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Those were the days when the world was battling two global disasters simultaneously: the Spanish flu and the First World War. Without the will of the Indians, our youth were pushed to the frontlines in Europe and Africa. The British empire was winning only because of the bravery of those Indians. Within the country, we were dying from the Spanish flu that came from outside and our youth abroad were risking their lives for foreign rulers. In such a time, TheNew York Times wrote: “The world must pay India in whatever India wants, for without Indian products, there would be greater difficulty in winning the war."

Despite this, did India get what millions wanted: freedom? On the contrary, the British increased their cycle of repression. Why? Probably because even in moments of pride, we Indians get stuck in apprehension. Since then, a whole century has passed, but this suicidal habit has only become stronger. Last week, India successfully vaccinated its people with 1 billion doses of the covid jab. We got this safety armour, but is there any sense of achievement? Why did we forget how difficult this journey was?

Until eight months ago, the government machinery itself was sceptical about how we are to take the vaccination campaign to a decisive stage. The first and foremost question was that for such a huge country with a population of 1.3 billion, from where will the enormous supply of vaccines come? Wealthy nations, using their monopoly, were the first to reserve vaccines for their own use. These were the nations that used to chant the slogan of ‘global village’. The slogan used to capitalize on cheap labour and raw materials in developing countries was exposed. It was as if humanity had got stuck and no one knew the way forward.

In such a situation, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen reviewing vaccine manufacturing facilities at pharma companies in Hyderabad and Pune, a fresh phase of political mudslinging began. The accusers ignored the fact that the first step has to be taken for long and arduous journeys.

After vaccine manufacturing, it seemed impossible to create a cold chain for vaccines for every town and village. We are a land of vast geographical disparities, from villages nestled between snow-capped peaks round the year to villages in a scorching desert. Then, there are small islands, where to reach some settlements one has to take an arduous journey by boat. At the same time, deadly heat and rainy season also came, but the health workers did it by overcoming all the difficulties.

I visited some primary health centres to see the ground situation. When I was at a village in Uttar Pradesh, there was a dust storm. There was no power. I saw two health workers storing vaccines in an ice bucket. “Are the vaccines safe?" I asked. “100%," they replied. Meanwhile, the second covid wave came. Health workers did not give up even then. They persevered despite being victims of covid. In times of crisis, a unique kind of zeal develops among Indians. From where and how, I don’t know.

Though rumour mongers tried to play spoilsport, they failed. In a country where systems have been struggling for years to administer two drops of polio vaccine to every child, there has been no major resistance to the covid vaccine. Is our collective mentality progressing or is it just momentary wisdom? In contrast, Russia is struggling. Only 34% of the people have been vaccinated. The average immunization rate in most of the ‘Bible Belt’ states in the US is worse. Distrust of leadership in Russia and religious superstitions in America are proving to be obstacles.

It is important to note that by the time the pandemic broke out, there were very few labs in India to diagnose the infection. Needless to say, diagnosis is the first stage in combating any pandemic. Health is a state subject. In such a situation, even if there was a magic wand, New Delhi could not do anything in a hurry. India is a country of political hostilities. There were many states where the governments were in the hand of opposition parties. It was difficult to reconcile with them. The Union government tried desperately to break down this wall. The PM and the home minister kept the line of communication open with the CMs at all times. That is why this did not become a battle of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

This is a moment of pride and achievement, but we should not forget that the battle is not yet over despite the 1 billion doses. Covid is not gone yet and the threat of a third wave remains. The economic downturn caused by the aftermath of the pandemic has broken people’s backs. The real test of the collectiveness we have demonstrated in the fight against covid is yet to come.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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