Current Affairs 23rd May

Over 2 lakh fresh cases in last 24 hours; TPR declines to 14.2% #GS3 #SnT

India recorded 2,27,709 new COVID-19 cases and 3,392 deaths till 9.20 p.m. The country has so far reported a total of 2,65,15,789 cases and 2,98,849 deaths.

Tamil Nadu reported 35,873 new infections, followed by Karnataka (31,183) and Kerala (28,514). Maharashtra recorded 682 casualties over the past 24 hours, followed by Karnataka (451) and Tamil Nadu (448). Maharashtra’s fatalities include backlog deaths which were missed in the previous reports.

As many as 20,66,285 samples were tested in the country on Friday (the results of which were made available on Saturday), the highest number of tests conducted in a single day in the country since the beginning of the pandemic.

This is the fourth instance when daily tests in India have crossed the 20 lakh-mark.

India’s average daily test positivity rate (TPR or positive cases identified for every 100 tests) continues to decline. It was 22.7% on May 9 and reduced to 14.2% as on May 21. However, not all the States are following this declining trend.

Gujarat emerges as a hotspot for mucormycosis in India #GS3 #SnT

With over 2,000 cases, Gujarat has emerged as the hotspot for mucormycosis, or black fungus, which has already claimed more than 250 lives in the State. According to the Centre, Gujarat has 2,281 mucormycosis patients, which is the highest for any State in the country.

After the cases rose significantly, the Gujarat government on Thursday declared the fungal infection, which has a high fatality rate, an epidemic under the provision of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1857.

Death toll

According to government sources, the State has witnessed over 250 deaths so far directly attributed to the fungal infection. The highest number of cases have been reported from Ahmedabad, Surat and Rajkot.

The State government has set up special wards in the civil hospitals in Ahmedabad, Surat and Rajkot to deal with the cases. At the Ahmedabad Civil hospital, nearly all beds have been filled up as cases requiring urgent medical attention are rising.

In Rajkot, where more than 500 cases of the fungal infection have been reported, the District Collector set up a special control room to distribute the life-saving drug Amphotericin-B in its liposomal form, which is in short supply. There is a scramble for the drug in Ahmedabad too, as the authorities have failed to procure it amidst the rise in cases.

Yaas may become a very severe cyclonic storm: IMD #GS1 #Geography #GS3 #DM

Cyclone Yaas is likely to intensify into a “very severe cyclonic storm” and cross the Odisha and West Bengal coasts on May 26. A low pressure area formed over the east-central Bay of Bengal and the adjoining north Andaman Sea.

“The low pressure area is very likely to concentrate into a depression over the east central Bay of Bengal by tomorrow, May 23 morning. It is very likely to move north-northwestwards, intensify into a cyclonic storm by 24th May and further into a very severe cyclonic storm during the subsequent 24 hours.

The cyclonic system would continue to move north-northwestwards, intensify further and reach the north Bay of Bengal near West Bengal and the adjoining north Odisha and Bangladesh coasts by the morning of May 26.

Govt. can’t seek removal of Twitter tag: experts #GS3 #SnT

The government does not have the power under the Information Technology Act to direct Twitter to remove the ‘manipulated media’ tag from certain tweets. They say the Centre’s move raises concerns of censorship and view the action as “needless interference” in implementation of the terms of service of a private company conducting business in India.

The government had asked Twitter to remove the ‘manipulated media’ tag from certain tweets by Indian political leaders, including the BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra, “with reference to a toolkit created to undermine, derail and demean the efforts of the Government against the COVID-19 pandemic”. However, the microblogging platform has not removed the label.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology did not comment on whether it would take further steps, while Twitter refused to comment on the issue. As per Twitter’s ‘synthetic and manipulated media policy’, it may label tweets that include media that have been deceptively altered or fabricated.

“In order to determine if media have been significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated, we may use our own technology or receive reports through partnerships with third parties. In situations where we are unable to reliably determine if media have been altered or fabricated, we may not take action to label or remove them.

Kazim Rizvi, founder of policy think-tank The Dialogue said, “All social media platforms have their terms of service which users sign up for at the time of joining a platform and agree to abide by these terms. If anyone violates these terms of service, they are subject to a range of enforcements as outlined by the respective platforms.”

Standard practice

Mr. Rizvi said this is a standard global practice for platforms across the world and not just for Twitter in India.

