Never before had despair and despondency gripped the nation as they have now. Reports keep pouring in from various states, especially Delhi, about people dying for want of hospital beds and oxygen. People live in fear of when they will catch Covid-19, as there is a high rate of young men and women falling prey to the dreaded disease. As curfew-like conditions prevail in city after city, economic activity has come to a standstill, sending tens of millions of people into the hands of unemployment. The new wave of coronavirus is deadlier than before, strengthening the fear psychosis prevailing in the country.
Coronavirus is not something new, as the nation has been living with it for nearly 15 months. Yet, nothing seems to have been learnt from the experience to counter the great threat it poses to public health. True, there has been no shortage of hand sanitisers or PPE kits, thanks to the increased production capacity but there the preparedness seems to end. Disaster management techniques have remained the same, while hospital beds and ventilators have not seen any appreciable increase. What’s worse, the capacity for cremation and burial has not been augmented, resulting in long queues of the hapless holding the bodies of their dear ones.
India has one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical industries but it, too, has failed to cope with the demand. One particular drug — Remdesivir, administered intravenously — is available, mostly in the black market. Health professionals, especially doctors and nurses, are few in comparison to the need. There could have been a large body of social workers who could have been given a crash course in taking care of Covid-19 patients but such a thought never occurred to those in charge. It is easy to advise migrant labour to stay put where they are and not return to their villages but difficult to give them cooked food or, at least, dry ration.
Vaccination should have been the cornerstone of Covid-19 management. There is empirical and scientific data that the two vaccines in use in India are indeed a shield against the disease. Alas, only 10 per cent of the targeted population has been covered so far, which is less than two per cent of the total population. To be effective, 60 to 70 per cent of the whole population needs to be given the two doses of vaccine but there is no cogent strategy as of now to achieve this target. On the contrary, there is a palpable fear that the vaccination programme may go in for a toss if the marketing strategy of the vaccine manufacturers is allowed to succeed. If they are permitted to sell at rates varying from Rs 150 to Rs 1,200 a dose, it will be a sure recipe for disaster. A large number of the people would opt out of vaccination, defeating the very purpose of the campaign.
It is not the first time that a Central vaccination programme has been launched. Smallpox and wild polio were eradicated successfully. Huge monetary and human resources were required to cover the whole country under those programmes. Yet, there was no talk of the Central government charging the states or private agencies for taking part in the national campaigns. Whatever be the cost of the vaccination programme, it cannot be more than 1 per cent of the GDP and the Centre should bear it. Nothing is more important for a government than the health of its people. In fact, one reason why the health infrastructure, especially in the government sector, is inadequate is because the spending on public health never crossed 3 per cent of the GDP.
At a time when the Centre faces huge economic and health challenges and its leadership should have taken full command of the situation, it has been giving the impression of being on the retreat. It seems to want the whole responsibility to be shifted to the states. These are national challenges that can be met only by pooling all the resources at the Central, state and local levels.
No election victory is more important than the victory over coronavirus. The tragedy is that far from discouraging massive religious congregations and gatherings that are undoubtedly super-spreaders, those in authority have been talking nonsense that the Ganga would cleanse those who bathe in it of coronavirus. Those in the ruling dispensation may not realise that they are themselves guilty of causing the policy paralysis that they used to accuse the Manmohan Singh government of.