On January 28, our Prime Minister declared victory over the coronavirus pandemic and set out to divert his focus to election rallies. Between the two waves, several reforms were introduced — farm laws, labour reforms, FCRA amendments, Vaccine Maitri, OTP regulations, the Twitter jibber-jabber etc. But none of the announcements or speeches were a warning against the massive destruction of the near future that started in March 2021. When apprehensions were raised, the Home Minister authoritatively announced to the media that rallies were not causing the surge in the middle of a ‘crowded’ Bengal campaign.
Within two weeks, the entire country came to a standstill. Social media was flooded with requests for oxygen, ICU beds and medicines. Meetings with Chief Ministers and DMs were held ‘after’ the country faced the wrath of the virus. The alarming rise of cases in Maharashtra did not ring a bell in the ears of the administration that the second wave had begun.
People lowered their guards, started attending family functions, dipped in holy Ganga during the Kumbh Mela and went for destination weddings — ‘the new- normal’ was no more trending. The State, because of its ill-preparedness, became a callous mute spectator in front of its desperate citizens.
Previously, when the pandemic had only affected marginalised sections, we raised questions for a few days and then rejoiced in the ‘un’-lockdown phase. However, this time, the second wave and its resultant lockdowns affected the working middle-class population the most. But the Centre put the onus on the states to take decisions without providing any monetary support or importing vaccines from the outside.
The article focuses on what and where things went wrong in responding to the ongoing second wave.
After the first wave, the one-year strict lockdown period was not utilised well. Rather, the risk-averting situation was favoured by both the Centre as well as the states. Stand-alone facilities for the production of oxygen, including its medical variant, have so far been geographically concentrated in small clusters. Thus, with a minimum of 1,224 cryogenic tankers, it was impossible to fulfil the demand for oxygen for such a large population.
Further, the allocation of oxygen amid the peak of the second wave was uneven. The Supreme Court had to step in to provide the required amount of oxygen to Delhi. In August 2020, there was a similar rise in the number of acute respiratory distress patients in Europe, but even after viewing the global trend, it is only on April 15, 2021, that the Centre declare that medical oxygen is a critical component in the treatment of Covid.
Along with inadequate logistics supply chains, other bottlenecks slowed down the health sector. Many hospitals treating Covid patients were caught up in fire accidents. Fire experts said that “overstressed” hospital systems are unable to bear the rising patient load, leading to frequent fire incidents. They said,
“Hospitals are increasing beds, equipment and staff to admit more Covid patients, but it is not possible to immediately expand the electrical wiring system. Medical equipment or wires carrying current beyond their capacity can overheat. That is what is happening in many hospitals. We don’t need just a fire audit, we also need an electrical audit.”
Even before the outbreak of the virus, audits were not conducted properly and licenses were given out without proper inspection. Apart from this, the media also reported about oxygen tankers getting overturned, medical practitioner giving out fake medicines and harassment of patients by the nursing staff. These are long-ignored structural issues and have nothing to do with the unprecedented health emergency.
Five states witnessed Assembly elections in the last few weeks with large gatherings. Despite the pandemic, the Election Commission allowed for an eight-phase election in Bengal without announcing any Covid guidelines. Newspaper reports and TV coverage of these rallies provided an overwhelming visual evidence that masking and physical distancing were almost completely ignored. Therefore, it seems extremely likely that these events contributed to the rapid transmission of the virus and the subsequent rise in the number of Covid-19 cases.
If our political-administrative leaders had even an iota of concern for the common people, then public health measures would have been more strictly enforced during election rallies and other mass gatherings, and this man-made tragedy of an enormous proportion could have been avoided.
The ICMR was particularly silent in warning against the use of unproven medication, even as it clarified the treatment protocol for emergency use drugs such as Tocilizumab. “Misused drugs include azithromycin, doxycycline, favipiravir, Itolizumab and Coronil,” wrote Dr Anup Agarwal, lead author of ICMR’s plasma trial, for The Hindu. He added: “These are not mentioned in the guidelines, but practitioners are busily prescribing them. This may cause more harm than good.”
A delay in updating these guidelines has led doctors to continue prescribing drugs such as Hydroxychloroquine, Favipiravir and Ivermectin, which showed an early promise but were quickly found to be ineffective. It also caused a panicked scurry for antiviral drug Remdesivir, which became a popular therapy option as India’s case count kept surging past all previous records. Giving away steroids recklessly, as has been proved by rising complications after Covid recovery, can have detrimental effects as it lowers one’s immunity and increases their vulnerability to Mucormycosis.
The guidelines have not kept pace with research, perhaps because no one bothered about them during the months when the country’s first wave decelerated. An investigation by The Caravan magazine found that India’s scientific task force on Covid-19 did not meet even once in February and March even as new infections had begun to rise. After January 11, it met on April 15 for the first time to assess the Covid-19 surge, which had become unrelenting by then.
Politicians, pharmaceutical companies and other leaders are continuously contradicting their statements. For instance, Dr Harsh Vardhan replied to the letter written to the PM by Dr Manmohan Singh, saying that the Congress was spreading misinformation and promoting vaccine hesitancy. However, the same Central government, on May 1, adopted all the measures mentioned in Dr Singh’s letter.
Secondly, India is focused on asking for a patent waiver for the mRNA vaccine under the TRIPS agreement. However, it has not shown any interest in giving the technology to make Covaxin to other companies. By August 2021, Bharat Biotech can only make 7.8 crore doses of vaccine and SII can produce only 10 crore doses, whereas the approximate vaccination shots needed are more than 178 crore.
The question is, why is the government delaying in giving rights to other companies to make the indigenous Covaxin?
Currently, Covid cases are coming down, but can one of the reasons for this be the lack of testing? The data presented by the government is not the complete truth, and without any other source information, it is impossible to make accurate projections. Knowing the truth is better for both the public and policymakers to gauge the true state of the pandemic.
A flat-footed communication strategy and debilitating red-tapism that focuses on risk-aversion and indecision at the cost of efficiency is adding to the distress of India’s already severe Covid crisis. India’s obsession with being Vishwaguru, juxtaposed with its misleading analysis deriding “Povertarianism” and talking of freebies cannot be a replacement to sound welfarism, which must prioritise the majority of Indians who need a social security net.
As the saying goes, “Better late than never.” It is necessary to analyse and accept the shortcomings and rectify mistakes before the surge of the third wave.