He also pointed out that the IT Act does not empower the Ministry of Electronics and IT to order a platform to undo its enforcement decision (labelling a post) and any attempt to interfere raises concerns of censorship and lack of transparency.

It is important to note that the IT Act empowers the government to order blocking and removal of content. It however does not allow the government with any power to interfere with enforcement decisions (labelling a post) of a platform in application of their own terms of service.”

According to Alt News, a fact checking website, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) research department letterhead has been tampered with in the toolkit document, raising questions about its authenticity.

“An examination of the content of the document, meant to strategise a future course of action, reveals that it refers to events that have already taken place in the past. The BJP till now has only shared screenshots of the alleged toolkit and has failed to produce the original — either the PDF version or the Microsoft Word version,” it said, adding that without the original document, the BJP’s claims come across as inauthentic, especially because the ‘toolkit’ is made on a poor copy of the original letterhead used by the AICC’s research wing.

Private entity

Prasanth Sugathan, legal director of Software Freedom Law Centre, India, said Twitter is a private entity which, in line with the laws and regulations in India, is entitled to moderate content which is being exchanged upon its platform.

There is no law or regulation in India that explicitly prohibits or mandates the marking, flagging or labeling of content by intermediaries, he noted.

“The Central government under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 has the authority to issue directions for blocking access to information but that authority cannot be used in respect of ordering an intermediary to remove the label on content… If a user is not abiding by the terms of service, the intermediary even has the right to terminate the user account.

On the government’s reasoning that such tagging by Twitter “appears prejudged, prejudiced and a deliberate attempt to colour the investigation by local law enforcement agency”, he added that what Twitter does on its platform will have no bearing on an investigation by a law enforcement agency on the issue of whether the document is forged. Thus, the direction, if any, given by the government to remove the labelling is a needless interference in the way Twitter conducts its business in India.

Mr. Rizvi added that attempts from the government to interfere in enforcement of terms of service by private companies raises the spectre of censorship.

Centre giving priority to those above 45: Paul #GS3 #SnT

The Central government’s priority remains vaccinating those 45 years and over, said member (health) of the NITI Aayog V.K. Paul. He was responding to a question about Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s statement that Delhi will have to halt vaccination for the 18+ category due to depleted vaccine stocks.

Dr. Paul said States and private hospitals have to decide on what they have to do with their share of the vaccines procured. He said that as part of the nationwide vaccination drive, the Central government is supporting the States and UTs by providing COVID vaccines free of cost.

“In addition, the Central government is also facilitating direct procurement of vaccines by the States/UTs. We are very clear that the Central Government’s priority is to cover the vulnerable 45-plus category first

Implementation of the Liberalised and Accelerated Phase-3 Strategy of Covid-19 Vaccination started from May 1 this year and under this strategy, every month 50% of the total Central Drugs Laboratory (CDL) cleared vaccine doses of any manufacturer is procured by Centre which would then make this available free of cost to the State governments.

Dr. Paul said cross vaccination (by COVID vaccine manufactured by two different companies) is “scientifically and theoretically possible. But recommending this now is not possible as this is an evolving situation. No robust scientific evidence currently supports it and only time will tell,” he said.

He also clarified that there is no restriction on lactating mothers feeding their children after vaccination.

The NITI Aayog member said several States in India are showing signs of COVID cases stabilizing, “though there 382 districts across the country which continue to have COVID positivity rate over 10%. We have to work towards breaking the transmission and this is possible only adhere to COVID appropriate behaviour.”

Abuse of steroids

He also cautioned against the abuse of steroids and said that while these are life saving drugs, their misuse can cause many medical issues including the rise in cases of black fungus.

Dr. Paul added that while children are currently showing mild symptoms of the disease, “they could be carriers and can help in transmission. We have to help them follow the COVID appropriate behaviour. And though world-wide only a small percentage of children need hospitalisation due to the virus, we have to equip ourselves.

The Health Ministry in its presentation noted that six States — Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, U.P., Punjab and Delhi — continue to report high number of COVID deaths. Replying to a question on vaccine passports, Joint Secretary in the Health Ministry Lav Aggarwal said while the matter is under discussion, there is so far no consensus at level of WHO and other such bodies.

“Discussion still being done if vaccinated people will be allowed. As of now, as per WHO guidelines and guidelines by countries, people with negative COVID test report being allowed in.

