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Covid is a global challenge; only way to address this is to act together: EU envoy

Megha Sharma

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Given the global challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic and the international partnerships required to face them, Ugo Astuto, the EU Ambassador to India, spoke in an interview about the EU’s civil protection mechanism providing help to India, what lessons can be learn from the EU regarding Covid management, and whether the TRIPS waiver can provide a relevant opportunity during the crisis. Excerpts:

Q: First of all, congratulations and gratitude for the much-needed aid that had and has been pouring from the 27-nation European Union.

A: Thank you very much. We are trying to reciprocate and to help as much as we can, just like India helped us in the past few months when it exported the medic events and vaccines all around the world. We have set in motion what we call European civil protection mechanism, a mechanism to coordinate help from all of the 27 member states in case of need.

Q: There have been funds that have been allocated separately that have been provided to the WTO to go ahead and help India. In the grants format there’s another set of funds that have been segregated. Please tell us more about them.

A: It’s a coordination mechanism. So, this is the civil protection authorities of the 27 member states coming together and seeing how best they can pull the capacities and resources in order to avoid duplication and optimise support, and the mechanism itself can help with logistics and funding of transport. So far we have had the support in kind coming from member states for an amount of around 100 million euros which makes it probably one of the largest operations so far. We have had flights coming and landing in Delhi for the past week or so from Romania, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy. Now we see more coming from the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and Spain. This is a very robust and massive contribution from a number of member states and as we speak others are joining in. The European Commission has also mobilised 2.2 million euros in emergency funding and to respond to Covid, for instance, to strengthen testing capacity. But that’s separate to European civil protection mechanisms.

Q: At the recently held summit between India and the EU, the French President came out in support of India and said that India does not require lectures when it comes to the vaccination programme and the help that it has provided to various nations. What is the message that the EU would like to give to other nations?

A: As you say, at the Leaders’ Summit, we were on the same page, where all 27 member states recognised the extraordinary effort made by Indians in the past few months in exporting vaccines. And I can say that the same has been done with the European Union. We started from the same proposition here that we want the response to this global crisis to be based on solidarity and the European Union has exported almost as many doses as it has used domestically so we believe it’s important that we follow the same example and allow the export of vaccines and not disrupt supply chains.

Q: What lessons could be learned by India in view of all the programmes and vaccination drives being carried forth in the EU?

A: Well, I don’t know whether there are lessons to be learnt. I think we are learning by doing all this together in the international community, facing the successive ways of the virus in the European Union. Europe was in a pretty bad situation until recently. Now it’s the time of India, unfortunately. So we are all, unfortunately, facing unforeseen circumstances. In the EU, we took important decisions at the very outset to procure the vaccines together. I think that was a turning point in our reaction and you could ensure that the response when it came to the procurement of vaccines was cohesive and coherent. You could negotiate good terms with the pharma company. We procured from a number of potential suppliers. We have run into some difficulties with one supplier but others have come up. At this stage, I can say that the roll-out of the vaccines all over the 27 member states is proceeding smoothly.

Q: In the wake of China facing a lot of criticism from a number of European nations, the US and Asian nations, could there be an opportunity lurking here for India to be an important source point for the 5G roll-out in the future for the EU?

A: As open societies and democracies we start from the same starting point from the same assumptions because we want the digital transition to be taking place in an environment which is competitive, which fosters innovation but also that respects our democratic setting, human rights and individual freedoms, privacy. So, we want the digital transition to take place in a secure context. So, the challenges are very similar that we face in Europe and India. That’s why we believe that the conversations around these challenges are particularly open to us. When it comes to data protection, India is in the process of passing its own set of regulations. In Europe, we did a couple of years ago, which is the first of its kind, so inevitably it’s sort of a parameter and has set some criteria which is of interest also to India on the security of networks. The roll-out of 5G is something we are both looking into in the EU and in India and we are both concerned about the security of this network. In the EU, we have set up a toolkit meant to establish objective criteria to identify secure providers which do not pose a risk to the security of our network and the privacy of our citizens. These criteria are of some interest to India and it’s a topical subject that we have already touched on without Indian interlocutors. The digital transition has a number of other aspects of interest, the development of artificial intelligence, for instance. The commonality of the challenges and the intention to face them is challenging. Starting from a human-centric vision, we want a digital transition which meets the expectations and needs of our citizens.

Q: Recently, the issue of the intellectual property waiver, which has been proposed by India and South Africa and gotten cognizance from the US; what is the stand of the EU on this?

