Pov

Indian Vaccine Debate in the UK: Racism, Capitalism or an Issue of trust?

For sisters Khusboo and Hitakshi Damakia, the United Kingdom is the dream destination for higher studies. Khusboo is studying banking and finance at Queen Mary University in the heart of London while Hitakshi is pursuing environmental engineering from the University of Nottingham. Their father Ketan has accompanied them to the UK to ensure his daughters settle into their new lives with ease. All three have taken the Indian avatar of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – Covishield – and are frustrated with the UK government’s continued decision to not recognise the Indian vaccine and label them ‘unvaccinated’.


By Ruhi Khan, 28 Sep 2021


For the first ten days they stayed with a relative under home quarantine and Ketan had to book an extra ten days holidays from work to accommodate the quarantine requirements.

“We are lucky that we have a relative here in the UK who agreed to host us for the quarantine period, else it would be so expensive do this in a hotel. It is also a waste of time,” says a frustrated Ketan, who has to take yet another expensive test before he boards a flight back to Mumbai.

Over 56000 Indian students have been given visas to pursue their studies in the UK, according to the Home Office figures. Applications into undergraduate courses, has seen an increase of 30% from Indian students this year.

India is the second biggest market (after China) to tap international students and with the two-year post-study visa now giving students an opportunity to look for work in the UK after their studies, the floodgates have opened. Also over half the work-related visas go to Indians.

With the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the confusion regarding the travel measures, the move to Britain is now fraught with more hardships and challenges.

“We have had the same vaccine as most people in the UK, yet we are treated differently.”

The Covishield and certification controversy

The UK international travel traffic light system for Covid-19 changed in mid-September and now has a single red list. India is not in the red, but even a double vaccinated person from India was considered ‘unvaccinated’ in the UK.

Unvaccinated people have to self-isolate for 10 days on arrival and take two PCR tests, whether they are arriving from a red list country or not. They can also take a day five ‘test to release’ PCR test to get out of isolation slightly earlier.

Sajid Javid, the minister for health and social care said that the measures were “simplified” to open up tourism. Grant Shapps, UK’s transport secretary, believed this was a “proportionate updated structure that reflects the new landscape”. Yet criticism of this system, especially from India, find it neither a means to encourage tourism nor to reflect the global landscape.

There are three vaccines used in India:

  • Covishield by Oxford-AstraZeneca in collaboration with Serum Institute of India (SII),
  • Covaxin by Indian firm Bharat Biotech, and
  • Russian-made Sputnik V.

Even though the SII supplied five million doses of the same formulation used in Covishield as the AstraZeneca vaccine that was offered to the people in the UK, Covishield was initially not on the ‘approved list of vaccines’. After relentless media coverage and reciprocal action threatened by the Indian government for visitors from the UK,

Covishield has now been added to the recently expanded inbound vaccination policy for the purposes of international travel. But, with India not featuring on the list of ‘approved’ countries, Indians with a double dose of Covishield still remain ‘unvaccinated’.

So from 4 October, India applied reciprocal measures to UK nationals arriving in India from the UK. Those vaccinated in the UK will also have to undergo a 10 day quarantine and a battery of tests when they land in India – pre-departure RT-PCR test 72 hours prior to travel, one on arrival at airport and another on day 8. Prior to this, a 7-14 day quarantine (depending on the guidelines issued by State governments) was already in effect for those coming to India from the United Kingdom.

Could UK’s hesitation to recognise Indian vaccines be due to reports that the World Health Organisation in August had identified that fake jabs of Covishield were given in India and some countries in Africa? But according to Check Point Research, the black market for fake certificates for Covid vaccines is global with at least 29 countries identified, and also includes the EU Digital Covid certificate, CDC and UK National Health Service (NHS) Covid-19 vaccine cards.

According to a UK government spokesperson, “certification from all countries must meet the minimum criteria taking into public health and wiser considerations”. While India’s CoWIN employs high technical standards and also generates a QR code for verifications, it still fell short of World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK standards, according to sources, as it did not specify the date of birth of the person (but had only the age) and hence the identity of the person linked to the passport could not be clearly established for international travel purposes. India has now agreed to include the full date of birth, to comply with the WHO standards and this many hope will help relax the strict UK travel rules further.