Call for action to protect Odisha tribes #GS1 #Society

Activists and writers have urged the Odisha government to take immediate steps to the prevent loss of lives among Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) like the Dongria Kondh and Bonda due to COVID-19.

In a petition addressed to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, over 70 intellectuals expressed their concerns over rising COVID-19 positive cases among PVTGs.

They said home quarantine as a measure to contain the spread of COVID-19, as suggested by the State government, would not work as privacy and isolation hardly exist within communities in tribal culture.

Requesting the government to protect the lives of PVTGs, they proposed the government set up quarantine centres exclusively for tribals within 2 km of their settlements.

“Door to door surveys must be done by a team of trained local volunteers from villages for regular monitoring of symptoms, and reporting to quarantine centres for any suspected cases,” said Prafulla Samantara, recipient of Goldman Environmental Prize, who is known for his work with Dongria Kondhs.

“All the Dongria and Bonda families must be provided with a special livelihood relief package as compensation for their agriculture and minor forest produce (MFP), which they cannot sell in the local markets that are non-functional due to the prolonged shutdown or lockdown.

Activists demanded the distribution of health kits comprising of three layered masks, necessary medicines and vitamins. They laid emphasis on upgradation of all primary health centres located in tribal areas on a war footing, and provisioning of manpower, medical equipment, medicines and other infrastructure.

More than 100 tribals among 10 out of 13 PVTGs have been affected by COVID-19. Legislators of the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, too, appealed to the Odisha CM to take steps to prevent further spread of COVID-19 in tribal pockets and villages.

Meanwhile, the State Schedule Tribe and Scheduled Caste Development Department directed its field level functionaries that, in the absence of proper quarantine facilities at home for PVTGs, affected persons should be facilitated to stay in suitable institutional quarantine for a period as prescribed by local authorities.

BRICS Astronomy Working Group moots networking of existing telescopes #GS3 #SnT

The BRICS Astronomy Working Group has recommended networking of telescopes in member countries and creating a regional data network.

Under the science, technology and innovation track of the BRICS 2021 calendar, India hosted the seventh meeting of BRICS Astronomy Working Group (BAWG) on online mode from May 19 and 20. Also present were astronomers from these countries.

In the BAWG meeting, the delegates agreed to develop a flagship project in this area. It witnessed participation from all five BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – with more than 50 participants, including researchers, academicians and government officials.

Future directions

The members of the working group also indicated future directions of research in this area such as building a network of intelligent telescopes and data, study of transient astronomical phenomena in the universe, big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning applications to process the voluminous data generated by the enhanced multi-wavelength telescope observatory.

The delegates deliberated on strategic and operational matters and recommended the networking of existing telescopes in BRICS countries and creating regional data network. They agreed to develop a flagship project in this area, according to a statement by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India. From the Indian side, the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, and the DST coordinated the meeting.

Enhance collaboration

The BAWG, which provides a platform for BRICS member countries to collaborate in the field of astronomy, recommended that each country should present the scientific results of the work being carried out in their country.

This will help seek funding support to realise the flagship project whenever funding opportunities were announced by BRICS funding agencies. The BAWG noted the importance of enhancing collaboration among astronomers from the BRICS countries.

The calendar

S K Varshney, head of international cooperation division of the DST, presented India’s perspectives, and lead scientific researchers from each BRICS country presented their country report which highlighted the research activities and infrastructure they have created.

India assumed the BRICS Presidency from January 2021. About 100 events, including ministerial level meetings, senior official meetings, and sectorial meetings or conferences, stand to be organised in 2021.

How whiteflies came, saw and conquered India’s crops #GS3 #SnT

It was early summer in 2016 when Selvaraj Krishnan and his team from ICAR- National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources set out to investigate a coconut field in Tamil Nadu. They were surveying the area for the whitefly, which was reducing the yield and wreaking havoc: the whitefly.The first invasive whitefly reported from Kerala in 1995 has now spread across the country, and a study has now detailed the damage caused by the pest.

Patterns of occurrence

Extensive studies were carried out from 2015 to 2020 across the country to understand the patterns of occurrence, the intensity of the infestation and their natural enemies. The team visited at least 5 to 10 locations in each district and 5 to 12 districts in each state including the islands of Lakshadweep. They extracted genomic DNA from individual adult whiteflies and explained in detail about eight invasive species found in India.