A: These are important topics to discuss and we are ready to discuss them but we should also be aware of the fact that these are topics for the short-term or even for the immediate time. What we should do is to not lose sight of the urgency. As quickly as possible, I will ensure that these boxes are fairly distributed around the globe. The EU has exported vaccines for around 200 million dollars. India has also been a major exporter of vaccines. It’s important that other players follow this example and allow the export of vaccines. We need to increase production and support the vaccination roll-out internationally. That’s why the EU has been, since the beginning, a strong supporter and leading voice behind the creation of COVAX, which is meant for all those who need vaccines, irrespective of where they live. We are one of the major contributors, with 2.2 billion. In short, the priority now is to ramp up production of vaccines and make them available to all those in need.

Q: Do you think the TRIPS waiver is going to help developing nations, including India, ramp up the production of vaccines and other allied medical treatments?

A: In our view, that’s not the key matter. What we try to do is to ramp up production and help the international community roll-out vaccines, which is universal because we are all in this together. So we need to have vaccinations all around the world, not just in one region or another. So we definitely believe that’s a major objective for the international community to pursue.

Q: Why has the US already gone ahead and showcased its support for the waiver? The EU has raised objections, demanding the US administration to lift off the duties on the number of medical exports that it brings about in the entire world. Your comment.

A: It’s a matter of priorities. What is most necessary is to ramp up production and we believe that unimpeded supply chains are one of the key factors now.

Q: Before I let you go, Ambassador, one message that you would like to give to Indians and the entire mankind fighting this menace? 

A: It is a global challenge and the only way to address this is to act together.

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The hunger and nutrition crisis: The dark side of Covid pandemic

Coronavirus has presented itself as a challenge and an opportunity to address our
long-standing problems of food security and nutrition. The current need is to come up with
sustainable solutions to lift millions of people out of the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty.

