The Second Wave in India: What Went Wrong?
Prof. D. K. Giri
Indians as well as world leaders were wonder-struck by the savagery of the second wave that was witnessed across the country. The number of people so far infected with the deadly mutated virus crossed 27 million and has caused deaths over 3 hundred thousand.
What is worse, the nature of deaths and despair shocked the world. People died without an oxygen cylinder, a bed in the hospital, and lack of critical medicines. The entire health infrastructure collapsed failing to cope with the intensity and magnitude of the disastrous pandemic.
In the age of explosion of information, the tragic news of deaths in car parks, the hospital corridors, and of the people sitting on the roads with oxygen cylinders flashed in the international media. While the support in terms of medical equipment and relief material poured in from many countries, the world media was scathing in their comments on Indian leadership. A global health expert of Indian origin at the McGill university in Canada said, “it was devastating to see things get this bad in India. It is a perfect storm really”. An Australian newspaper was by far the most ruthless. It carried a picture of a man running past the funeral pyres of the people who died from covid-19. The caption of the photo was ” Ostriches do not bury their heads in sand, Indian government does”. The title of the article was also lacerating, “Modi leads India into a viral apocalypse”.
However, recently Mathew Hayden, an Australian cricketer, who had spent considerable time in India tweeted understandingly, ” People who criticise India do not know the country. Having lived in India I know how difficult it is to run a country of 1.4 billion people”. That may be a small consolation for the apologists of the current right-wing leadership of the Indian government.
What really went wrong? A country which boasted of: minimising the damage in the first round, invented the vaccine in record time, and sent it into 54 countries, and earned the sobriquet of ‘pharma hub’ of the world in a Quad meeting became a helpless victim of the second wave. It became the worst-hit in the world, next only to the United States. Well, The virulence of the second wave could be attributed to a confluence of factors, namely government complacency or over-confidence, unawareness of the new variant, and a very large unregulated religious and political events which were later called super-spreaders.
The government complacency resulted in massive unpreparedness. The vaccines production was not efficiently planned, no purchase order placed on the two companies that were manufacturing it, no financial support for augmenting their capacity. Consequently, even though the disease is somewhat brought under control, it is spreading to rural areas with equally pathetic effects on lives and livelihoods. We still have a major paucity of vaccines. The Indian states, 28 of them, are floating global tenders to procure vaccines at a much higher rate.
Second, as the government triumphantly declared in a grossly mistaken notion that India had beaten the virus, there was no attention paid to setting up the oxygen plants, and improve health infrastructure, increase beds in hospitals, appoint more health workers etc.
The government’s inability to detect the new, more lethal variant of the virus was due to the same complacency. There was a genome sequencing institute set up to do this task. But it did not become functional until a couple of months ago. Similarly, the scientific and the health advisory Committee constituted to monitor the tackling of covid, did not meet for months on end as the government was busy fighting the state elections.
Yes, 5 of Indian States went to polls at the time the virus was ravaging the public health and killing people. Indian elections are quite engaging as literally millions of people come to rallies addressed by candidates. The states that went to polls have huge population, Kerala 33 million, Assam 31 million, West Bengal 91 million, Tamil Nadu 72 million and Puducherry 1.2 million.
In these states, in public meetings, no covid protocol was followed; people were jostling in the rallies without masks. Even the leaders did not wear masks. Likewise, a massive religious festival which comes once after every 12 years was celebrated with great pomp and rituals, the devotees were seen bathing half-naked in thousands together, 0.3 million per day. These gatherings totally unregulated rapidly spread the virus.
However, the government, both Union and regional ones, have woken up to the hard reality, fearing the political costs they may have to pay. Now people are getting oxygen, beds and health care. Thanks to the instant international support as well. The private sector chipped in to back the governmental efforts. At the same time, India got goodwill and solidarity support from many countries. That should be the spirit as social democrats espouse health and vaccine equity within and across countries maintained through solidarity and justice. This virus spares none, knows no boundaries. Hence, the world has to fight it in unity.