Most of these species are native to the Caribbean islands or Central America [or both]. It is difficult to pinpoint how they entered our country. Most probably a nymph or baby insect may have come along with imported plants. Also nowadays with globalisation, it is also possible that tourists may have brought the insect along with plants.

Out of curiosity, people randomly pluck and bring tiny plants which lead to the accidental introduction of invasive species. We need to create awareness among the travellers.

The team note that the first reported invasive spiralling whitefly Aleurodicus dispersus is now distributed throughout India except Jammu & Kashmir.

Similarly, the rugose spiralling whitefly which was reported in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu in 2016 has now spread throughout the country including the islands of Andaman Nicobar and Lakshadweep. Recent reports have indicated that approximately 1.35 lakh hectares of coconut and oil palm in India are affected by the rugose spiralling whitefly.

The team found that the host range of all of the invasive whiteflies was increasing due to their polyphagous nature (ability to feed on various kinds of food) and prolific breeding.

Aleurodicus dispersus and Aleurodicus rugioperculatus have been reported on over 320 and 40 plant species, respectively.

Invasive whiteflies

Other invasive whiteflies were also found to expand their host range on valuable plants species, especially coconut, banana, mango, sapota, guava, cashew, oil palm, and ornamental plants such as bottle palm, false bird of paradise, butterfly palm and important medicinal plants.

The team also carried out explorative surveys to find novel biological control of these invasive pests. “The whiteflies are difficult to control by using synthetic insecticides, and hence currently naturally occurring insect predators, parasitoids and entomopathogenic fungi (fungi that can kill insets) are being used. They are not just environmentally friendly but also economically feasible.

“Entomopathogenic fungi specific to whiteflies are isolated, purified, grown in the lab or mass-produced and applied into the whitefly infested field in combination with the release of lab-reared potential predators and parasitoids.

He adds that continuous monitoring of the occurrence of invasive species, their host plants and geographical expansion is needed, and if required, import of potential natural enemies for bio-control programmes can also be carried out.

Identifying mutants #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: In early March, members of the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia (INSACOG), an advisory group to the Central government, warned of a new and contagious form of the novel coronavirus. Last week, Shahid Jameel, eminent virologist and head of INSACOG, resigned from his post unexpectedly.

Though he did not cite the reasons for his exit, Dr. Jameel has been a critic of aspects of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly on data sharing, the emergence of new variants and their role in the second wave of infections.

What is INSACOG?

INSACOG is a consortium of 10 labs across the country tasked with scanning COVID-19 samples from swathes of patients and flagging the presence of variants that were known to have spiked transmission internationally.

It has also been tasked with checking whether certain combinations of mutations were becoming more widespread in India. Some of these labs had begun scanning for mutations in April 2020 itself, but it was not a pan-India effort.

The institutes involved were those with expertise in genome sequencing and included laboratories of the Department of Biotechnology, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MoHFW). The National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) under the MoHFW was tasked with coordinating collection of samples from the States as well correlating disease with the mutations.

The work began in January by sequencing samples of people who had a history of travel from the United Kingdom and a proportion of positive samples in the community.

What are the findings?

A May 6 note from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) said 20,000 samples had been sequenced and about 3,900 variants had been identified.

The “foreign” variants identified were primarily the B.1.1.7 (first identified in the United Kingdom) and the B.1.351 (first found in South Africa) and a small number of P2 variants (from Brazil). However, some labs flagged the growing presence of variants identified in India that were clubbed into a family of inter-related variants called B.1.617, also known as the ‘double mutant’ variant, primarily due to two mutations — E484Q and L452R — on the spike protein.

These have been individually identified elsewhere but not together. However, there are many more mutations that contribute in different measures, in ways not fully understood, to the virus being able to adapt to human hosts.

The B.1.617 family was marked as an international ‘variant of concern’ after it was linked to a recent spike in cases in the United Kingdom. In March, it was linked to a spurt in cases in Maharashtra. But there is no evidence yet to show that the variant is associated with increased disease severity. INSACOG labs also found that the B.1.1.7 variant, which is marked by increased infectivity, is distinctly more prevalent in several northern and central Indian States in comparison to southern States.

Beyond identifying patterns, why is genome sequencing useful?

The purpose of genome sequencing is to understand the role of certain mutations in increasing the virus’s infectivity. Some mutations have also been linked to immune escape, or the virus’s ability to evade antibodies, and this has consequences for vaccines.

