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The Costliest Pearl- Book Review

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Indian Ocean has always been instrumental in expanding India’s influence. From the ancient times when Indians had trade relations with Sumerian and Greek Civilizations to the times of Chola Empire when whole of South East Asia was under the ambit of Indian influence. Indian Ocean has not only served as a medium of trade but also linked the nations around culturally and religiously. India has always considered Indian Ocean as its own backyard. This changed in 21st century with the rise of China. Suddenly this prized possession was not safe from Chinese ambitions. Celebrated journalist and author Bertil Lintner explains the geopolitical ambitions of China to master the Indian Ocean. He argues that economic diplomacy of China is nothing more than a veil for a grand strategic takeover. Through various facts and scenarios he delivers a warning to the stakeholders of Indian Ocean about the changing reality.

China’s interest in the Indian Ocean coincides with its rise as an economic power. Historically China has never been present in the Indian Ocean in centuries. The only example is of Admiral Zhang He who in 15th century travelled across Malacca Strait to reach India and from there to the Horn of Africa. This feat was not repeated till the end of the 20th century partly because of China’s Middle Kingdom syndrome. However in the 21st century China increased its trade with Africa and Middle East therefore needed a presence in Indian Ocean to guard its interests. China is looking for shortcuts for its trade routes to relieve itself from strategic checkpoints of Malacca and Hormuz .Indian Ocean is an arena housed by various powers like US, UK, France, India and Australia. This book describes how China is winning over small island states in the Indian Ocean to establish its supremacy and pushing all these major powers on back foot. The title of the book is inspired by a US Strategy paper of 2005 which described the concept of ‘String of Pearls’. With US losing its supremacy in the arena it depends on other regional powers to counter China. Lintner also provides some insights on the future course of action of major powers of Indian Ocean to push back China and why it’s important to do so.

The pearls that China included in its strategy include Djibouti, Gwadar, Hambantota, Kyaukyu, Mauritius, Maldives, and Seychelles etc. One of the most important geographic points on earth is Djibouti. A small state in Africa houses military bases of all major powers in the world. Lintner correctly describes it as a new Casablanca as it has become of a hotspot for confrontation. China has the biggest military base in Djibouti which can house 100,000 troops. Djibouti is a resource less country therefore allotting land for bases was a viable option for the tiny nation. China has trapped Djibouti in its debt trap by offering huge amounts of money for its development and can cause turmoil in the region. Two states are extensively dealt with are Myanmar and Mauritius. Myanmar has tried to balance out China and India. It gives shelter to networks of Indian rebel and Chinese rebel groups which cause havoc in their respective countries. India specially had trouble dealing with military junta government in Myanmar. China has provided extensive economic support to Myanmar for infrastructure. It was also instrumental in development of Kyaukyu port which couldn’t materialize because Myanmar realized that it could fall into the debt trap of China and lose its sovereignty. On the other hand India is building Siitwe port as part of its Kaladan multimodal project to compete with China. Mauritius has an interesting history as lots of migrant labours were taken away from India during British Raj. Now the Indian origin population makes a significant portion of the local populace and hence is favorable to India’s ambitions. The British and French interests in Mauritius have not faded due to adjacent strategic islands around Mauritius. Still China has invested large amounts of money and wants to build a smart city and uses tourism as a big factor to change policies of these island nations. Seychelles also stands as a frontline nation in Sino-Indian rivalry. Since it is the link for BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) China has used all means to keep Seychelles on its side from financial to military cooperation. China has trained an elite force of Seychelles army and provided them with naval equipments. China has also used tourism as a significant policy tool as island states’ income depend on tourism and overwhelming tourists of China drive the change. Examples have been given that how China crippled Palau’s economy by denying its tourists to visit it. However India has also maintained friendly relations and maintained a coastal surveillance system in Seychelles. Similarly Maldives also present an avenue for competition between India and China with both states promoting their candidates in the election. With Mohamed Solih’s election India could sigh relief for some time as Maldives leaders have also tried to outbalance both giants. In spite of India’s favored candidate winning presidency Maldives is under China’s stranglehold and it would be very difficult to free Maldives from this power struggle. Besides these islands Lintner talks about French Departments in the Indian Ocean, British Indian Ocean Territories including American base Diego Garcia and Australia’s island bases. These bases could prove effective in the possibility of a grand coalition against China’s aggressive policies in the Indian Ocean.