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C ovid-19 has transformed into a silent pandemic of hunger and starvation as a result of millions of people pushed into the vicious cycles of economic stagnation, loss of livelihood and worsening food insecurity. The World Bank has estimated that 71 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty across the globe as a result of the pandemic. As per the State of Working India 2021 report by the Azim Premji University, about 100 million lost jobs during the nationwide April-May 2020 lockdown. Most were back at work by June 2020, but even by the end of 2020, about 15 million workers remained out of work. Incomes also remained depressed. As we saw the deadly second wave of Covid-19 ravaging our country and leaving families devastated, the oxygen crisis overwhelmed the entire system while the crisis of hunger and starvation kept becoming grave each day. The CMIE Unemployment Data reveals a grim picture of unemployment spiralling to 12% by the end of May 2021 as compared to 8% in April 2021. Breaking this down further over 10 million or 1 crore people lost their jobs because of the second wave of coronavirus alone and 97% of households’ incomes have declined since the beginning of the pandemic last year. In a country like ours where a majority of the workforce is in the informal sector, people have not only been massively affected by the pandemic due to loss of jobs but also because they have no access to the benefits that come with formal employment and are out of the ambit of the social security schemes. The daily wagers, construction workers, street vendors, domestic helpers are the people who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and lockdowns and are living a life of uncertainty and disrupted incomes.  Agriculture is the primary occupation in the villages but due to frequent lockdowns, there has been a disruption of the supply chains and access to the market for the sale of agricultural produce impacting the income of the rural households.  World Food Programme estimates that an additional 130 million people could fall into the category of being food insecure over and above the 820 million who were so classified by the State of Food Insecurity in the World Report, 2019. In the 2020 Global Hunger Index, India ranks 94th out of the 107 countries. The pandemic has worsened this hunger crisis in India. With higher food inflation combined with reduced incomes, more and more households have to cut down on the quantity and quality of their food consumption. The impact is the worst on the low and middleincome household spend a large share of their incomes on food expenditure. The First Phase of the National Family Health Survey (2019-2020) has revealed alarming findings, with as many as 16 states showing an increase in underweight and severely wasted children under the age of 5. Ever since the advent of Covid-19, the pandemic has risked becoming nutrition crisis, due to overburdened healthcare systems, disrupted food patterns and income loss. And the disruption of programmes likes the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the mid-day meal programme.  The current crisis highlights the importance of the existing welfare schemes like MGNREGA, PDS, and PMGKY etc which put cash and relief directly into the hands of the most vulnerable people and help them tide over the economic distress. There is an imperative need to improve food security by increasing local food production and strengthening food supply chains. The availability of high food stocks presents a bright opportunity to ensure the strongly advocated universal PDS which is the need of the hour. As the second wave has led to many young people who were the breadwinners of their families succumbing to the virus, it is of utmost importance that support is provided to these families with adequate cash and food support and building employment opportunities to prevent them from slipping further below the poverty line.  Like the first wave, it has been the collective endeavour of several citizen initiatives and NGOs to complement the efforts of the administration to mitigate the hardships and provide immediate relief to the most marginalised communities who have been the worst affected by the pandemic. At Samarpann, we are focusing all our resources on the rural areas keeping in view this alarming crisis. Until now we have distributed 2.6 million meals across India since the advent of the Pandemic. When our team visited the villages in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Kashmir, and Mizoram we realised that nothing had changed for these families in the second wave as compared to the second wave. The second wave has worsened the conditions for most of these households as there has been a loss of livelihoods and depletion of savings due to medical expenses. The people have either not been reinstated into their jobs after the first lockdown or have suffered major pay cuts leading to reduced incomes. Though we provide immediate relief in the form of ration and sanitation kits, it is important to start rebuilding the lives of these families, especially those who have lost their earning members. Hence, we are purchasing the relief material from the women Self Help Groups (SHGs) so that it increases their income sources and providie the material in the community itself. We believe that the solution to the hunger crisis should follow a twofold approach of addressing food insecurity as well as providing livelihood opportunities to the people whose voices have largely been left unheard in this second wave of Covid-19. Each ration kit includes wheat flour, rice, two types of pulses, sugar, cooking oil, spices, and salt which is sufficient to take care of a family’s need for 15 to 20 days. There is also a sanitation kit that has soaps, sanitisers, and a packet of masks. Some of the villages which we are targeting are Rathkankara, Borabas, Kolipura, Girdharpura, and Bhairopura in the Kota district in Rajasthan which is mostly inhabited by the indigenous communities of tribal. In Kashmir, with our partner organisation, we are targeting villages in Anantnag, Baramulla, Pulwama, Bandipora, and Kulgam while in Uttarakhand the target areas are the women in the Khatima block of Udham Singh Nagar, who are single earning members coming from very poor families. Mizoram hosts its own problems, being tribal predominated and situated in the arduous terrains.   Covid-19 pandemic has presented itself as a challenge and an opportunity to address our long-standing problems of food security and nutrition and the current need is to come up with sustainable solutions which help us tide not only over the current crisis but also lift millions of people out of the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty.  ‘One Nation, One Card’ across the country is a long term solution aimed at bringing a large number of excluded households into the ambit of social security. Similarly, diversification of the food basket under PDS and ICDS would go a long way in addressing malnutrition and reducing the disease burden in the country. The task at hand is a humongous one that needs to be dealt with at multiple levels by various stakeholders coming together to minimise the adversities and develop long term strategies for addressing hunger and malnutrition.  Dr Ruma Bhargava, Lead Healthcare, World Economic Forum and Founder, Samarpann & Dr Megha Bhargava, Deputy Commissioner Income Tax, Govt of India.

The views expressed are personal

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Reflecting on refugee pasts and possible future

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India has had a stellar history in welcoming refugees and sheltering them. Independent India saw us handling an unprecedented refugee crisis of 1947. In fact, as a child of 1947 refugees, I can’t but applaud that part of our nation-building history. India had hosted Tibetan refugees from the 1960s and in the 1970s we welcomed refugees from western Africa, later from Afghanistan and then from Sri Lanka. Most recently, we are hosting Rohingya refugees from Myanmar emerging from the persecution against their community from May 2015 and refugees fleeing from the February 2021 crisis in Myanmar. 

India’s example holds true for much of the global south. As UNHCR data notes, more than 86% of refugees were hosted by developing countries, with more than 73% by the neighbouring countries. In general, societies in the south have welcomed refugees as equal members of society. Countries of the North on the other hand have never embraced refugees in the same spirit of solidarity and responsibility, though it can be argued they carry much of the responsibility of the global refugee crisis. They need to be called out for that.

ActionAid Association has been at the forefront of responding to the emergency needs of forcibly displaced communities for over four decades now. ActionAid Association prioritises the needs of women and children and builds the resilience of marginalised populations. We have supported displaced minorities from Pakistan, living in Rajasthan, and internally displaced persons from Chhattisgarh settled in Andhra Pradesh. In partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees India, we continue to extend support to people from the Rohingya community settled in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Working in collaboration with social organisations, we have been offering humanitarian assistance to refugees from strife-ridden Myanmar too.