Labs across the world, including many in India, have been studying if the vaccines developed so far are effective against such mutant strains of the virus. They do this by extracting the virus from COVID-19-positive samples and growing enough of it. Then, blood serum from people who are vaccinated, and thereby have antibodies, is drawn.

Using different probes, scientists determine how much of the antibodies thus extracted are required to kill a portion of the cultured virus. In general, the antibodies generated after vaccination — and this was true of Covaxin, Covishield, Pfizer and Moderna jabs — were able to neutralise variants. However, there were fewer antibodies produced against the South African, Brazil and the ‘double mutant’ variant.

Antibody levels are not the only markers of protection and there is a parallel network of cellular immunity that plays a critical role in how vaccines activate immunity. The current evidence for most COVID-19 vaccines is that they have almost 75% to 90% efficacy in protecting against disease but less so in preventing re-infection


What are the challenges being faced by INSACOG?

Given that the novel coronavirus is spreading, mutating and showing geographical variations, the aim of the group was to sequence at least 5% of the samples. For many reasons, this has so far been only around 1%, primarily due to a shortage of funds and insufficient reagents and tools necessary to scale up the process.

While some of these issues can be explained as teething troubles, the INSACOG, in spite of being peopled by expert scientists, is ultimately an advisory group to the Central government and part of its communication structure. Warnings about emerging variants were not made public with sufficient urgency and the sharing of datasets, even within constituent groups of the INSACOG, was less than ideal.

A jobs crisis in the second wave of COVID-19 #GS3 #Economy

The story so far: Hit by a relentless second wave of COVID-19 infections, India has seen localised lockdowns across several States. With activity restrained, job losses have climbed. This has dampened family incomes and consumer sentiment, setting the stage for lower-than-anticipated economic growth and belying the nation’s hopes of racing back to activity this year on a low base last year.

How have lockdowns affected jobs?

Among the first effects felt from a region’s lockdown is the loss of jobs. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the unemployment rate was 6.5% in March but rose to around 8% in April, the month when several States began to prepare for or had already imposed lockdowns.

With 73.5 lakh job losses in April, the number of employees (both salaried and non-salaried) fell from 39.81 crore in March to 39.08 crore in April for the third straight month. In April 2020, which was the first full month of the national lockdown last year, the unemployment rate had zoomed to 23.5%.

What do the data indicate about unemployment in rural and urban areas?

At 7.13%, the rural unemployment rate for April 2021 is lower than the urban figure of 9.8%. The month of May has seen the rates rise further at the national level. As of May 21, the 30-day moving average for overall unemployment was 10.3%, with the relevant figures for urban and rural areas at 12.2% and 9.4%, respectively.

The labour participation rate (LPR) for April 2021, at 40%, remained lower than the levels seen before last year’s lockdown. Labour participation helps measure the section of the population that is willing to take on jobs. Unemployment is a subset, which helps in giving a measure of those who are willing to take on jobs but are not employed.

Women tend to face a double challenge, with lower labour participation and a higher unemployment rate for females compared with males (for ages above 15). For the January-April 2021 period, urban female LPR was 7.2% compared with the urban male’s 64.8%, while urban female unemployment was 18.4% against the urban male unemployment rate of 6.6%, CMIE data showed.

How has the agriculture sector fared?

Agriculture was the saving grace during the first wave, but it is not so during the second one. April 2020 saw this sector being the only one to add jobs — the count of those employed in the agriculture sector had gone up by 6 million or 5% compared with the average count in FY20, according to CMIE data.

In April 2021, agriculture shed 6 million jobs compared to a month earlier. This figure ties in with reports of the hinterland being far more affected by the pandemic this year compared with last year.

Daily wage labourers and small traders saw a loss of employment in the order of 0.2 million in April. Some of these agricultural and daily wage labourers may have found work in the construction industry as the sector saw an increase of 2.7 million jobs during April.

But, as the CMIE posits, most of the 6.2 million people released from agriculture and daily wages jobs could well have ended up remaining unemployed during the month. This is a clear indication that the jobs scenario is weakening even before recovering from last year’s onslaught.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act data showed that April saw an uptick in the demand for jobs — 2.7 crore households signed up for work in April 2021, rising from 1.3 crore a year earlier — as reverse migration of labour picked up, resulting in availability of hands in the rural parts.

Did the salaried class escape unscathed?