Present situation could be understood alternatively as a new Cold War. Strategy of China is to replace US as a world power. It is the classic Thucydides trap where war between rising power and established power is unavoidable. Author list historical examples from World War II when Japan wanted to replace US power in Pacific and Germany wanted to replace UK, the war was inevitable between them. If this theory is to be believed ‘Policy of Appeasement’ of China by US won’t work because China is not seeking compromise but World domination. Lintner dismisses a formation like G-2 to solve security crises and there is no point in pursuing compromise like British PM Chamberlain which failed to contain Germany. In this Sino-US struggle Australia finds itself in a dilemma. It has always aligned itself with western nations but now its economy is dependent on China, at the same time it is strategically important to counter China. Its decision would be important in security architecture of Indian Ocean. Lintner believes that countries response have been inadequate while China sprints in the region. India and Japan have signed various strategic documents but it has yet to come to life. He criticized India’s lopsided Look East policy because of India’s less investment in infrastructure hence not been able to compete with China in South East Asia. Lintner asks US and India to understand BRI as a strategic tool of China and do not mistake it as only economic plan. However he concludes in the end chapter that not everything is rosy for China. It’s facing a pushback in Myanmar and its pipelines in Pakistan are attacked by militants. There is a possibility that China won’t succeed through its aggressive techniques because it will antagonize small states. Hambantota port in Sri Lanka is a clear example of that. Besides India- Japan- US enhanced cooperation would be able overcome China’s maritime strength. India has also started to make a base in Seychelles and has tactical arrangement with Japan’s base at Djibouti to counter China. In the end challenges that China faces will have to be seen: Aging population, overstretching of BRI resources, Japan and India as an alternative security provider and a politically aware citizenry would be too great factors to cut short its ambitions. Lintner has adopted the lengthy narrative history of the territories. It’s important to understand the relation of these island states with China. Bertil outlines the economic dependence of these states on China but has not focused on security dimensions. He has ignored the proximity of islands with French and British powers which could also drive their policies. The book includes Myanmar as a case study while others were island states. Other nations like Thailand, Vietnam, and Bangladesh could have been included in the discussion. Despite India being a major power it was not mentioned enough in the book. A mention of its investment and military bases was there but no discussion about the strategy. Similarly he mentions China’s military overtures and investment, client patron relations but fails to give a wider perspective on their strategic intent and defence capability. Lintner writes as a journalist and makes information accessible but it does not provide in depth information and analysis for the researchers. But overall the book provides good insights on small nation states of Indian Ocean as the information is not readily available. This would help the policymakers in making efficient decisions when dealing with small island states and dealing with resurging China in India’s backyard.  

Kartik Asthana is a postgraduate scholar at Jindal School of International Affairs. His research interest includes security studies, non proliferation and disarmament.

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South Asia

Rohingya crisis: How long will Bangladesh single-handedly assume this responsibility?

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Photo: IOM/Mashrif Abdullah Al

At least 8,60,000 Rohingya FDMNs, mostly women and children entered Bangladesh fleeing unbridled murder, arson and rape by the Tatmadaw in Rakhine, what the United Nations has decried as textbook example of ethnic cleansing and genocide, beginning on August 25, 2017. The latest influx of Rohingyas brought the number of undocumented and registered Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to more than 1.1 million. Not a single Rohingya returned home to Rakhine when the Myanmar government blocked the repatriation process in various ways. Owing to critical socio-economic, environmental and security concerns, the Bangladesh government launched a project of relocating one-tenth of the Rohingyas to Bhashan Char on a voluntary basis. So far 18,334 Rohingyas have been relocated to Bhashan Char and they expressed “high satisfaction” over the existing considerable safe, secured and crime-free environment compared to the mobbed camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Bangladesh government invested more than US $310 million from its own funds to develop the 13,000-acre island with all amenities and facilities of drinkable water, electricity, sanitation, agricultural plots, 120 cyclone shelters in each cluster, two hospitals, four community clinics, mosques, warehouses, telecommunication services, police station, learning centers and playgrounds which is far better than the facilities in the Cox’s Bazar camps. From the outset, the initiative was called into question by some human rights organizations and NGOs. However, in the wake of recent visits by high officials of the international community and donor states, it has been proven that the allegations against Bangladesh were merely political and propaganda.

