Lulled into complacency after the first wave, neither did we ramp up health infra, nor prepare for vax drive, writes A L I Chougule

After the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was dealt with, the Modi government proclaimed that India had rid itself of the virus when the world was still struggling to cope with it. “India has been successful in saving so many lives, we saved the entire humanity from a big tragedy,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had triumphantly said at the World Economic Forum Davos Dialogue in the end of January. At the time, India was recording around 15,000 new cases per day and fatalities at around 150 a day. The active caseload at the time was around two lakh. These numbers were certainly a huge relief for the government from the highs of mid-September 2020 when nearly 98,000 new cases a day were reported, fatalities were at more than 1,100 per day and the active caseload was around 9.50 lakh.

However, by January-end, when Modi declared victory against Covid, India wasn’t out of the woods. The virus was very much there, transmitting at a much slower rate. In the end, when the first wave ebbed, it saw a greater damage to people’s livelihoods and the economy than to the public health. But then things began to unravel again in mid-February. The government was caught unawares and when the caseload began rising, it didn’t react proactively. And soon, within a month and a half, the virus spread like wildfire. It is still raging like a forest fire, causing deaths and an unprecedented health emergency. But the government’s response has been too slow to deal with the crisis, so much so that the courts had to intervene to make the government act.

Too many deaths

Between February 9, when the second Covid wave started in India, and May 16, there have been over 12 million reported cases of infections and over 85,000 deaths. Daily additions to cases had crossed four lakh a fortnight ago, but now the numbers have declined to around 3.30 lakh and certified Covid-related deaths per day now stand at around 4,000. While it is too early to say that the devastating second Covid wave is turning a corner, the seven day-moving average of daily cases has dropped by nearly 50,000, from 3.91 lakh on May 8 to 3.54 lakh on May 15 and the test positivity rate has also dipped below 20 per cent. This indicates a discernible drop in the infection rate, but deaths still remain high. However, with the second Covid wave having spread to semi-urban and rural areas in many states, the reported numbers of infections and deaths may not be reflecting the rural situation.

Therefore, the numbers are possibly under-estimates, as thousands of cases are not being tested, and hence not reported. Similarly, many deaths have not been registered as Covid deaths. Of course, India is not unique in under-reporting infections and deaths; infections and deaths have been under-reported in almost all countries. But not acknowledging the severity of the virus spread across the length and breadth of India and not acting with urgency to deal with it has been a major problem with the government, which has been caught napping.

As Covid continues to wreak havoc across India, there are harrowing and heart-breaking stories of people dying not just because of Covid-19, but due to lack of medical assistance and treatment for it. As active caseload continues to be disconcertingly high, at 36 lakh cases, patients are dying due to lack of oxygen and hospital beds and India’s health system has crumbled under the sheer load of patients. All this indicates not just lack of preparedness, but also mismanagement, denial, data manipulation and indifference. It not only reveals insensitivity and apathy but also lack of urgency and priority to tackle the massive problem that needed an urgent and concerted response.

Livelihood crisis continues

Between May 2020 and May 2021, things have not changed much. In fact, things were pretty much the same last year – the virus was spreading, people were living in a strict lockdown, poor people were struggling to survive and the economy was in a bad shape. However, the focus of attention has changed. Last year, TV screens were inundated with harrowing images of stranded migrant workers walking home hundreds of kilometres. The crisis of livelihood was quite visible across big cities and the government had to roll out a major relief package. This year, the focus is on oxygen shortage, corpses, crematoriums and graveyards, as also people struggling to access medical help. However, while everybody is talking about the health crisis now, nobody is talking about the livelihood crisis.

According to Jean Dreze, an economist, social scientist and activist, for migrant workers, daily wagers and workers in small and medium businesses, the crisis of livelihood never ended, as people are still struggling with the after-effects of last year’s lockdown. The livelihood crisis may or may not be worse in 2021 than in 2020, but in many ways, things are really bad today. As the fear of infection has grown, the livelihood crisis will continue to persist and the economy is unlikely to recover fast. Therefore, Dreze says, even after India overcomes the health crisis, the crisis of livelihood could last longer this time.

From doctors, epidemiologists to virologists, many health experts had spoken of mutations and warned that India could have a second wave and the country would not be able to deal with its severity without rapid vaccination. Instead of preparing for the second wave by sharply increasing the pace of vaccination and ensuring adequate supplies of oxygen in hospitals, the government wasted the opportunity of a lull in the pandemic to ramp up health infrastructure and prepare for a massive vaccination drive, which is the only prophylactic to the pandemic. Today, while we are still struggling to control the spread of the virus, there is a massive shortage of vaccines. As a result, India is inoculating about half as many people per day as it did more than a month ago, despite the country being called the hub of the world’s pharmacy.

Not enough vaccine doses

In January 2021, when some of the developed nations had booked vaccine doses far in excess of their population, India, with a population of 1.4 billion people, placed an order for only 15 million vaccine doses. On May 1, India opened its vaccination programme for its 595.6-million-strong 18-44 age group. At the time, India’s order for vaccines was a mere 280 million doses, barely enough to cover 140 million people in this group. Not surprisingly, four months after India launched its vaccination programme, just around three per cent of India’s population has been fully inoculated against coronavirus and just 11 per cent have received only one dose. This is not because India does not have money.

According to India Ratings and Research, the cost of inoculating India’s entire population above the age of 18 years is a mere 0.36 per cent of its GDP, which, according to experts, could be easily borne by the Central government. If India uses its Rs 35,000 crore vaccine fund created in Budget 2021 for vaccination purposes, it will vaccinate nearly 100 crore people. Ironically, if the current drive does not pick up pace significantly, the world’s largest manufacture of vaccines might end up being the last to vaccinate its people.

The author is an independent senior journalist

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