India is gasping — literally. Oxygen is in acute short supply with patients dying as it runs out, ICU and hospital beds are hard to come by, States are reporting critical drugs, ventilators and vaccine shortage, people crib about lack of testing facilities and results taking too long, crematoriums are burning eight-ten bodies together on a pyre and graveyards have no land. With the country’s tally finally crossing 1.50 crore mark and a record single-day rise of 2,73,810 yesterday with active cases surpassing 19-lakhs and over 1500 deaths, Prime Minister Modi has finally admitted the situation is “grim”. Better late than never!
Already, some States are in complete lockdown. Delhi till 26 April, Maharashtra 30 April, Rajasthan 3 May, Bihar, UP, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have announced night curfew from 10 pm to 5 am in the hope that they can halt the wildfire-like spread of the disease while others work on ‘temporary’ reinforcements. Leaving our crippled health infrastructure scrambling for medical facilities.
It does not need a galaxy of experts to admit that our leaders and policy makers mismanaged the situation, lowering their guard and ignoring critical signs even as they patted themselves of having got the better of the pandemic, “bent the virus like Beckham” and “conquered” Covid in January. Failing to realize that in a country of 1.3 billion, a contagion does not simply vanish into thin air and disregarding sero-surveys across States which underscored a second wave. Scandalously, little was done with the data, follow-up or learn from the first wave to battle the second.
Take, Kerala while every State was reporting a decline in infection, the State was witnessing a surge having crossed 10 lakhs in February, second to Maharashtra. Asserted a former director of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering Biotechnology, “Anyone with a basic idea of infectious diseases knew it was lurking within us and could strike anytime. They should have used the interim to prepare for a second wave, instead they underestimated it. Now with a many people getting infected, the chances of the virus mutating at a faster pace has also increased.”
Certainly, it did not require Einstein’s brain to realize that post Kerala and Maharashtra, Covid 19 would strike other States soon. Yet, the second wave was treated with utmost contempt. Seen as just a ‘Maharashtra problem’ and given political colour by the ruling Shiv Sen-NCP-Congress vs BJP accusing each other of gross incompetence and negligence.
Compounded the crisis, politics and gaddi took precedence over all else with SOPs to manage the contagion blown to smithereens amidst massive rallies with no physical distancing or masks in five poll-bound States even as the virus heartlessly ravages the country. Add to this the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Rishikesh which stands testimony to tore asunder Covid protocol with lakhs of devotees thronging the banks of the Ganga for a holy dip and continuing farmers agitation are guaranteed super-spreader spelling disaster. Worryingly, this is not even the peak of the infection.
Yet as is typical, official arrogance, hyper-nationalism, populism, complacency and an abundant dose of bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a calamity which has left India vulnerable to multiple new mutations, lack of medical infrastructure at the Central and State level and threat of repeated, livelihood-destroying lockdowns.
Last year Modi led from the front, a harsh lockdown was prefaced with TV appearances, bartan banging, helicopters showering petals on Covid warriors, skill of medical professionals, need for “do gaz ki doori, mask zaroori” and messages of a united national resolve against Covid. But this time, our leaders seem to have abdicated their roles, downplaying the danger and playing political gulli-danda accusing Opposition ruled States of politicising vaccine shortages.
Alas are polity seem to have been caught with their pants down, ignoring that it was a national health emergency which needed to be fought at all levels, not only the ICU with sabka saath and sabka vishwas.
Raising a moot point: Why will people heed when they see videos of thousands gathering at election rallies and on the banks of the Ganga? Don’t our netas recognize that massive rallies and religious fervour will result in increased fatalities? Why did the Government’s “Tika Utsav” see fewer people being vaccinated. Was it due to shortages?
Besides, there is clear policy failure whereby we slipped into business-as-usual mode once the virus began receding instead of using the intermittent to boost the health infrastructure, ensure adequate supply of medicines, ventilators and oxygen and fast-track vaccine roll-out by giving a timeline for a clear production target based on sound material management technique. This is still not happening.
Consequently, the vaccine rollout is far from smooth with the Centre now blaming States which are facing vaccine shortages for politicizing the issue, with both quibbling over less vs adequate supply. Adding to woes vaccination targets are off-track, supplies are dwindling, in Chennai, Nagpur and Raipur both Covishield and Covaxin are scarce with some inoculation centres having shut down altogether.
Worse, the cruising pace of three million a day is too slow with manufacturers struggling to make enough doses for the country, let alone the rest of the world. Shockingly, while regulators approved the first Indian vaccines in December, the first shot wasn’t given until more than two weeks later.
More. The virus is mutating so fast that scientist and researchers feel the vaccine might not be effective. Already the country is in the throes of four mutant —- double mutant strain, UK strain, South African strain and Brazilian strain. he second blunder was limited investment in vaccine storage both before and after the pandemic hit
With the virus taking on menacing proportions the Government belatedly tweaked its vaccine policy by allowing emergency use approval to vaccines which have received the nod in US, UK, Europe and WHO but it is classic case of too little too late. Questionably, what was the hurry to export millions of vaccine vials to other countries when they could have been used to inoculate a larger section of the population.
Further, we need to ramp up testing which remains static at 11-15 lakhs per day despite NaMo’s call to enhance RT-PCR test. An increased testing would identify more hidden and asymptomatic cases to curtail the spread. Happily, the Government has decided to vaccinate above 18 from 1 May.
If the 2020 lockdowns crippled economic activity leading to many factories permanently shut, the second lockdown is seeing migrants leaving cities in droves back to their villages, lower income workers, poor, marginalised and daily wage earners a choice between starvation, breaking the law and risking infection. Despite Finance Minister Sitharaman asserting there would be no lockdown, industry and workers are chary. The economy, which has already tanked will plummet further. Remarked an industrialist, “30% of industry will not manage to reopen again.”
The ensuing gloom and growing alarm needs assuring leadership and a well-judged response rooted in science to pull us out of this crisis with minimum collateral damage. It remains to be seen if the Government can improve timely vaccination rollout and give impetus to universal immunization with vaccine choices and put together a new vision, preparedness and a coherent stimulus plan. Whereby, the principles of ‘Jus Ad Bellum’: right authority, right intention and reasonable hope dictate our responses. Our leaders need to realize that one death is one death to many.