Delegates from the EU, the OIC and the UN all demonstrated their prima facie satisfaction by seeing the facilities and living conditions of the Rohingya refugees in the Bhashan Char. Previously, a few INGOs and interest groups disseminated that the conditions in Bhashan Char are inhabitable and the relocation plan is a wrong decision of the Bangladesh government. But now all the foreign delegates and human rights proponents agreed that the decision to relocate some 100,000 Rohingyas to Bhashan Char under the Ashrayan-3 project was a timely decision for the well-being of the Rohingya community itself. Since the massive influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh in August, 2007, Bangladesh has actively carried out its humanitarian role. But, has the international community fulfilled its duty, apart from criticizing Bangladesh’s initiatives and raising funds for refugees for the time being? Bangladesh has done its part, and it is now time that the international community shares the burden and puts pressure on Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya refugees.

Bangladesh is trying to solve the crisis with its utmost efforts using all of its diplomatic maneuvers in the bilateral, trilateral and multilateral levels. Acknowledging the outstanding assistance in hosting 1.1 million Rohingya in Bangladesh, the US special envoy for climate change John Kerry during his recent visit to Bangladesh said that the global community must hasten its efforts to resolve the crisis as it is not merely responsibility for the country. Bangladesh in every multilateral forum has been desperately raising the issue of the Rohingya crisis as it has a far reaching social, economic, environmental and security concerns not only for Bangladesh but also for the South Asian region. For instance, Bangladesh raised the Rohingya issue at the 10th D-8 summit held in Dhaka and sought international support.  But it is ironic, due to lack of goodwill of the concerned parties, the situation is protracting. All the international community including the UN, the EU and the OIC members should work in a coordinated way to find a comprehensive and durable solution to the Rohingya crisis.

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Covid19 mismanagement in India

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© UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

The writer is of the view that the pandemic in India would have been less virulent if the Indian government had been more truthful and egalitarian in its preventive policies. India prematurely claimed a “victory” against the virus. It vowed to export vaccines to other countries while its own states groaned under shortage of vaccine, drugs and oxygen. The government called the foreign Muslim preachers “super spreaders of the virus” and “terrorists” while allowing elections rallies and  Kumbh congregation. The pandemic brought home one truth. Lies do not always fructify.

India is struggling to contain the spread of the new ‘double mutant’ Covid-19 variant which has turned out to be quite lethal. The positivity peaked with 3, 82,315 new Covid-19 cases pushing the country’s overall caseload to over 2, 06, 65,148. With fresh infections, the total active coronavirus cases in the country has mounted to 34, 87,229, according to the data released by India’s health ministry. The New York times reported, ‘The sudden surge in recent weeks, with an insidious newer variant possibly playing a role, is casting increasing doubt on India’s official Covid-19 death toll of nearly 200,000, with more than 2,000 people dying every day (New York Times April 24, 2021). However some reports indicate death of 2, 26, 000 to 3, and 23,000.

How the virus ran amok

White House chief medical adviser and America’s top pandemic expert Dr Anthony Fauci says, `India’s home-grown COVID-19 vaccine (Covaxin), has been found to neutralise the 617 variant of the deadly virus’. The mounting deaths are apparently due to India’s failure to inoculate its whole population. India’s prime minister Modi had declared a premature “victory” against the virus. India announced that it has enough vaccines to export to over 76 countries. The government looked the other way when police carried out a witch hunt against the foreign Muslim preachers when they visited India. They were labeled “corona super spreaders” and even “terrorists”.  However, the courts exonerated most of the preachers of the charges.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party fumed and fretted about the preachers. But, it allowed a Hindu religious congregation of naked or semi-naked pilgrims (Kumbh) to be held without any let up or hindrance. The BJP chief minister of Uttarkhand declared that faith and the purifactory power of the Ganga River would suffice as a Covid shield, though it did not. The mounting deaths are apparently due to India’s failure to stop congregations and inoculate its whole population. India’s prime minister Modi had declared a premature “victory” against the virus. India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, audaciously claimed that India’s fatality rate is still “the lowest in the world”. Two months back, he declared that his nation was “in the endgame” of the pandemic.

