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Opinion As an Indian, I am enraged by America’s refusal to set vaccine mandates

A health worker prepares to inoculate a woman against the coronavirus during a vaccination drive in Noida, India, on Aug. 3. (Altaf Qadri/AP)
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When I hear about the Biden administration’s call for states to pay $100 to anyone getting a coronavirus vaccine, I feel a surge of rage, disgust and bewilderment that it has come to this. I think of the deaths I have reported on across India during this pandemic and how the virus has swallowed up the lives and livelihoods of our poor.

I think of Mashkoor Khan, an elderly man who speaks with a tremble, lying almost paralyzed on his cot in a small town of Madhya Pradesh state in central India. He pointed me to an empty spot near his bed where his wife used to sleep before she died of covid-19. A clutch of passport photos is all that remains with him of his son and daughter, both of whom also died of the disease. The family says it mortgaged jewelry, sold land and dipped into life savings to pay the hospital fees. In just 19 days, almost an entire home was wiped out. “I have nothing left to live for,” Khan says.

Barkha Dutt: India failed to save the living from covid-19. Now, it won’t count the dead.

And when I see some American states go to war against mask mandates, I think of Sherchand, a daily wage worker in the capital city’s municipal administration, who earns a salary of 13,000 rupees a month — less than $180. He sold a plot of land to be able to pay the hefty fees for his wife, Manju. She died when the oxygen supply in an overburdened health system ran short. “I am left with neither wife, nor land,” says Sherchand, now a single father to three children.

The cash-rich Western countries that have not set vaccine mandates are displaying the worst sort of White privilege and unacceptable self-indulgence. In countries like mine, where less than 10 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, most people who have lost someone to covid-19 are struggling with personal loss and financial ruin. Schools have not opened for in-person learning for more than 500 days, and millions of kids have simply fallen out of the education system. The continued physical closure of schools has exacerbated the digital divide; a mere 11 percent of Indian households have access to a computing device. In villages where the poor sent their children to government schools not just in pursuit of education, but also for a hot meal or sanitary pads for their daughters, girls are now being pushed into child marriage.

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I’ve heard from friends in the United States about how individual freedom is the cornerstone of the American ethos. And so, apparently, enforcement won’t work when it comes to vaccines. Libertarian values are all very well — and we could do with much less of the “nanny state” in this part of the world — but when what you claim as a right starts being injurious to the well-being of others, it becomes indefensible. The staggering irony is that the same focus on individual liberty that informs opposition to gun control, for instance, is never extended to American women on abortion. But even if those issues are for the American people to quarrel over and resolve, covid-19 and its management impact us all.

For millions of my countrymen and women, our anger at this spoiled behavior is both personal and political. My father was among the Indians who died of covid-19 — officially 426,000, though the actual number is almost certainly at least five times higher. He may have lived had he been fully vaccinated on time.

Of course, some of the failure has been on the part of our government for not anticipating the lethal second wave and procuring enough vaccines. That does not exonerate the United States from the moral failure of possibly allowing millions of vaccine doses to languish and even expire without use.

Barkha Dutt: I lost my father to covid-19 — along with my faith in India’s government to protect our people

Vaccines are the only sustainable way to bring the pandemic under control. Other than masks, measures deployed in the first wave are no longer practical. As a reporter and covid-19 survivor who has extensively traveled across my country through the worst phases of the pandemic, I have seen the devastating costs of lockdowns or draconian restrictions. Curbing movement and shutting borders in an increasingly globalized world hurts both the economy and people. It also results in blatant discrimination based on nationality.

This is my other big quarrel with U.S. policy today. While many Americans are refusing to receive the vaccine, Indians are treated as pariahs with travel restrictions. This leaves students facing obstacles to entry, families separated, lovers estranged and businesses hobbled.

If we truly want the world to reopen, a double-jabbed global citizen should be treated equally whether she is from Canada, Britain or India. There is no rationale to create a hierarchy of the inoculated, at least not with the vaccines certified by the World Health Organization.

I understand that every country has to look after its own people before it looks outward. But if there is anything covid-19 has taught us, it is this: The world is interconnected, our futures tied together.

The United States should implement vaccine mandates now. And if it can’t, at least send vaccines to countries that need them most.

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