India’s biggest urban agglomerations – the NCR region, sprawled across Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai and Chennai, are beginning to unlock after the deadly second wave of the Covid pandemic has started showing signs of ebbing. However, if initial reports are any indication, this relief from the second wave will be at best, temporary. Despite the second wave being by far deadlier than the first – the Delta variant of Covid-19 or the B1.617.2 variant has taken more lives and left more people seriously sick than the previous variants put together. The World Health Organisation has categorised it as a variant of concern (VOC), adding that it continues to observe ‘significantly increased transmissibility’ and a ‘growing number of countries reporting outbreaks associated with this variant’.
India’s second wave hit a peak seven-day daily average death rate of 4,191 in the third week of May. Though this has dropped to 2,970 as of June 5, in terms of deaths, the second wave has been more than 3.5 times as deadly as the first. This time, neither the rich nor the privileged have been spared. The virus has taken a devastating toll on frontline workers. According to a register maintained by the Indian Medical Association, more than 750 doctors have already lost their lives in the second wave.
Yet, when cities began unlocking after this terrible – and terrifying phase – it appears as if everybody has forgotten the lessons of the past. The media was filled with reports and images of reckless crowding in public areas and shopping centres, massive traffic jams on roads and a near-total absence of Covid-appropriate behaviour amongst those thronging the streets. Masks were either missing altogether or worse, seen hanging, to be pulled up only if a policeman was sighted. The concept of social distancing doesn’t appear to have registered at all.
The government has been castigated for its failure to effectively manage the Covid pandemic, particularly the second wave. Much of the criticism is justified. After the first wave ebbed, the government rushed prematurely to declare victory over the virus. Instead of using the respite to build up healthcare capacity and step up the vaccination drive – till now the only proven way to effectively combat the virus’ devastating impact, not just on people but the economy – it left the onus of ramping up capacity entirely on the vaccine manufacturers. And above all, it went ahead, despite warnings from experts, with one ‘super spreader’ event after the other.
From election rallies with thousands of people flouting every semblance of Covid protocol to allowing millions to gather at the Kumbh Mela, to needlessly allowing spectator sports like cricket matches to restart. State governments, desperate to reduce the economic impact of the lockdown, also contributed to the mess, besides stepping back on strict enforcement.
Above all, the signals sent by those at the top through their Covid-inappropriate behaviour and flouting of protocols was disastrous. All this led to the emergence of the newest and most deadly ‘India variant’ in February-March. India had strongly objected to the variant being labelled as the ‘Indian variant’ and the global health body came up with the alphabetical nomenclature for the variants, but a name change will not be enough to hide the significant contribution that we have collectively made to the explosive spread of the virus in the second wave, due to a stubborn refusal to learn from the past.
New studies have shown that while the mutation of the virus may have been inevitable, the severity of the second wave was largely of our own making. A ‘supermodel’ developed by the department of science and technology wrongly estimated that 60 per cent of the population – the level required for herd immunity – would have been infected by November 2020 and that the virus itself would vanish by February 2021. This led to disastrous errors in policy. The impact of this was worsened by a failure to communicate the seriousness and the deadliness of the virus threat effectively. The result is what we are seeing now – of people behaving as if the virus is a thing of the past.
The reality is that as of June 8, India had administered 23.9 crore doses of the vaccines, with the bulk being only the first dose. Only a small proportion of the population has received the second as well. At the current pace, it will be over a year before a reasonable majority of the population is protected. Till then, it is imperative that the messaging about the need for Covid protocols being observed strictly needs to be stepped up.
From the Prime Minister to political leaders of every stripe, social media influencers to sports personalities and filmstars, all must be roped into this effort. The Prime Minister, by quickly revising the vaccine strategy, has demonstrated that he is willing to learn and absorb the lessons of the past. The rest of us need to demonstrate the same ability – or be condemned to repeat history.