His boss, Modi, boasted to the World Economic Forum in January that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively”. Narendra Modi’s claim was preceded by the announcement that he was bringing a “message of confidence, positivity and hope from 1.3 billion Indians amid these times of apprehension”.

He looked the other way when police carried out a witch hunt against the foreign Muslim preachers when they visited India. They were labeled “corona super spreaders” and even “terrorists”.

White House chief medical adviser and America’s top pandemic expert Dr Anthony Fauci says, `India’s home-grown COVID-19 vaccine (Covaxin), has been found to neutralise the 617 variant of the deadly virus’.

The new variant ‘B.1.618’ is a major immune escape variant. India hit the world’s highest single-day tally when it recorded more than 300,000 active cases in a day. Hospitals in the country are running out of oxygen supply, resulting in a sharp rise in the number of deaths. Viral videos showed desperate people exhaling into mouths of their dying kins. Wood became short to cremate dead bodies. While patients kept dying for want of a bed or oxygen, par-medical staff kept minting money by stealing medicines from hospital stores, allocating and re-allocating beds, or charging exorbitant price of about Rs. 3000 a kilometer.

Situation in occupied Kashmir

The situation in occupied Kashmir became particularly gruesome. Oxygen cylinders from the disputed state were “bought out” for other states. Vaccinations centres soon vanished as no vaccine was available. The viral videos indicated that Kashmiri leaders were languishing in jails without medical treatment. Kashmiri women mourned deaths of their relatives outside hospitals. Simultaneously,

cordon-and search operations continued to kill innocent Kashmiris.

For a population of nearly 1.2 crore, there are only 600 ventilators. In Srinagar city, there is an availability of only 13,000 litres of oxygen per minute which, the medical experts say, was too low to cater to the ongoing rise in the cases. Several doctors said that each patient requires between 5-10 litres of oxygen per minute and the existing supplies at Srinagar hospitals are sufficient only for 2,000-3,000 people in a given time.

The work on the oxygen plants at the government hospitals is either stalled or has been going on at a snail pace. Although two more plants were opened in the northern Kashmir areas of Kupwara and Sopore on Sunday and another one was ready for use in southern Kashmir’s Shopian. The plants with their capacities of 1,000-litre per minute could cater to a few hundred people in a given time only.

Hospitals have no drugs, not even  Remdesivir. A court observed, ‘Death of Covid patients due to non-supply of oxygen not less than genocide’. Another court asked people to register murder charges against the election commission for allowing election gatherings.

Taking advantage of abrogation of special status, the Indian government is bringing people affected by the Corona epidemic into the Kashmir Valley.

Covid19 exposed limitations of propaganda

Modi’s gung-ho announcements of victories against the virus did not end the pandemic. He owes many of his electoral victories to the power of propaganda. He blamed Pakistan for bomb blasts in India and Kashmir. A self-styled businesswoman Madi Sharma (RAW surrogate) arranged a guided tour of far-right members of European parliament to the occupied Kashmir (October 30, 2013) through a fake International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies. The Institute paid for the travel and accommodation of an unofficial far-right delegation of 23 European Union parliamentarians to Srinagar on. The delegation’s shikara (boat) ride in Kashmir Lake (dal) pictured Kashmir as a heaven in serene peace. Some members however smelt a rat and abandoned the free joy ride. The aim was to convince the world that it was all hunky-dory in the occupied Kashmir after abrogation of the special status and age-old hereditary-ownership law.