Should vaccinated Indians take UK vaccines?

While the Indian students and residents are offered a vaccine on the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) for free, several questions remain unanswered regarding the viability of such an option for those already administered one or two doses of vaccines in India. Since no such clinical trials have been carried out yet, such measures come with increased risks and uncertainty. Being ‘unvaccinated’ could also have a cascading effect where many could find themselves discriminated against in jobs and prohibited to take part in leisure activities.

Shahid Jameel, a virologist and the Director of Trivedi School of Bioscience at Ashoka University in New Delhi, who recently moved to the UK for his professorial fellowship at University of Oxford found the 10 day quarantine and testing “ridiculous” for those already vaccinated in India. For long-term visitors like him, getting vaccinated again in the UK is an option, but is it viable?

“Based on the science of immunology, there is nothing against the mixing of vaccines. In fact, when two different types of vaccines are mixed, you get better responses to what is common to them,” says Jameel. However he is cautious as safety and efficacy trials have not been done this way.

While some smaller studies have however taken place on vaccine mixing, even these studies have used one dose each of the two different vaccines.

“I am not aware of any study where a person fully immunized with two doses of one vaccine is then given two more doses of another vaccine. From whatever we know, it should be fine, but I would be more comfortable if there is data available on this, even it were from smaller studies,” says Jameel, adding “Would NHS also give two full doses of a mRNA vaccine to those UK residents who got the Astra-Zeneca vaccine made by Serum Institute of India? So, this whole thing is bizarre.”

The unrelenting Covid-19 costs

Until August, a hotel-quarantine costing upwards of £1750 and Covid tests costs ranging from £170 to £575, were mandatory measures put into place for all travellers from India including students. It served as a huge financial drain into the student’s budget that included the hefty outgoings of tuition and cost of living in the UK.

Over the past year, National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU) has worked tirelessly to help many Indians adjust to the ever-changing Covid rules in the UK. “To thousands we provided food and groceries and access to accommodation.

We assisted students to seek help for mental health and wellbeing and ensured a continuous dispersion of timely and critical updates,” says Sanam Arora, chairperson of NISAU.

“It is disheartening to see Indian students who are already paying exorbitant tuition fees and living expenses, now pay an additional bill for quarantine and testing, simply because Britain refuses to accept the Indian certification for the very same vaccines that were given in the UK.”

In August, the hotel quarantine was replaced by a 10-day home quarantine which is currently in effect. From October 4, when the new rules come into effect, the ten-day home quarantine for those coming in from India will continue. Home quarantine rules have also generated a ‘shortage’ of accommodation for students in the UK as private landlords refuse to let students stay in their rooms during the 10-day quarantine.

This spilt housing has also made many students who would otherwise take private housing now look for university accommodations. Reports emerged that University of Bristol and University of York had to put students in accommodations far away from campus due to increased demand.

“This is a bubble waiting to explode and already causing much concern. The demand is almost twice that of the supply and most of the frantic queries we receive from students now are regarding finding an affordable accommodation,” says Arora.

Some universities have agreed to pay towards the 10-day quarantine. Navazish Ansari who is studying international relations at University of Essex believes that “quarantine measures are only put in place to safeguard the public” against further eruptions of Covid waves and “it is a big help” that his university is bearing the costs of his quarantine.

Bristol students were put in Bath (around 20 km away), whereas York students had to travel from Hull (around 50 km away). The universities believe this is a temporary measure and offered to provide transport. A higher demand has also pushed up housing costs for the students.

Allegations of vaccine racism

International students contribute £28.8 billion to the UK economy, making it one of the biggest earners for the UK according to a recently released report published by Universities UK International (UUKi) and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), with research from London Economics.

“This study provides a stark reminder of their financial importance to communities across the UK, economic recovery and the levelling up agenda,” says Vivienne Stern, Director of UUKi, that represents over 140 UK higher education institutions. “Higher education is one of the

UK’s greatest export earners,” said Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI who believes that the UK needs to give more help to the students including “provide a warm welcome, ensure our educational offer remains competitive and help international students secure fulfilling careers after study.” According to the UK Department for Education (DfE), India as one of the countries where the UK will urgently “help increase the value of education exports and international student numbers.”

