If last year was marked by coronationalism—nationalism in the name of corona–this year threatens to be marked by vaccinationalism   

By R. Raj Rao

THE covid-19 vaccines are here. 16 January 2021 was a historic day when Prime Minister Modi launched India’s vaccination drive, and nearly 2 lakh patients were vaccinated on Day 1 itself.

Last January, we were not yet aware of the calamity that was to befall us in the coming months in the form of loss of lives and livelihoods, triggered by the Covid 19 pandemic. There was the terrifying 24th March lockdown, announced at four hours notice; there were migrants trekking thousands of miles to reach their faraway villages, many of them dying on the way; and there were thousands of corona fatalities, of which India nearly topped the global list by September. But now, with the arrival of the vaccines, and with the numbers of corona-infected patients rapidly declining, it seems as if all that is behind us. This is truly miraculous, considering that the new UK strain of the corona virus has led to deaths and renewed lockdowns in large parts of the Western world. Even in Iran, as a friend and former student wrote to me, bad days are still on. Brazil, too, does not seem to have done much to obtain a vaccine, even though it has the second-highest number of corona cases, after America. As for the UK strain, the number of patients affected by it in India at the time of writing, fingers crossed, is just 116.

But if last year was marked by coronationalism—nationalism in the name of corona–this year threatens to be marked by vaccinationalism. What I meant by coronationalism then is that anyone not agreeing with the policies of the government with regard to handling of the disease was called anti-national. Thus, if one criticized the way the lockdown was arbitrarily imposed on unsuspecting citizens, or pooh-poohed the Prime Minister’s utensil-clanging and candle-lighting gimmicks, or spoke up against police brutality and high-handedness in the name of corona, or the migrant labour crisis, or how doctors became extensions of the surveillance state and forcibly admitted people to hospital wards, one was branded anti-national.

But now, with the arrival of the vaccines, nationalism has taken a new form. The two affordable vaccines that India has opted for are Oxford’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin. The two vaccines, however, have vastly different manufacturing formulae. Moreover, unlike Covishield, Covaxin’s efficacy has not yet been put to the test. So, a caste-system has emerged between the vaccines, with Covishiled regarded as the safer of the two vaccines, especially in relation to side-effects of the drug. Given a choice, and given our preference for foreign goods—as, say, in the case of automobiles—Indians would prefer to be inoculated with Covishield rather than Covaxin. But then we aren’t given a choice. It is purely a matter of luck and circumstance as to which of the two vaccines shall be injected into our bodies. This was made clear by Dr. Sashank Joshi, a member of the central government’s Covid Task Force.

Now this has led to vaccinationalism, with the government petulant about criticism of its indigenously manufactured Covaxin, calling it vaccine politics, and the opposition, led by Congress MP Manish Tewari, questioning the vaccine’s safety, even suggesting that it is Prime Minister Modi who should volunteer to take the first jab. In short, then, resistance to Covaxin threatens to become the new definition of anti-nationalism.

The Government of India has said that no post-vaccination hospitalization would be required for recipients of either of the two vaccines. On its part, Bharat Biotech has assured patients of compensation, should they suffer from adverse side effects. What that compensation translates into, though, isn’t clear. Does it merely mean a refund of the Rs. 206 per dose that the vaccine costs; or does it mean footing the bills of the possible hospitalization and psychosomatic damage caused by the vaccine?

India’s vaccination drive can transform into vaccinationalism if, in the days to come, we are forced to download vaccination apps like the proposed Cowin, as we were obliged to download the Aarogya Setu app last year. If failure to do so might forbid us from returning to our workplaces, or disqualify us from boarding trains and planes, or even place us at the mercy of Resident Welfare Associations in our housing societies—well, that is what I would call vaccinationalism.  All this happened last year when the Aarogya Setu app was introduced by the government. As it turns out, in hindsight, the Aarogya Setu app did not even succeed in doing what it was supposed to do, which is tracing and tracking corona-infected people in order to prevent the spread of the disease. The numbers kept rising, app or no app. Soon its importance dwindled, and indeed, one could board a train, as I did in late November, without downloading the Aarogya Setu app.

Let us hope that India’s laudable vaccination drive does not end in vaccinationalism in the course of the year. Refusal to take the vaccine should not give anyone the right to call me anti-national.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • Dr. R. Raj Rao is an internationally known Indian English novelist, poet and critic. He was Professor and Head of the Department of English at the University of Pune in Maharashtra. He has also been a Visiting Professor at universities in Canada and Germany 

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