Modi acted on Hitler’s propaganda playbook

It appears India has meticulously implemented Hitler’s propaganda theorems: `The bigger the lie, the better the results. The success of any propaganda campaign ultimately depends on the propagandist’s down-to-earth understanding of the “primitive sentiments of the popular masses”. Mein Kampf (pp. 179-180).  

The Arnab Goswami transcripts exposed Modi’s fake “surgical strikes”. Goswami referred to the Pulwama attack on 14 February 2019. Three days before the Balakot air strike on 26 February 2019, Goswami purportedly said India’s response would be: “Bigger than a normal air strike. And on the same time something major on Kashmir (abrogation of Special Status)”.

The leaks of the WhatsApp messages of Arnab Goswami (Republic TV) brought into limelight some bitter truths. One bitter truth is that the general public is a ‘bewildered herd’ (to quote Noam Chomsky) who could easily be made a fool of.

The leaked WhatsApp chats revealed that the Balakot ‘surgical strikes’ were conducted to shore up Narendra Modi’s image as a `strong man’, a Brobdignagian among the self-centered Lilliputian Indian politicians. The ‘strike’ helped Modi win elections with a thumping majority.

Though Modi is educated only up to high school, he understands the power of propaganda. He has done a three-month course in the USA on Image Management and Public Relations. His campaign blitz cost about $700 million. Modi is considered the most techno-savvy leader of India as he is very active on various social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The WhatsApp chats between Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami and former Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) CEO Partho Dasgupta run into 500 long pages. They revealed the nexus between the media and politicians to hoodwink the masses.

Modi considers Indian people a “herd”. Modi owed his electoral victory to the power of propaganda. He made a fool of not only the Indian masses but also the world around until the West Bengal debacle.

History tells that the people, even the Americans, are gullible. Propaganda deeply influenced even independent-minded Americans who laid down a constitution, beginning with the words ‘we the people’. Chomsky says even the American masses are like a “bewildered herd” who have stopped thinking. He asserts that, in a “properly functioning democracy”, there are a “small percentage of the people”, a “specialised class of citizens” who … “analyse, execute, make decisions and run things in the political, economic, and ideological systems”. Chomsky reminds, ‘Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1916 on the platform “Peace without Victory”, right in the middle of World War I.  The American population was extremely pacifistic and saw no reason to become involved in a European War. The Wilson Administration established a government propaganda commission, called the Creel Committee, which succeeded, within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war mongering population which wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans limb from limb, go to war and save the world…. After the war the same techniques were used to whip up a hysterical Red Scare…’.

Conspiracy theories exposed

One of the first conspiracy theories that came to light was that China created COVID-19 as a biological weapon in a laboratory in Wuhan (Jaaved, 2020). Another widespread conspiracy theory is that 5G technology is the primary cause of the highly contagious virus or even the amounts of deaths. Without enough evidence there are two sides to this theory: it is the direct cause of the virus because it has a very high level of frequency or it uses these high levels of frequency to weaken people’s immune systems and that way causing a lot of damage and fear. But this 5G theory also comes back to China. China has a very impressive technological security that uses 5G technology, and some traces show a connection between 5G hotspots and the first COVID-19 outbreaks (Thomas, 2020).

According to “The WHO terms the conspiracy theories as “infodemic” that “spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous”.

Concluding remarks

The pandemic has proved that propaganda does not always succeed. Abraham Lincoln was right in saying “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

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The World Biggest COVID-19 Crisis: Failure of India’s Vaccine Diplomacy

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Health workers pose with a vial of COVID-19 vaccine after receiving their shots at a hospital in India. UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

As over 100 million people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated and the world’s daily count of new cases is falling, India faces healthcare system collapse as a second coronavirus wave is devastating. In accordance with the recent statistics of the WHO, in the past week approximately 2 million new confirmed cases were reported worldwide – almost half were from India. Interestingly, India is one of the main producers and exporters of coronavirus vaccines in the world and since mid-January, the federal government has approved a British-made Oxford-AstraZeneca, and a locally developed– a national pride Covaxin (both are being produced in India) for the massive immunization drive that has set the ambitious goal of fully immunizing 300 million people, particularly healthcare workers by the end of summer. Meanwhile, India had initially been planning to set the world record for mass vaccination but they ended up with the world record coronavirus cases, surpassing 400.000 daily COVID-19 cases for the first time.