We need to recognise that in this century there has been a reversal in the perception of refugees. World Refugee Council calls it “a shortfall of humanity and empathy”. With growing xenophobic tendencies, stronger border controls, the rise of nativistic “sons of the soil” movements, as well as rising economic inequities which stoke fears of “risk from refugees”, host communities have become insecure and elected governments voice these insecurities, without resolving them; this comes at a time when the need is for addressing the refugee crisis in the framework of leaving no one behind.

With some exceptions, in general, there is a fast-growing antipathy towards refugees. The conscience of the world was struck by the tragic visuals of drowning refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and of Rohingyas and other Myanmarese ethnic groups fleeing atrocities but governments have not been so easily moved. Rescuing drowning migrants became a crime in Italy; sheltering refugees from Myanmar a matter of political debate. Spectres of “dangers and threats” posed by refugees basis race, religion and economic competition that is propelled by fundamentalist actions of vested interest groups from both refugee and host communities groups, are raised to stoke xenophobia.

Let’s understand that refugees or for that matter any other groups, could become a threat to national sovereignty, only when the state has retreated from its welfare and caring orientation. To any government whose main focus is the increased physical, social, economic, and mental well-being of its people, care for people seeking refuge poses no threat. This has been demonstrated in ample measure by our collective past of accepting and integrating refugees. 

Refugees need safety during travel when fleeing oppression, hunger or fear. They need safety, social protection, and care in the spaces they flee to without discrimination, and a right to return to their native lands, should they so desire. Their children need access to continued education, and families need non-discriminatory access to healthcare, education, and all public services. Women need protection against violence and discrimination. Enabling conditions to earn livelihoods are critical, even when there is no right to employment; else how can their families survive. 

The lesson for us is not to mirror the countries that have regressive colonial attitudes to refugees and migrants. India should remain true to its warm non-discriminatory history of welcoming refugees. To the global community, that would be a message and an action demonstrating principled leadership —one that is morally, socially, politically and strategically defensible, and inspirational for others to follow.

Let us, however, remember that stellar pasts don’t automatically lead to glorious futures. Futures need active construction with humane people-centred politics and policies, set in a frame of a caring welfare state. Existing treaties and protocols need to be signed up to and newer societal imageries of futures based on solidarities, co-existence, and commons of humankind are needed, as are sensitive refugee policies and actions.

Sandeep Chachra is Executive Director of ActionAid Association and Joseph Mathai is Senior Manager – Communications of ActionAid Association. The views expressed are personal.

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SVSU ORGANISES INTERNATIONAL WEBINAR ON ‘VACCINE PATENT WAIVER’

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Department of Students’ Welfare, Shri Vishwakarma Skill University, organized an International webinar on Vaccine Patent Waiver, ‘A Step Towards Covid-Free Equal World’. A galaxy of prominent speakers was invited to share their views with the participants. The program started with the address of Prof. B.K. Kuthiala, Chairperson, Haryana State Higher Education Council. He averred India is the biggest storehouse of knowledge and scientific innovations. Shri Raj Nehru, VC, SVSU said that the display of apathy on the part of large organizations has been disturbing as how can one think of only profit-making even in these dire times of catastrophe the entire world is going through. Dr. Prabhash Ranjan, Law Faculty, South Asian University, India joined as an eminent speaker and put forth his views on IPR & Vaccine Patent Waiver. Prof. Gul Erkol Bayram, Sinop University, Turkey shared her views on Patent Free vaccines and their impact on Global Tourism. Prof. Justin Paul, from the University of Florida, United States of America, spoke about the idea that nations need to explore diplomatic routes to get vaccines and make the same available to the masses.

Moreover, the other eminent speakers who addressed the participants on a range of crucial topics were Prof. B. P. Sharma, Vice-Chancellor, G.B. University, Dr. Mahadeo Jaiswal, Director, IIM-Sambalpur, Vijay Pal Dalmia, IPR & Partner, V.A.A, and Dr. Raj Shankar Ghosh, Senior Advisor, Vaccine Delivery, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Their discourse included the issues regarding research and the role of industry, national and international legal aspects, and processes in the patent waiver, and the delivery of vaccines etc.

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Walk-in vaccination to begin in Gujarat for 18-44 age group from today

Abhijit Bhatt

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Vaccine

To ensure that the maximum number of citizens is vaccinated in the state, a statewide vaccination campaign, in Gujarat, will begin from Monday. Announcing this, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said that the Vaccination Campaign has been organised to make everyone aware of the importance of vaccination. The vaccination fest will be observed on Monday at 9.00 am in the presence of ministers, leaders, dignitaries at 1025 vaccination centers in 33 districts and 8 municipal areas. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani will be present at the Primary Health Center, Sector-8, Gandhinagar.

