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“The Pandemic is a Wake-up Call for Regional Cooperation in South Asia” – SAPAN

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“We have to learn to maintain physical distancing but at the same time create economic and healthcare closeness in South Asia,” said Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, speaking at a webinar on South Asia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The gathering also adopted a resolution describing the pandemic as a wake-up call for regional cooperation, and pressed for equitable vaccine supply across the region.

Stressing the need for contact and collaboration across South Asian borders, Prof. Sen said our battle is not just against the Covid virus but also against the economic injustice of hunger and poverty created by the pandemic.

Prof. Sen was among nearly 200 opinion-makers and activists from across South Asia and the diaspora who came together to attend the webinar titled: ‘South Asian Solidarity in the Time of Covid: Sharing Grief, Inspiration, Hope and Strategies’.

Academics, journalists, activists and doctors shared experiences and discussed strategies over the two-hour long event, organised by the recently launched South Asian Peace Action Network (SAPAN). The plenary session was followed by an interactive discussion with volunteers and healthcare professionals about their experiences on the ground.

Participants endorsed the SAPAN 30 May Resolution (link here), presented by journalist and editor Raza Rumi, calling on South Asian societies to treat healthcare as a basic human right, increase healthcare budgets, collaborate to manage the pandemic and plan responses to future challenges. “Our future cannot be held hostage to a past. We have to form an alternative trajectory for our combined futures,” Rumi said.

Speakers discussed the situation of South Asian countries in terms of vaccination drives, awareness-building, rural infrastructure and citizen participation.

Introducing the event Lalita Ramdas, founder Greenpeace India and a co-founder of SAPAN, said that participants had come together in solidarity and hope. Speaking from Alibag south of Mumbai, she said: “We will just not mourn but celebrate the people who came out of their comfort zones to fight this battle.”

Artist Salima Hashmi in Lahore spoke of friends consoling each other across borders. After the passing of human rights activist I.A. Rehman, she reached out to Dr Syeda Hameed in Delhi: “We cried together, shared a piece of music, wrote searing columns.”

Stating that the pandemic had urgently highlighted the need for South Asian regionalism, journalist Kanak Mani Dixit in Kathmandu said: “We comprise one-fourth of the world’s population, so what we do to combat Covid-19 is important for ourselves, but also for the rest of the world.”

In Rajasthan, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, pioneers of India’s freedom of information movement stressed that calamities have no boundaries and we have to reach out to each other.

“So many people across South Asia have fallen into poverty because of the pandemic,” she said.

Dr Yousuf Sheikh, President of the Association of Pakistani Physicians in New England (APPNE) highlighted the cooperation between doctors from the region. Indian and Pakistani doctors in the diaspora were reaching out to each other he said: “Though I have never been to India I can imagine the situation there.”

The event featured a slideshow (link here) commemorating visionaries of the regional peace movement as well as prominent intellectuals, journalists, actors and activists taken by the coronavirus pandemic, including Dinesh Mohan of Delhi and Kamran Arif of Islamabad, both stalwarts of the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD).

The name of Dev Raj Sharma from Himachal Pradesh was also included in slide, he was an Ex-Councilor from Khalini ward in MC Shimla and an Ex-Chairman of the Himachal Pradesh Private Bus Operators Union.

“We may have lost many of our mentors and friends but not their ideas,” said an emotional Tapan Bose, founder member PIPFPD. “We will always be committed to creating democracy in the true sense, which is through the power and participation of the people.”

Participants also paid homage to veterans of the India Pakistan Soldiers’ Peace Initiative (IPSI) who have passed on over recent months. The IPSI was founded by the late Nirmala ‘Didi’ Deshpande, one of the leaders whose vision guides SAPAN. “This was a landmark initiative by Didi who tried to bring the world together with the slogan ‘jai jagat’ — long live the world,” reminisced  Gen. (rtd.) Tej Kaul, chair of IPSI-India.

Journalist Ayesha Kabir in Dhaka described the Government’s attempts to suppress journalist’s efforts to expose corruption during the pandemic. “Whatever our political leanings, journalists were united  when reporters like Rozina Islam were persecuted for their expose on the irregularities of the public health system.”

Convenor of the South Asia Media Defenders Network (SAMDEN) Sanjoy Hazarika in Shillong referred to media professionals as frontline workers who were “exposed to the physical threat of Covid… we have lost many colleagues to the pandemic.”

Activist Irfan Mufti in Lahore moderated the second session, chaired by Khushi Kabir in Dhaka, and Dr Syeda Hameed in Delhi. They set the tone for volunteers from India and Pakistan sharing inspirational personal experiences of working on the ground during the pandemic.

