Lockdown – a social vaccine

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Measures against HIV-AIDS provide important clues in fight against COVID-19

Shabir Ahmad

In the fight against COVID-19, world-over countries are trying to contain the spread of the pandemic. They are relying on a hybrid strategy of imposing lockdowns and scaling up testing. Even as this strategy has severe socio-economic consequences and can’t be sustainable in the long-run, but as of now this seems all that humans have in their fight for survival. The experts suggest that instead of waiting for biomedical vaccine to be developed, it is better to develop a ‘social vaccine’ that will help us build societal immunity against the pandemic. Recently, India’s Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan referred to the ongoing lockdown as a social vaccine against the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s try and understand what is a social vaccine.

It is not a physical vaccine like the biomedical vaccines that we have. Instead, the term social vaccine is a metaphor that is used to refer to a series of social and behavioural measures that have been and can be employed by the government in order to mobilise the society towards a common goal through small behavioural changes in order to raise public consciousness against the disease. For instance, the forced imposition of social distancing through a lockdown is a type of social vaccine against the COVID-19 pandemic. Such social and behavioural changes have been successfully used in countries such as Uganda, Thailand and even in India in our fight against the HIV-AIDS pandemic. But in the context of COVID-19, the forced imposition of social distancing through a lockdown is unsustainable due to its socio-economic consequences. So the analysts and experts are asking to draw lessons from HIV pandemic in order to understand that how a successful social vaccine was developed through a couple of strategies: through information, education and communication or IEC measures, and through ‘targeted social and behavioural change communication’ or SPCC. They say that these social vaccine measures that were developed against the HIV-AIDS pandemic can be useful to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

Just like COVID-19, the HIV-AIDS is also a zoonotic disease that jumped from monkeys and chimpanzees to human beings. Reportedly, this disease occurred as early as in 1920’s. But it was only in 1981 that the epidemic was detected and in 1985 it was considered as a global pandemic. Between 1981 and 2018, the HIV-AIDS pandemic has reportedly infected around 75 million people around the world and it has claimed 32 million lives.

Similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV-AIDS pandemic also caused a lot of global panic in the initial stages. The panic occurred primarily because there were no diagnostics which could quickly diagnose the disease and there was no viable treatment or cure or vaccine against the disease. And considering the primary modes of transmission of HIV-AIDS, a lot of societal stigma developed against the disease and this led to a lot of discrimination and violence against the patients.

Similar to the current pandemic, even then there was a lot of blame-game between governments and various international agencies. The HIV-AIDS pandemic also exposed the socio-economic inequalities. It showed that a pandemic always has a disproportionate impact on the weaker and vulnerable sections and minorities.

Experience of dealing with the HIV-AIDS pandemic can offer a number of important lessons that can be useful in our fight against COVID-19 pandemic as well. If we look at HIV’s primary mode of transmission, it was transmitting due to risky behaviour such as unsafe sex practices and the intravenous usage of drugs. Since there was no treatment or vaccine available against HIV, the core prevention strategy was based on the development of a social vaccine in order to promote healthy social and behavioural changes which could tackle such risky behaviour.

Throughout the 1990’s, countries around the world adopted a series of information, education and communication measures as well as social and behavioural change communication measures that were primarily targeted at vulnerable groups such as sex workers, gay men, drug addicts, truck drivers, migrant workers, etc. These social vaccine measures helped in promoting awareness among the vulnerable groups to stay away from such risky behaviour. These measures helped in promoting safe sex practices and in bringing down the intravenous usage of drugs. These awareness campaigns and social and behavioural changes also helped in tackling the stigma surrounding the disease by promoting public consciousness and by mobilising the society to fight against the pandemic.

These social vaccine measures have not only helped in overcoming religious and cultural barriers and tackling risky behaviour but has also helped in tackling the stigma surrounding the disease. So the experts suggest that we need to draw lessons from HIV-AIDS pandemic and develop a social vaccine against the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

Since, the COVID-19 primarily spreads through mucous droplets secreted through mouth, nose and eyes, it is very important to maintain personal hygiene. This can be promoted through social and behavioural measures and people can be encouraged to frequently wash their hands by using soaps or alcohol based sanitizers.

The social vaccine measures can also help in promoting self-imposed social distancing or physical distancing and usage of masks. Because instead of using coercion to make it mandatory to practice social distancing and wearing masks, it is better to promote this as a voluntary practice and this can be done effectively through social and behavioural measures. This is where political leaders, community leaders and organisations can play a key role by adopting these social vaccine measures and lead from the front. If they lead with example, then citizens and their followers will voluntarily pick up these practices and this would be a more effective and sustainable way of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.

As the continuation of lockdown for months together is not sustainable, such social vaccine measures can help in developing the society’s immunity and it can help in slowing down or mitigating the spread of the pandemic.

(The author is a freelance writer from Raiyar Doodhpathri and writes on current affairs. He can be reached at [email protected])


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