The Financial Express

Covid-19 in the second year -- breeds hope and despair

-File photo -File photo

Covid-19 is now in the second year wrecking havoc on people all over the world. While we see a steady decline of infections and casualty in the United States and Europe, the virus has been killing people with all ferocity in India. The daily infection ranges from 300,000 to 350,000 and 3,000 to 4,000 people are dying every day. The hospitals are overwhelmed and running shortage of much needed oxygen cylinders and basic health materials. The crematoriums and burial grounds are unable to cope with the dead bodies. Over 800 physicians have succumbed to  infections. The Indian government appears to be unable to contain the situation. The Indian health services have virtually collapsed. Hospitals are turning down patients with critical conditions for lack of accommodation. The international community has responded promptly and generously but the situation is intractable. There is a growing fear that should the situation persist, the virus would move to neighbouring countries and could create havoc. The entire region is now at great risk.

In the United States, it is safe to conclude that the pandemic has moved to the second phase. The daily infection rate has plummeted from over 350,000 to the level of 35,000 and the casualty has declined from over 3,800 to less than of 500 per day. This has been possible due to the determination of the Biden Administration which launched the vaccination drive on a war footing. President Biden set the target of 1.0 million inoculations a day at the first week of his presidency, then raised it to 2.0 million but the actual vaccination exceeded 3.0 million per day at the end of the three month period. More than 268 million people have now been vaccinated of whom about 120 million have received double doses. The Centre for Disease Control has now included the age group from 12 to 16 in the target and gradually it would move to vaccinate the infants.

The inoculation drive has recently been reinforced with the inclusion of Johnson and Johnson vaccine. It's a one dose vaccine. More than 60,000 pharmacies have been supplied with the J & J vaccines where people regardless of age group are vaccinated without making prior appointments. The administration is determined to fully vaccinate 75 per cent of the population by July 4, the Independence Day anniversary.

Scientists are not sure whether with 75 per cent fully vaccinated population will be enough to reach the herd immunity and prevent the virus to return to the community. But even without herd immunity we can see a decline in the infection and deaths. In Israel with 68 per cent of its population fully vaccinated or developed antibodies through vaccination or recovery, it has achieved a drastic decline from 10,000 daily infections at its peak to less than 100 new infections now. In the case of United States, the arrival of warm weather beginning from June, there would be opening of opportunities to wedding receptions, outdoor gatherings, indoor parties, theaters and political rallies and if people resort to neglecting the safety measures that CDC has recently decreed, scientists apprehend another phase of infection.

Schools being closed for about a year the students and teachers have turned sick and tired of being glued to computers. Many universities have suspended in-person teaching and opted to on-line teaching and incurred profound financial loss. IT companies have established a system of online work at home five days a week. On the other hand, the entertainment industries including restaurants and bars lost businesses through shutdowns and lockdowns and are now craving for reopening of the shops. All these very justifiably warrant resumption of business as usual. Nonetheless, the threat of another phase of infection is very real - there is no alternative to compliance of safety protocols announced by the CDC. The year 2021 should be observed as a recovery period. Those vaccinated should encourage the unvaccinated to get vaccinated at the earliest.  With more and more people vaccinated CDC in its recent guidelines exempted the fully vaccinated people from wearing masks. The guidelines haven't suggested what safety measure people should adopt when there is a congregation of vaccinated and non-vaccinated people. Some believe CDC's decision on masks was rather early. It should have waited till July 4, when the administration expects to get 75 per cent people to have at least one dose of vaccination.

The Biden administration released $1.9 trillion Second Stimulus Package in March providing, among others, $1,400 checks to every adult and $600 per child to families having annual income less than $250,000. It also allocated $85 billion to undertake testing and contract tracing, increase public health workers and accelerate vaccine distribution; sanctioned $350 billion for the state and city corporations to upgrade public health system, $90 billion for infrastructure development and $ 220 billion for school and child care facilities. The package also extended $300 unemployment benefit per week till September 2021. The disbursement of this fund over the past three months revamped the economy to some extent. People had access to fund and spent money on food, medicine and payment of rent. The small businesses also received much needed capital and reopened stores.

President Biden said, "More help is needed…we are still struggling out of an economic collapse that cost us 22 million jobs. Let's keep our eyes on the ball." About 8 million people are unemployed and unemployment rate is around 6.1 per cent though economists estimate the rate to be much higher. Though about 1 million people got jobs in the past two months,  millions remained unemployed. The unemployed have a monthly dilemma: pay the rent or feed the kids. "What we are seeing right now is an economy struggling to recalibrate. This is not a seamless process, and it's certainly not something that happens overnight," said an economist in Chicago.

Bearing in mind the unemployed, vulnerable population, women workforce and people of colour who have been disproportionately hard hit by the pandemic, Biden administration laid out a massive investment plan of $4.05 trillion. It has two parts. The first is the American jobs plan valued $2.25 trillion of infrastructure spending over the next ten years. This would be one time investment in rebuilding railways, roads and bridges, transportation and promoting green energy. The second part of $1.8 trillion American Families Plan consists mostly of transfer payments that would keep going year after year such as free kindergarten programmes, free education at community colleges for two years and child care support.

Officials involved in the preparation of the plan estimates that some of the infrastructure would be completed well ahead of ten year period and would earn revenue through tolls collection. Thus, there will be a cash flow to the treasury and the national debt will not be as mammoth as it is presumed to be. The massive investment would generate millions of jobs in the next five to ten years, positively contributing to the climate change.

Republican members in the Congress are worried that the massive investment of $4 trillion in addition to the recently released two stimulus packages would lead to galloping inflation and increase national debt manifolds. Their concerns are not totally unfounded. There have been significant price increases of used cars, medical care, energy, detergents, food and beverages in recent months. But economists remonstrate that in a $21 trillion economy, the prices of some goods are always rising while others are decreasing. It should be noted that the pandemic that killed nearly 582,000 people, shutdown millions of jobs and brought incorrigible hardships to thousands of families, warrants extraordinary fiscal measure to install hope in the population and enable them to return to pre-pandemic life style. Biden's latest economic plan is a gigantic attempt to take the people to the road to recovery. His advisors dispel the danger of high inflation and argue that as long as money is well spent on projects generating revenues and lifesaving activities, the threat of inflation could be containable.

Some scientists predict the coronavirus cannot be eliminated totally. It would behave like pneumonia and or seasonal flue that would resurface periodically, kill a few thousands and then take a pause. They recommend that the United States and  countries around the globe remain alert and well prepared to confront the situation when the virus strikes again.

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.

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