Mark Warner (Democrat, Virginia) and John Cornyn (Republican, Texas) wrote to President Biden, urging him to “accelerate U.S. efforts” to support countries like India that had been hard hit by COVID-19.

“As co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus, we are watching with growing alarm the unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths, which has overwhelmed hospitals and the overall health system in India.

“Finally, we congratulate you for taking specific actions to remove obstacles that would get in the way of sending excess vaccines to India,” they said, asking that similar barriers be removed for sharing vaccines with other countries as well.

India, Australia, Japan push for supply chain resilience #GS2 #IR

The Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) formally launched by the Trade Ministers of India, Japan and Australia brought a wary response from China, which has described the effort as ‘unrealistic’.

Piyush Goyal, Minister for Commerce and Industry, launched the SCRI along with Dan Tehan, Australia’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, and Hiroshi Kajiyama, Japan’s Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry. The three sides agreed the pandemic “revealed supply chain vulnerabilities globally and in the region” and “noted the importance of risk management and continuity plans in order to avoid supply chain disruptions”.

Some of the joint measures they are considering include supporting the enhanced utilisation of digital technology and trade and investment diversification, which is seen as being aimed at reducing their reliance on China.

The SCRI aims to create a virtuous cycle of enhancing supply chain resilience with a view to eventually attaining strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth in the region,” a statement said.

China wary

China’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday described the move as ‘unrealistic’. “The formation and development of global industrial and supply chains are determined by market forces and companies choices

“Artificial industrial ‘transfer’ is an unrealistic approach that goes against the economic laws and can neither solve domestic problems nor do anything good to the stability of the global industrial and supply chains, or to the stable recovery of the world economy.”

Mr. Zhao said China hoped that amid the epidemic, “parties concerned will cherish the hard-won outcomes of international cooperation in the fight against the epidemic” and “act in ways conducive to enhancing mutual trust and cooperation, so as to jointly ensure the global industrial and supply chains stable and unimpeded”.

China pushes defence ties with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka #GS2 #IR

China’s Minister of Defence Wei Fenghe, visiting Bangladesh and Sri Lanka this week, has called on countries in the neighbourhood to resist “powers from outside the region setting up military alliances in South Asia”.

General Wei’s comments in Dhaka on Tuesday came amid a push back from Chinese officials on the India-U.S.-Australia-Japan Quad grouping, which some in Beijing have described as a quasi-military alliance.

Colombo visit

The Chinese Defence Minister and People’s Liberation Army General on Wednesday held talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, as he began a two-day visit following his trip to Bangladesh. Both sides had discussions that were “extremely fruitful. “He [Chinese Defence Minister] also said the relations between the two nations were further strengthened by this visit

The General’s visit comes six months after top Chinese foreign policy official Yang Jiechi was in Colombo in October 2020 for high-level discussions. China on Tuesday also convened a six-country South Asia dialogue on COVID-19 and economic cooperation with the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The senior Chinese official’s visit to Sri Lanka coincides with mounting resistance in Sri Lanka to a Bill envisioning laws to govern the China-backed $1.4 billion Colombo Port City. The Supreme Court recently heard a case on the matter, following some 20 petitions by opposition parties and civil society organisations that challenged the Bill arguing that it “threatened” Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

Beijing has extended over $2 billion — in loans and a currency swap facility — to Colombo after the pandemic struck, to help the government cope with its economic strain. Prior to that Colombo owed Beijing over $ 5 billion in loan repayment.

General Wei held talks with Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid in Dhaka. A statement from China’s official Xinhua news agency quoted him as calling for the two militaries to “increase high-level visits, deepen cooperation in equipment technology, broaden exchanges in specialized fields and forge closer military relations.”

“To jointly maintain regional peace and stability,” he said, “the two sides should make joint efforts against powers outside the region setting up military alliance in South Asia and practicing hegemonism.”

‘Second wave hurting India’s recovery’ #GS3 #Economy

India’s ‘escalating’ second wave of COVID-19 infections poses serious downside risks to the economy and heightens the possibility of business disruptions in addition to ‘the substantial loss of life and significant humanitarian concerns’, S&P Global Ratings said on Wednesday.

While S&P said it may revisit its 11% growth projection for this year, rating agency ICRA said that the rise in infections was dampening the economic recovery with several indicators losing momentum in April.

‘Permanent output loss’

“A drawn-out COVID-19 outbreak will impede India’s economic recovery,” S&P said in a statement. “This may prompt us to revise our base-case assumption of 11% growth over fiscal 2021/2022, particularly if the government is forced to reimpose broad containment measures. The country already faces a permanent loss of output versus its pre-pandemic path, suggesting a long-term production deficit equivalent to about 10% of GDP (gross domestic product),” the global rating agency warned.

Stressing that the pace and scale of the post-crisis recovery would have important implications for India’s sovereign credit rating, S&P said that strong economic growth would be critical to sustain the government’s aggressive fiscal stance and stabilise its high debt stock relative to GDP.

“The continuing resurgence in COVID-19 cases and proliferation of localised restrictions could dampen the pace of recovery for the Indian corporate sector,” ICRA said in a report titled ‘Indian economy – Vaccinated against COVID-19?’. With sentiment souring, there may be some loss of demand in the first half, particularly in contact-intensive sectors, said Aditi Nayar, chief economist at ICRA.

The Indian rating agency also underlined that the actual pace of the vaccine roll-out to the wider adult population would impact sentiment and growth. “An earlier availability of vaccine imports, enabling a faster coverage of the vaccination drive, may offer a back-ended upside to the GDP growth in FY2022, after the disruption that may emerge in the near term,” it said.

