When Dr Ashish Jha, currently the Dean at the School of Public Health in Brown University, slammed the Trump administration for ‘its pathetic approach in handling the virus’, he and his family received threat calls.
America’s battle against the Covid pandemic in 2020 is testament to the adage “ignorance is bliss”, something the last President, Donald Trump and his coterie running the administration vehemently followed. End result—400,000 lives lost and counting.
What could be worse when the global superpower should have been battling the virus outbreak and the lurking spike in cases, the “ignorant” Trump administration was fighting “snubbing and threatening” healthcare officials routinely, who dared to raise the alarm. One among them was Dr Ashish Jha, currently the Dean at the School of Public Health in Brown University.
Dr Jha was perhaps the first among public health professionals to raise the scare on the coronavirus and hinted that it was fast becoming a global pandemic. When he slammed the Trump administration for “its pathetic approach in handling the virus”, he and his family received threatening phone calls. Perhaps there may have been more like Dr Jha facing the Trump administration’s ire. No wonder Dr Anthony Fauci is feeling “liberated” in just 24 hours of transfer of power from Mr Trump to Mr Joe Biden.
At a time when President Biden’s administration is out to “undo the pathetic handling of Covid pandemic by his predecessor and his ignorant administration”, The Sunday Guardian spoke to Dr Jha exclusively about the US road map on containing the current and the other variants of Covid-19, including the new UK and South Africa strains, among others. The global healthcare expert has a simple prescription—vaccinate as much and as early to lower the casualties before the UK variant spikes in next two months. “And that is true for India as well”, says Dr Jha, who was formerly Professor at Harvard Medical School when the virus broke out.
Cautioning particularly against the UK variant, Dr Jha told this newspaper: “I am worried about both the UK and South African variants, but for India and the US in immediate context, it is the UK variant that is threatening the most now. If we see the cycle of this variant’s spread, it will take another two months to show the spike and its deadly spread. To beat this UK variant threat before it spikes, we must get more and more people to get vaccinated and tested so that right treatment and their monitoring can be done to check further spread.”
So what is stopping from vaccinating more and more people? Going by media reports, both in the US and in India, and even in many countries like Germany, France and Brazil, the slow pace and reluctance in vaccination rollout is discouraging for healthcare experts and field workers. Dr Jha, however, is hopeful that the Biden administration will be able to “control the situation in the next four-six weeks” (by February and mid-March) as the new President had vowed to vaccinate 100 million in next 100 days.
Dr Jha explains the hurdles: “The Trump administration promised to deliver 100 million vaccine doses by January, but we got only 60-70 million. Moreover, there was a lack of proper communication with states. Now President Biden and his team are working out the state-by-state vaccination plan. Vaccination has actually got ramped up in the last week and I hope that we will scale up the target before early March.”
He hopes that his advice to the Biden administration to maximise vaccination will not go down as during the previous administration. Recalling the Trump administration’s handling of the corona pandemic, Dr Jha’s tone gets harder: “America did a terrible job last year and largely the Trump administration is to blame. I will not blame a single person (President Donald Trump), but he consistently denied the scientific data and information about the threat we all were about to face. In fact, the undermining of the coronavirus by him and his administration’s continuous rifts with healthcare officials and experts alike are ironic.”
He went on: “It was a bizarre year and what to say…when I raised the threats about the coronavirus, I and my family were threatened with calls. America would have done much better in controlling the virus, but for sheer ignorance and defiance we ended up what we are today… We have lost 4,00,000 lives and may lose another 1,00,000 in next 4-6 weeks before situation is brought under control by the new Biden administration.”
Dr Jha said that both India and the US, with their capacity in the vaccines manufacturing, can handle the lurking health threat effectively. Heaping praise on India’s handling of coronavirus from the beginning, he said: “I have been watching India from the beginning as it is my country of origin and frankly speaking, India has done a much better job than even the US and many European nations while handling the pandemic in its very early stages. Moving on with strict lockdown, a strong publicity blitz advocating prevention at all levels, both in public domain and within households, deserve a special praise. I was really scared about India’s corona cases during the festival and marriage seasons, but it was kept under control.”
And now with its capacity to manufacture vaccines, he says, “India’s vaccine diplomacy is praiseworthy.” However, he cautions India, just like he said about the US, about the reluctance and slow vaccination process: “India’s strength as the manufacturing hub of vaccines must be harnessed fully as it needs to ramp up its vaccination drive… That is the only way out to beat this pandemic, especially when the UK variant is threatening to spike any time soon.”
However, the top Covid expert, when asked about how much he sees China’s allegedly role in the coronavirus outbreak from its soil and spreading it to the world, he said: “No doubt the virus originated in China, but to pinpoint Beijing for spreading it, it will require more data and information to authenticate those claims.” Perhaps the WHO team probe into the global allegations against China’s role in this pandemic will help clear the mystery.
But are we in for more severe lockdowns as some European countries have already got into?
“Maybe it is not required, if we are adequately vaccinated and take precautions,” says Dr Jha.
Sounds like both India and the US have a lot to work on vaccination front to get the economy and nations moving.