This article originally appeared on VICE IN.
Somewhere between scientists working overtime to make a vaccine or cure for coronavirus and countries going into total lockdowns to protect their populations, herd immunity has been brought up as a possible strategy in the battle against the novel virus. This controversial practice of letting a large percentage of the population get infected by coronavirus so that they can recover, develop antibodies and become resistant to it was floated around in countries like Sweden and the UK. While it has been implemented in Sweden where epidemiologists say it’s working, most other countries that considered it have dismissed it as too dangerous due to its high risk of causing death. However, researchers at Princeton University and the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP)—a public health advocacy group based in New Delhi and Washington—are now saying that this questionable strategy could actually work in a country like India, which has a disproportionately young population that faces a significantly lesser chance of hospitalisation and death due to coronavirus.
“No country can afford a prolonged period of lockdowns, and least of all a country like India,” Jayaprakash Muliyil, a prominent Indian epidemiologist told Bloomberg. “You may be able to reach a point of herd immunity without infection really catching up with the elderly. And when the herd immunity reaches a sufficient number the outbreak will stop, and the elderly are also safe.” Muliyil and the other researchers speculate that if this virus were to be unleashed onto India’s population in a controlled manner, it could make at least 60 percent of its population immune by November. Although it does not make any death projections, this research hypothesises that since 93.5 percent of Indians are under 65, the virus’ mortality would automatically reduce. It also points that in countries like India, Indonesia and Sub-Saharan Africa, the difficulties of social distancing in overcrowded living conditions, lack of access to testing kits and crushing socio-economic impact of lockdowns may demand such a radical strategy.
In order to follow this theory, the Princeton and CDDEP team recommend that India lift its strict lockdown, which has been imposed till May 3 for now, and allow people under the age of 60 to return to normalcy, while avoiding large gatherings and stressing the importance of social distancing and face masks. The reopening of society must also be accompanied by ramped up testing, patient identifying and isolating efforts, while senior citizens should continue to stay in quarantine and get priority for testing and treatment.
Meanwhile critics point out that though the Indian government has not adopted this strategy, their restrictive testing anyway pushes them in this direction. The main justification for adopting this strategy is to prevent the economic consequences of the lockdown, which has left behind starving migrants and unprecedented layoffs or furloughs. “We’re dealing with a trade-off against starvation, hunger, all this other stuff,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, the director of the CDDEP and a Princeton researcher. He says that while deaths in such a situation are inevitable, they will potentially be much lesser than the damaging backlash of businesses shutting down, which could lead to starvation and suicide.
However, as seen from Britain’s early adoption and consequent abandoning of this strategy, the death projections could overburden an already struggling healthcare system, especially in an overpopulated country like India. There are also fears that its projected impact could be much worse than anticipated given the number of people vulnerable to weak immune systems due to heavy air pollution and increased risks of hypertension and diabetes.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of putting citizen’s lives at risk for the sake of the economy, a decision that could come with grave consequences. As the World Health Organization explicitly put it, we still don’t know enough about the virus or its capabilities to adopt risky strategies like herd immunity.
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