‘Vaccines vs mutants’

Economist D.K. Srivastava cautioned that failure to rein in the surge in cases soon would worsen the adverse impact on the economy.

“The longer the second wave lasts, the more severe would be the adverse impact on the economy ,” said Mr Srivastava, chief policy advisor at EY India. “There would be a race between the pace of COVID vaccination vis-à-vis the speed at which COVID-19 including its new mutants spread,” he added.

‘Limited sops make scrappage policy for vehicles unattractive’ #GS3 #Economy

Limited incentives and poor cost economics for trucks in the Vehicle Scrappage Policy, coupled with lack of addressable volumes for other segments is unlikely to drive freight transporters to replace their old vehicles with new ones, a report said on Wednesday.

Though the scrappage volume of buses, PVs and two-wheelers is expected to be limited as well, the policy’s impact on new commercial vehicle (CV) sales could be sizeable, based on addressable volume, ratings agency Crisil Research said in its report.

The policy proposes to de-register vehicles that fail fitness tests or are unable to renew registrations after 15-20 years of use.

According to Crisil, many buses owned by state transport undertakings will have a life of more than 15 years. In comparison, buses operated for intercity, staff, school and tourist segments typically do not have a life beyond 15 years, and would thus be outside the ambit of the scrappage policy.

As for passenger vehicles, renewal of registration fees is proposed to be increased from Rs. 600 to Rs. 5,000 (valid for five years) for PVs older than 15 years, which is a more than eightfold increase.

The potential benefit from scrapping a 15-year-old, entry-level small car will be Rs. 70,000, whereas its resale value is around Rs. 95,000. That makes scrapping unattractive,

In Assam earthquake, reminder of seismic hazard along HFT Faultline #GS3 #DM

Several houses and buildings were damaged after an earthquake of magnitude 6.4 on the Richter scale hit Assam around 8 am on Wednesday. Six aftershocks, of magnitude ranging from 3.2 to 4.7, occurred in the two-and-a-half hours following the main tremor.

Senior Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma posted on Twitter that the epicentre was in Dhekiajuli town in the state’s Sonitpur district. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and assured all help from the Centre.

On a fault line…

The primary earthquake had its epicentre at latitude 26.690 N and longitude 92.360 E, about 80 km northeast of Guwahati, and a focal depth of 17 km, the National Centre for Seismology (NCS) said.

“The preliminary analysis shows that the events are located near to Kopili Fault closer to Himalayan Frontal Thrust (HFT). The area is seismically very active falling in the highest Seismic Hazard zone V associated with collisional tectonics where Indian plate sub-ducts beneath the Eurasian Plate,” the NCS report said.

HFT, also known as the Main Frontal Thrust (MFT), is a geological fault along the boundary of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Kopili Fault is a 300-km northwest-southeast trending fault from the Bhutan Himalaya to the Burmese arc.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), a scientific agency of the US federal government, defines a fault as “a fracture along which the blocks of crust on either side have moved relative to one another parallel to the fracture”.

According to the USGS, “When an earthquake occurs on one of these faults, the rock on one side of the fault slips with respect to the other. The fault surface can be vertical, horizontal, or at some angle to the surface of the earth.”

…Seismically unstable

Prof Chandan Mahanta of the Department of Civil Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, said: “The Northeast is located in the highest seismological zone, so we must have constant earthquake preparedness at all levels. Continuous tectonic stress keeps building up particularly along the faultlines. Today’s earthquake was an instance of accumulated stress release — probably, stress was constrained for a fairly long time at this epicentre, and hence the release was of relatively higher intensity.”

Prof Mahanta said the timing of the earthquake and its duration ensured the damage was restricted. “The earthquake occurred early in the day when people were mostly home. Had it happened during working hours, say when there were workers at under-construction high-rise buildings, the earthquake might have taken lives,” he said.

“The duration is also important,” Prof Mahanta said. “Had the main tremor continued for more than 30 seconds with the same intensity, the resultant acceleration and resonance could have cause greater damage to structures.”

History of quakes

The NCS report said “historical and instrumentally recorded earthquake data” show the region has seen several “moderate to large earthquakes”. The worst of these was the great Assam-Tibet Earthquake that occurred on Independence Day in 1950.

“The Assam quake…stands out amongst the biggest temblors which have shaken our planet,” says a piece on the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab blog. The tremors were “so strong that it caused huge landslides which in turn blocked many rivers in the mountainous region”, it says.

The earthquake “had a moment magnitude of 8.6 and hence was in the same league as the Great Chile Earthquake, with its magnitude of 9.5, ten years later or the Tohoku-oki quake off the coast of Honshu in 2011, for which the magnitude was determined to be 9.0”.

The piece concluded, “No matter what the mechanism, there is one item all seismologists agree upon: The collision zone between India and Eurasia along the tremendous Himalayan mountain range has one of the highest seismic hazards in the world.”

Another great earthquake, of magnitude 8.1, had shaken Assam earlier on June 12, 1897.

The abstract of a scientific paper on the quake in the journal Nature recorded, “The great Assam earthquake of 12 June 1897 reduced to rubble all masonry buildings within a region of northeastern India roughly the size of England, and was felt over an area exceeding that of the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake.”

A 2015 paper by O Baro and A Kumar of IIT-Guwahati noted about the 1897 earthquake: “The shaking due to this earthquake was felt at several places across the Indian subcontinent. Large fissures of 18 to 30 m ran parallel to the banks of the Brahmaputra River and its various tributaries.”

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