Samir Gupta from Delhi introduced volunteers involved with citizen relief groups working in both countries. The stories that emerged reflected a hope for humanity and were the fruition of the idea of neighbourly cooperation that activists in the region have been propagating.

The speakers highlighted their experiences of organising relief and coordinating with fellow volunteers across the border to help human beings not just citizens of particular nations, like Pakistanis at home and overseas coordinating with ambulances, hospitals, and crematoriums in India during the second wave.

Source:    SAPAN @southasiapeace, Beena Sarwar, Rehmat Merchant, Waqas Nasir and other peace activists present at the session

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Editors Guild of India Condemns FIR Against Journalists, Calls it Destructive of Freedom of Speech

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ghaziabad incident
Image Credit: The Cognate

Shimla-The Editors Guild of India on Thursday condemned the filing of First Information Reports (FIRs) by the Uttar Pradesh Police against The Wire and several other journalists for their tweets on an assault on an elderly Muslim man in Ghaziabad on June 5th.

“The Guild is deeply concerned by the UP Police’s track record of filing FIRs against journalists to deter them from reporting serious incidents without fear of reprisals”, it said.

It further added that it is the duty of the journalists to report on the basis of sources and in case facts become contested later on, to report the emerging versions and facets.

The guild called such actions by the police destructive of freedom of speech. It also claimed that the police has been discriminatory in targeting those media organizations and journalists when thousands had tweeted the video- that have been critical of the government and its policies.

“The Guild condemns this wanton misuse of laws to criminalize reporting and dissent to harass independent media and demands that the FIRs be withdrawn immediately,” it demanded.

Several media organizations and journalists had posted the video on their social media feeds. The UP police has filled FIR’s against The Wire, Twitter, journalist Mohammed Zubair, Rana Ayyub and Sana Naqvi and some Congress leaders under IPC Sections 153(provocation for rioting), 153A(promoting enmity between different groups), 295A(acts intended to outrage religious feelings), 505(mischief), 120B(criminal conspiracy) and 34(common intention) against them.

In the video that was posted by those charged, the man is seen alleging that he was beaten up by some people and was forced to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’.

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India’s Revised Vaccination Policy and Supreme Court’s Role Behind This Change in Approach

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Shimla-Free vaccine to all Indian citizens above 18 years of age would be available from 21st June onwards, the Government of India announced yesterday. The Centre has also announced that private hospitals would not be able to levy arbitrary charges for vaccination and the rate would be fixed. The government also rolled back its policy for procurement of vaccines, which was under heavy criticism not only from the opposition but also from the Supreme Court of India.

Though, the Centre claimed that the roll-back was a result of the demands raised by state governments, but some believe this decision came right after harsh judicial scrutiny of the government’s previous policy by the Supreme Court, whose initiation is being lauded by the citizens of India amid this pandemic.

“Many states came forward with a demand for reconsideration of the vaccination strategy and for bringing back the system that was there before 1st May,” the Centre said while defending the rollback.

Also, the Centre was even objecting to the court’s jurisdiction in matters related to policymaking and had termed it as an encroachment on the jurisdiction of the executive. However, very mindful of its jurisdiction, the court had mitigated this allegation of the Centre by explaining how policymaking is subject to judicial scrutiny. The court made the Centre aware of the ‘dialogic judicial review’, where the Court can question the executive and demand justifications from it over non-conformity of a policy to the constitutional rights.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court had grilled the Union government over its faulty and discriminatory policy as states were left on their own for the procurement of vaccines. In its orders passed on May 31, a bench comprising of Justice DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat came down heavily upon the central government. The bench had termed the policy approach as “arbitrary and irrational”  because it did not provide free vaccination for the 18-44 year age group.  The bench had sought clarification on policy and dual pricing in which states were being made to procure vaccines directly from the manufactures and were invariably paying more for vaccines while the Centre procured the same vaccines at lower rates.

“Due to the changing nature of the pandemic, we are now faced with a situation where the 18-44 age group also needs to be vaccinated, although priority may be retained between different age groups on a scientific basis. Hence, due to the importance of vaccinating individuals in the 18-44 age group, the policy of the Central Government for conducting free vaccination themselves for groups under the first 2 phases, and replacing it with paid vaccination by the State/UT Governments and private hospital for the persons between 18-44 years is prima facie arbitrary and irrational” a bench observed while passing an order on May 31, 2021 concerning a Suo moto case on “Re-Distribution of Essential Supplies and Services During Pandemic”.

Further, the court had also expressed concerns over the digital divide which would make accessing vaccine equally difficult for a large section through online registration.

