The news on the Covid front, which was already grave, has just got worse, with alarming signs that infections are surging in rural areas. Both the national capital Delhi and the nation’s financial capital Mumbai are already reeling from the deadly second wave of infections, with their medical infrastructure stretched beyond breaking point and hundreds of patients dying because they simply could not get a hospital bed or oxygen supplies in time. With this the state of affairs in India’s two largest and most developed cities, it is impossible to imagine the kind of havoc the pandemic might wreak in rural India, where the health infrastructure is already minimal, to say the least.
According to data released by the health ministry, 13 states have more than one lakh active cases, with another six states having between 50,000 to one lakh active cases. The total active cases in the country as a whole is nearing the four-million mark. That is not all. About 42 per cent of the 734 districts in the country – 310 districts in all – are reporting a ‘test positivity ratio’ in excess of the national test positivity ratio of 21 per cent. In as many as 13 states, rural areas now have more cases than urban areas. In the five worst affected states, the test positivity ratio – the percentage of those found infected of the total tested, is over 50 per cent. A high positivity ratio, on top of low numbers of testing vis-à-vis the population, indicates that only the sickest are being tested at the moment, which means that a large number of cases are going unreported.
This has worrying implications for both the Centre and state governments, already found wanting when tested by the first wave. Nearly half of Bihar’s 38 districts, for instance, do not have any Covid ventilator beds at all. The picture is only marginally better in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. Overall, a surge in cases in rural India is a double whammy. While the loss of life and livelihood caused by the pandemic will surge, the beneficial effect of the predicted normal monsoon may be more than offset by the supply chain disruptions in rural India.
While lockdowns disrupted supply chains between primary mandis and urban consumption centres the last time, this time around, supply to primary mandis itself may be disrupted, raising the spectre of catastrophic shortages and food inflation. The authorities cannot afford to be caught napping a second time. The time to act is fast running out.