The development and deployment of an effective and safe vaccine against the coronavirus was a key pillar in the authority’s current strategy to break down the chain of transmission. However, despite a promising start of a vaccination campaign at the beginning of this year, one of the largest immunization programs across the globe, it turns out there is not a sufficient amount of vaccine supplies in a number of states across the country. As cases continue to surge, many across the country have rushed to register for shots but most states are running out of doses and a large number of vaccination centers across India turned away people due to chronic shortages or complete lack of availability of jabs. While India is one of the major producers of COVID-19 vaccines with a monthly capacity of 70 million doses, now forced to import jabs, as local manufacturing facilities are facing challenges to meet growing demand. As India’s expansion of its immunization campaign has been failing badly, it makes a disastrous situation even worse. On the other hand, the current devastation leads to a depression in global vaccine supply and consequently, it hits the low and middle-income countries, as they rely on the Indian pharmaceutical industry.

The second devastating wave was hitting the country since mid-April and apparently, India’s poorly funded public healthcare system is not capable enough to overcome the world’s largest surge in COVID cases. Health facilities overwhelmed as infection rates explode; therefore, many hospitals in the large cities already suspended admitting even the critically ill coronavirus patients as all beds were full and medical equipment, particularly oxygen concentrators, ICU beds, test kits, PPEs and ventilators in short supply, while corpses pile up at morgues and crematoriums. As a death toll rises sharply, additional crematoriums are being built in order to deal with the grim situation, especially in the hardest-hit cities and states. Furthermore, in the midst of a big surge Indian government also launched a vaccination drive for anyone over the age of 18 starting 1st of May.  Ironically, along with China and Russia, India was a country that had begun exporting home-grownCOVID-19 vaccine doses to foreign countries, but only less than 3% of its population has been fully vaccinated so far. During a global pandemic, thanks to its massive production capacity, India actively donated locally produced Coronavirus vaccines to the Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and African low and middle-income nations under the “Vaccine Friendship” program. The initiative was launched in early 2021 and it sought to promote cooperation and cement ties by distributing a dozen of jabs through the Vaccine Diplomacy. In reality, in the battle to gain political influence across the developing world, India shipped millions of doses to poorer countries before managing to secure an adequate amount of vaccines for its own people.

India’s infections keep surging due to the unavailability of medical resources and thus the crisis also affecting the global vaccine and medical supply chains, as over 40 countries, including Russia, European Union, China and the United States and numerous international charities are proactively providing a range of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance.

Many events marking religious festivals and cultural events across the world have been banned because of Coronavirus; on the contrary, despite the high risks of infection several crowded religious festivals and gatherings have been taking place in India’s various holy sites and places of worship with a thousand of unmasked pilgrims and devotees. Additionally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s total23campaign rallies that brought tens of thousands of incautious supporters together caused the spike in coronavirus cases. Hence, the federal government acted reluctantly to impose major restrictions for containing the virus by relying on local authorities to take action.

Indeed, India is the third country with over130 million doses administrated in the world, the highest figure just behind the United States and China respectively, but even the large-scale vaccination process was insufficient to prevent the second wave for a population of more than 1.3 billion people. Although international flights are being suspended to and from India by many governments, a more transmissible India COVID variant, formally known as B.1.617has already been detected in multiple countries and territories worldwide. India’s COVID -19 crisis warns that the risk of infection remains high and many countries could face a strong resurgence of COVID-19similar to India. Health experts concern that a new and more contagious strain spreads more easily and it could even evade vaccines. The current outbreak shows that every country remains vulnerable and could find itself in dire straits unless the adaptation and implementation of strict anti-pandemic measures and policies. However, strengthening the public health system, enhancing safety protocols and sanitary measures, ensuring transparency and accountability, and initiating a successful immunization campaign will be seemingly crucial to combat the pandemic, otherwise, a similar crisis could soon become a common tragedy for the entire world in the foreseeable future.

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