No. The cumulative loss of salaried jobs since the pandemic began is pegged at 12.6 million, according to CMIE data, and the trend continues with April 2021 seeing this coveted category drop 3.4 million jobs from the level in March 2021.

Which States have been hit the hardest?

Haryana recorded the highest unemployment rate in April 2021 at 35%, as per CMIE data, followed by Rajasthan at 28%, Delhi at 27.3%, and Goa at 25.7%. Significantly, Gujarat, which, like the above States, also witnessed the ferocity of the pandemic’s second wave, saw unemployment at an appreciably lower level of 1.8%.

What are the economic consequences of rising unemployment?

Obviously, job losses have a telling effect on incomes. CMIE’s managing director and CEO, Mahesh Vyas, said that 90% of Indian families have seen their incomes shrink over the course of the past 13 months. Loss of income naturally dampens consumer sentiment and lowers economic demand.

The RBI’s monthly bulletin published earlier this month acknowledged that the biggest toll of the pandemic’s second wave was in terms of “a demand shock — loss of mobility, discretionary spending and employment, besides inventory accumulation”.

In an article titled ‘State of the Economy’ in the bulletin, RBI officials pointed out that aggregate demand conditions had been impacted, “albeit not on the scale of the first wave”. They highlighted the fact that e-way bills, an indicator of domestic trade, recorded double-digit contraction at 17.5% month-on-month in April 2021, with intrastate and inter-state e-way bills declining by 16.5% and 19%, respectively.

This is an ominous sign for the Goods and Services Tax (GST) collections in the coming months. Collections in April 2021 were the highest-ever at Rs. 1.41 lakh crore since the new tax regime was introduced.

The authors of the RBI bulletin article said the contraction in e-way bills could point “to a moderation in GST collections in coming months”. However, despite the decline over March 2021, total e-way bills remained above the pre-pandemic baseline of February 2020, “indicating that domestic trade has remained resilient on the back of digitisation of sales platforms”.

The RBI officials asserted that the second wave has so far had only a limited impact on industrial activity, citing the 8.1% growth in electricity generation in April over the pre-pandemic base of April 2019.

Would the situation improve if the current lockdowns were to end today?

Food insecurity is a key welfare issue in the months following an economic shock. A report from Azim Premji University’s Centre for Sustainable Employment, titled ‘State of Working India 2021, One year of COVID-19’, showed that on average, households lost about 22% of their cumulative income over eight months ended October 2020.

Also, poorer households lost a larger proportion of their already low incomes. This not only led to increased poverty levels, the researchers said, but also that the ways in which households coped with this shock was by borrowing, largely from informal sources, selling assets, and cutting back on food consumption.

This means that even after a lockdown is lifted and employment begins returning close to the earlier levels, consumer spending, the lifeblood of any economy, may remain muted.

The report cited a couple of surveys — the University’s own ‘COVID Livelihoods Phone Survey’ (CLIPS) and Hunger Watch — to highlight the problem of the low-income population cutting back on food intake. The Hunger Watch survey showed that 66% of surveyed households had less to eat even five months after last year’s lockdown.

The researchers argued that incomes lost during the months when economic activity is more severely affected “leave a long-term impact either as depleted savings or as incurred debt, which must be built back or paid back, by curtailing future consumption and investment”. The CLIPS survey showed that the poorest households took the largest loans relative to their earnings.

How are governments addressing these issues?

The Central government has announced that it will distribute 5 kg of rice and wheat for free to ration card holders across the country. Individual States have added to this. Bihar, for example, has announced that it would add an equal measure to the Centre’s distribution from the State’s resources for free distribution via the Public Distribution System. Tamil Nadu has announced a Rs. 4,000 handout per ration card and has begun distributing the first tranche of half that amount.

Kerala has promised that no family would go hungry in the State. Last September, the Kerala government announced free food kits for 88 lakh families for four months; this May, it decided to continue with the distribution in view of the second wave.

Karnataka has announced a Rs. 1,250-crore relief package, through which farmers, auto, taxi and maxi cab drivers, construction workers and other informal sector workers will receive varying amounts in the form of a one-time dole.

Vaccinating children and pregnant, lactating women #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: Over four months after the COVID-19 vaccination drive was launched, India has administered around 19 crore doses of Covishield and Covaxin so far. But it is yet to open up vaccination for pregnant women and children. On May 19, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare accepted fresh recommendations from the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC) for vaccinating lactating mothers.

