TS Eliot wrote about April being the cruellest month. For many Indians, this has come true, as predictions of having defeated Covid-19 unravelled. We have reeled under the onslaught of a Covid tsunami of epic proportions, that has left unknown numbers affected, ill, or dead. Covid-19 has been indiscriminate, with entire families being infected; families with more than one death. Photographs from crematoria have become the defining image of the pandemic. We may argue about the dignity accorded to the dead, but the fact remains they were not even accorded it in life, as they gasped for oxygen and basic life-saving medication.
The second wave that has ripped through India, since the start of April, has been a nightmare. There is no family that has been spared of the agony. Someone they know, someone they love, has either died or been irreparably damaged by the coronavirus. For those of us who inhabit social media, the last four weeks have witnessed a litany of help requests by desperate families, as they searched for life-saving medicines, or even oxygen cylinders. We have seen death posts on social media, telling us that those we know have succumbed to a combination of the virus and government apathy.
Better than best efforts
While most of us have scrambled to try and help, to our best possible abilities, it has mostly not been enough. The scale of devastation was greater than the ability of individuals to do good. The power of intention, even that which is backed by the machinery of those willing to help, is really no match for the organised machinery of the state. The states, in most cases, were busy covering up the extent of their own ineptitude to prove to be much help. The other set of organisations that could have helped were the NGOs, but many of them are reeling under the strict rules imposed on them by the Centre. And now, scientists are talking about the third wave at a time we have not even begun to come to grips with the second wave.
Is the third wave inevitable? Expert opinion seems to indicate that it is. However, the impact of the third wave on us, the people, is dependent on an ecosystem of variables and the ability of the government to control them. The starting point of this is a rapid vaccination programme.
That the government has dropped the ball on the vaccine-ordering programme is apparent to all, except the most devoted acolytes. It failed to plan for the entire population being inoculated on time, and therefore, failed to order the number of vaccines that would be required to achieve this objective. Right now, India has started placing orders, but those deliveries are going to be staggered, as production scales up to meet the demand.
Beyond the ordering and the delivery of the vaccines, there needs to be a roll-out plan. How do you plan for the biggest metros, the biggest centres of wealth and employment generation to be up and running with the least delays, at the same time as keeping senior citizens and vulnerable communities safe? As the second wave of Covid has claimed lives across the demographic spectrum, it is vital that those who go out either to work or study and are most likely to get infected, are protected from the virus and inoculated from taking it back into households.
The second major task is going to be to ensure that the government speaks in one voice about the coronavirus and what people need to do. You cannot have a situation where we are told to maintain physical distance and wear masks, while leaders of the government break both norms in political rallies and religious occasions.
Working our way out
You cannot have a situation when those in authority say that you don’t need to wear masks, or tell you to practise home remedies that have no basis in science. There has to be a massive public communication exercise that tells people the importance of masks and social distancing. The need for vaccines, and the debunking of dangerous practices that could lead to death.
Finally, we need to upgrade public health infrastructure. If the capital of India can choke to death, can you even imagine what is happening in small district hospitals. The stories coming out of rural India, and mofussil towns are terrifying. The deaths are undercounted, the cases are covered up. But just because you don’t count them, doesn’t mean they are not dead. Many have died for lack of medical infrastructure. This latter needs to be ramped up on a war footing.
But we can’t do any of this unless we are honest to ourselves about the extent of the problem. Apart from a few states, the official death count does not match the number of cremations and burials with Covid protocols. If we are going to be ostriches about the problem, and bury our head in fake statistics, we are going to be run over by a monster of a problem.
The next 12 months are going to be vital for India in terms of how we cope with the pandemic. The government needs to listen to experts, scientists, technocrats, and those who can help us find our way out of this mess. It is possible, but the government needs to put aside its hubris and reach out to build this network. The question is, will it?
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.