CM Rupani has thanked PM Narendra Modi for the comprehensive and timely steps to ensure the Covid-19 vaccination. He said that the Government of India has provided an adequate supply of vaccines to all the citizens of Gujarat. The vaccine will be provided free of cost to citizens of all age groups in the state.

The state government has also made adequate arrangements for vaccination of youth in the age group of 18 to 44 years. CM Rupani said that from June 21, youth will not have to register in advance for vaccination. From now on everyone will be able to get the walk-in vaccine. He said that the number of vaccination booths in the state has also been increased to 5,000 so that the vaccine can be easily made available to every citizen at home in the state.

Gujarat is at the forefront of the inoculation drive of the country. The state, as of June 19, has so far administered over 2.15 crore doses for both first and second doses. Not only that, Gujarat ranks first in the vaccination ratio per million people. 30,75,163, healthcare workers and frontline warriors have been inoculated.

The Chief Minister further stated that the vaccine is the only infallible weapon in the fight against the pandemic. Our goal is to make as many people as possible safe and secure while experts and specialists are looking at the possibility of a third wave of the outbreak, he said.

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CENTRAL AGENCIES HARASSING US, LET’S JOIN HANDS WITH BJP AGAIN: SHIV SENA MLA TO CM THACKERAY

Preeti Sompura

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Shiv Sena MLA Pratap Sarnaik has said that the party should team up with the BJP again to save its leaders from being ‘harassed’ by central agencies. In a letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, legislator Pratap Sarnaik has said the former allies must patch up, especially for the many upcoming corporation elections, including those of Mumbai and Thane.

Sarnaik, who represents Thane’s Ovala-Majiwada constituency in the state Assembly, said though the BJP and the Shiv Sena are not allies anymore, their leaders have good relations and that “we should make use of this”.

“Several central agencies are behind me and other Shiv Sena leaders like Anil Parab and Ravindra Waikar, and they and their families are being harassed,” Sarnaik wrote in his letter which reached the Chief Minister’s Office on June 10.

“If the Shiv Sena and the BJP come together again, these leaders can be spared of such harassment,” he wrote.

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) had, last year, raided several properties belonging to Sarnaik in connection with a money laundering case. His son, Vihang Sarnaik, too, was questioned by the agency.

Maharashtra BJP chief Chandrakant Patil said BJP will mull joining hands with Sena only if Uddhav considers it.

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COVID-19: AN NGO GIVES MUMBAI SLUM A JAB IN THE ARM

Urvashi Khona

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In the Govandi area’s Shivajinagar and Indira Nagar—Mumbai city’s populous and slum-dominated areas— Covid-19 protocols have gone for a toss. Life is going on, as usual, despite the government’s restrictions all across. In Govandi and Mankhurd, residents have scant regard for Covid-19 guidelines and do not seem too bothered by the pandemic. Amid such scenarios are three women—founders of Enrich Lives Foundation— who have taken up task of doing best for these slums; from Covid-19 awareness camps to Vaccination awareness programmes, they’re doing their best.

These women have initiated a campaign to inoculate slum dwellers in the 18-44 years age group. “People here are deprived of several basic things. We are helping them with several things from food, medication to vaccines. These people are extremely hesitant due to misinformation and the inability to afford vaccinations at private hospitals. We got inspired from door to door campaign. We have already given the jab to 150 people from Govandi slums and plan to vaccinate another 1,200 people from the Shivaji Nagar and further are working for 13 more slums.” says Samrudhi Chothani, one of the founders, and a lawyer by profession.

“To begin with, we started first with awareness campaigns for the public here who are just not so ready to get their jabs due to some myths. With the help of Switch India, we conducted vaccination awareness drives to clear their misconceptions and doubts.” says another co-founder, Shievani Upadhyay who’s also a financial analyst by profession.

Shedding light on how such maximum population of the maximum city has been ignored by authorities and, Rashmi Balwani who’s also a Business Entrepreneur, says, “We are just doing a bit. Authorities and all accountable people should come together to work for their betterment. Vaccination is an important ingredient to achieve herd immunity in Mumbai. All the local authorities should put some focus here because kids over here have not even taken basic vaccines like that of polio. While we are doing our best we want people’s support also for funds which can help us in a maximum way and lead Vaccination drive to every house in these slums.”

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