The country is yet to study the safety and efficacy of the two existing vaccines in the paediatric population, with the Drugs Controller General of India recently giving the nod to Bharat Biotech to conduct clinical trials of Covaxin in the 2-18 years age group.

Why should pregnant and lactating women be vaccinated against COVID-19?

“Vaccinating pregnant women against COVID-19 is extremely important. The second wave is worse than the first wave. The impact is more in terms of the overall numbers adding that based on observations by obstetricians in Chennai, roughly one in three pregnant women tested positive for COVID-19. “This is a high number, and it is important to do something to protect them as the disease burden in pregnancy is high.

The Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI), in a statement last month, said protection should be extended to pregnant and lactating women. “The very real benefits of vaccinating pregnant and lactating women seem to far outweigh any theoretical and remote risks of vaccination.

Pregnant women are a vulnerable population, “There is some kind of immunological compromise in pregnant women. The disease could be severe, as we have noticed in the second wave.”

For lactating women, FOGSI stated that there were no known adverse effects on neonates who are breastfeeding. “In fact, there is a passage of protective antibodies to the child, which may be a beneficial effect.”

Do we have data to assess the risks or benefits?

According to the World Health Organization, while pregnancy brings a higher risk of severe COVID-19, at present, very little data is available to assess vaccine safety in pregnancy. There is no evidence that suggests vaccination would cause harm during pregnancy.

“To date, none of the clinical trials have included pregnant and lactating women for obvious reasons as no ethics board will give the nod. Preliminary information from the United States, which has been vaccinating since last year, is that the immune response has been good in pregnant women, irrespective of the type of vaccines. Antibodies were found in the umbilical cord and breastmilk that could give protection for the newborn,” said Dr. Gajaraj.

Can children be vaccinated?

Across the globe, several studies have begun to examine the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in children. The United States has started vaccination for children above 12 years of age.

Dr. Rema Chandramohan, professor of paediatrics, Institute of Child Health and Hospital for Children, Chennai, said, “The paediatric population is less affected during this pandemic. Since adults are either infected or vaccinated, children will become vulnerable in the next wave.

Initially, it was thought that children will not be affected due to the absence of ACE2 receptor in the lungs but we do see several children with the infection, who are mostly asymptomatic, and some with typical symptoms of COVID-19. There are two ways that COVID-19 presents in children — as viral fever and as a multisystem inflammatory syndrome. Vaccinating children against COVID-19, therefore, becomes necessary.”

How is it different from vaccinating adults?

“When a vaccine against COVID-19 for children is being developed, the vaccine developer should keep in mind the effect of the vaccine on children, and how safe the vaccines are in children. The benefits should outweigh the risks to a great extent. There should be sufficient safety trials before rolling out the vaccines for children,” said Dr. Chandramohan.

The results of trials abroad among 12-year- to 17-year-olds have demonstrated the safety of vaccines, said Dr. Chandramohan, adding: “We cannot extrapolate studies done in adolescents and adults as every aspect is different in children — the dose, weight of the child, muscle mass matters. We need to look at the minimal dose required which will give maximum benefit/response in addition to having minimal side effects and maximum safety profile in children to call it an effective vaccine.”

What lies ahead?

Vaccination of pregnant women is something that needs immediate attention. There are a lot of debates on the safety of vaccines in pregnancy. “Being a killed vaccine, there is no real expectation of adverse effects with Covaxin. There have been some reports of coagulation and blood clotting problems with Covishield, especially in the younger population less than 30 years of age. The rare occurrence of these adverse effects should not be a deterrent to offer the much-needed protection … Concerns regarding the severity of COVID-19 infection in pregnancy far outweigh the remote possibility of side-effects,” said Dr. Gajaraj.

Noting that there was only a theoretical risk of adverse events, she said informed consent could be obtained from women before vaccination. “Usually, vaccines are avoided in the first 12 to 13 weeks of pregnancy due to organogenesis.

Vaccines, including the flu shot, are generally given after 26 weeks to protect the neonates, too. But this is a pandemic, and we could give the vaccination at any time during the pregnancy to protect the mother.”

“Once we have a vaccine for children, we should look at how it can be included in the vaccination schedule without interfering with the regular schedule. Coronavirus is highly mutated, and so, like influenza, children may need regular booster doses.