Earlier, in its orders passed on April 30, the bend had observed that this policy approach would be “detrimental to the right to life and health”. The bench had also observed that this policy requires rethinking, as it needs to be formulated in conformity with the provisions of Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.

The bench aggressively went on to order the government to share all details of the vaccine purchase and distribution, as well as provide information on how the budget allocated for the vaccination (₹35,000 Crores ) was used.

Provisions of the New Vaccination Policy

  • Procurement of 25 per cent vaccinations which was earlier with states will now be undertaken by the Government of India.
  • The government of India will buy 75 per cent of the total vaccines produced and will provide it to the states free of cost. No state government would be spending anything on vaccines.
  • The system of 25 per cent vaccines being procured directly by the private hospitals will continue. Private hospitals can’t charge more than 150 rupees service charge over the decided price of the vaccines.

The Centre said that this policy would be rolled out in two weeks.

“In two weeks, the Centre and states will make necessary preparations as per new guidelines,” the Centre announced yesterday.

Till today, more than 23 Crore vaccine doses have been administered in the country.

To ward off the embarrassment caused by such a contentious policy which was not conforming with the constitutional rights of the citizens, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without referring to the judicial review, blamed it on the state governments.

“As the corona cases started declining, questions arose about the lack of choice for states and some people questioned why the Central government is deciding everything,” he said.

“India’s vaccination program was run mostly under the Central government. Free vaccination for all was moving forward and people were showing discipline in getting vaccinated when their turn came, amid all these demands for decentralization of vaccination were raised, the decision about priority to certain age groups was raised. Many types pressures were exerted and certain sections of media took it as a campaign,” the PM said.

But with that being said the role of the judiciary in making the government roll back its policy in the interest of the people is being lauded as the victory of judicial review. Also, it has attracted positive response for the apex court which was being alleged of evading several matters related to the public interest under the pressure from the current political regime.

Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana Extended  Till Deepawali.

In another major announcement, the Central government announced the extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana till Deepawali.

As per the announcement, till November, 80 crore people will continue to get a decided amount of free food grain every month.

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COVAXIN Clinical Trials on Children Aged 2 to 18 Approved, Gap Between COVISHIELD Doses Now 12-16 weeks

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vaccination of children approved

New Delhi: Faced with a shortage of vaccine, the Union government yesterday announced the extension of the gap between the first and second doses of COVISHIELD vaccine to 12-16 weeks. The present gap between the two doses of the COVISHIELD vaccine is 6-8 weeks. No change in the interval of COVAXIN vaccine doses was recommended.

The only logic behind this decision seems to cover more people for the first dose so that the fatality rate could be reduced. Further, it might take some pressure off India’s already overwhelmed healthcare services. Also, the Union government is under fire for the delay in supplying sufficient vaccine to the states to start covering the 18-44 age group. Several state including Himachal Pradesh had earlier opened the registration on April 28, but the delivery of vaccine was delayed. 

Further, Drugs Controller General of India, India’s drug regulator, on Wednesday granted permission to Bharat Biotech Ltd to conduct the Phase II/III clinical trial of Covaxin in the age group of 2 to 18 years, said the Union Health Ministry.

The Ministry said the trial will be conducted on 525 healthy volunteers who will be administered two doses of the vaccine at a gap of 28 days through intramuscular shots.

Also Read: Himachal Reports 634 Covid-19 Deaths and Over 51,000 Cases in 13 Days

Bharat Biotech had proposed to carry out a Phase- II/III clinical trial of Covaxin in the age group of 2 to 18 years, the ministry said.

“As a rapid regulatory response, the proposal was deliberated in Subject Expert Committee (SEC) (COVID-19) on May 11, 2021. The Committee after detailed deliberation recommended for grant of permission to conduct proposed Phase II/III clinical trial to certain conditions” it added.

Covaxin is India’s first domestically-developed Covid-19 vaccine. It is a two-dose jab that uses an inactivated or “dead” form of the virus. It was the first Covid-19 vaccine in the world to begin testing on children as young as 12 years of age in Phase II trials in September 2020.

Covaxin is being administered on adults (18 and above) in the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination drive in the country.

According to government statistics, the cumulative number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the country stood at 17,91,77,029 on Thursday.

The government says that 4,37,192 beneficiaries of the age group 18-44 years received their first dose of COVID vaccine on Thursday and cumulatively 39,14,688 across 32 States/UTs since the start of Phase-3 of the vaccination drive.

Himachal Pradesh Government has announced that vaccination drive would open for the 18-44 years age group from May 17, 2021.

Image by v-3-5-N-a from Pixabay

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