Clearly Indian students are a precious commodity in the UK. Yet such measures make them feel otherwise. “Indian students tell us that they are feeling either discriminated against or treated as cash cows,” says Arora who is advocating to put students at the heart of policymaking. “I strongly feel though that this is not racism, as many have been quick to conclude.

The unrelenting Covid-19 costs

Until August, a hotel-quarantine costing upwards of £1750 and Covid tests costs ranging from £170 to £575, were mandatory measures put into place for all travellers from India including students. It served as a huge financial drain into the student’s budget that included the hefty outgoings of tuition and cost of living in the UK.

Over the past year, National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU) has worked tirelessly to help many Indians adjust to the ever-changing Covid rules in the UK. “To thousands we provided food and groceries and access to accommodation. We assisted students to seek help for mental health and wellbeing and ensured a continuous dispersion of timely and critical updates,” says Sanam Arora, chairperson of NISAU.

Racism is a wholly separate and complex matter; this appears to be more bureaucratic and can be resolved with the two countries smoothing and expediting processes and proactively working with each other. After all it’s our people to people ties that matter most,” she says.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh called this policy “bizarre” and alleged that it “smacks of racism”. Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, who is a regular visitor to the UK, was furious with the quarantine rules for India labelling the British policy as “imperial” and “offensive” to fully vaccinated Indians. Critics also claim that the strict measures could be a way to discredit the Indian vaccine, thus opening up the market for UK vaccine exports.

UK plays host to the international climate change talks (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, where leaders and delegates from 196 countries take part. Alok Sharma, president for COP26, is confident that the talks can take place in physical locations and has put several measures in place including an offer from the UK Government “to fund the required quarantine hotel stays for registered delegates arriving from red list areas and to vaccinate accredited delegates who would be unable otherwise to get vaccinated”. This offer is made explicitly to all Global South delegates and media who would be attending the conference and includes India.

Criticisms also abound against the UK for wasting vaccine on a select elite (already vaccinated) population while many in poorer countries and communities still do not have access to a single dose.

Is this fuelling vaccine hesitancy?

UK’s reluctance to accept Indian vaccines has opened up the pandora’s box of questions that sceptics have on the validity of vaccines. “It was the devastating second wave in India that convinced us to take the vaccines even though there were many doubts whether it would work,” said Damakia adding that UK’s decision to not recognise the vaccine has given more credence to those doubts.

Jameel argues that any policy that is not based on science but on politics and discrimination has the danger of increasing hesitancy. “In view of the issues of both unknown safety of a 2+2 dose schedule and vaccine wastage, better sense should prevail. NHS should be driven by science and not rumours and hysteria,” he says.

With the UK looking to forge a strong bilateral trade relationship with India, public perception of a highhanded approach towards Indians with no clear justifications of why the British refuses to recognise India’s Covishield certification will only create discord. Some believe that this could be the Britain’s way of creating a monopoly for its vaccines in the global market where India is a strong competitor. Others raise corruption in India to indicate a lack of trust in the proper administration of the vaccines. Talks are underway between India and the UK to find a mutually agreeable solution. Meanwhile thousands of Itravellers between the UK and India are left in a lurch.

After weeks of debates and deliberations the UK finally amended its travel policy for some fully vaccinated Indians. From October 11, travellers from India who have taken the Covishield vaccine or any other vaccine recognised by the UK, no longer have to undergo the ten-day quarantine. But those who have taken other vaccines in India still remain ‘unvaccinated’. India is expected to relax its travel measures against British visitors.

 

While this has come as a welcome measure after a long drawn diplomatic battle, it did raise several questions on why the UK was hesitant to do this earlier.  Some believe that this could be the Britain’s way of creating a monopoly for its vaccines in the global market where India is a strong competitor. Others raise corruption in India to indicate a lack of trust in the proper administration of the vaccines. Many call it vaccine racism.

Whatever the reasons, public perception of UK’s ‘high-handed’ approach towards Indians has only created discord. With Britain looking to forge a strong bilateral trade relationship with India, conflicts like these must be avoided.

Ruhi Khan is a journalist based in London and author of Escaped: True stories of Indian fugitives in London. She tweets @khanruhi.