GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 509, 25 April 2021

India: The second wave drives an unprepared country into a humanitarian disaster
Lokendra Sharma

What happened?
On 22 April, India recorded over 3.14 lakh COVID-19 infections, the highest daily infection recorded anywhere in the world. On 23 April, even this grim milestone was surpassed as the country reported over 3.22 lakh infections and 2,247 deaths, taking the total reported cases to 1,62,57,337 cases and deaths to 1,86,919. 

On 23 April, New Delhi's Sir Ganga Ram Hospital said that 25 patients had died due to a shortage of oxygen. In another incident, 20 patients died at Delhi's Jaipur Golden Hospital due to oxygen shortage. 

On 23 April, PM Modi chaired a review meeting with chief ministers of 11 high burden states. Chief ministers flagged issues of oxygen supply and vaccine pricing. PM Modi asked states to ensure uninterrupted movement of medical oxygen and assured that the Railways and the Indian Air Force had been pressed into service. 

On 22 April, the Supreme Court (SC) took cognizance of the rising cases. But, on 23 April, the SC adjourned the case till 27 April.  Earlier, on 19 April, the central government announced that everyone above the age of 18 would be eligible for vaccine shots from May 2021. 

What is the background?
First, an extremely overstretched healthcare system. With demand for beds, oxygen and drugs outstripping supply by a huge margin, Indian cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Ahmedabad and Bengaluru) have witnessed people dying in search of beds/oxygen and round-the-clock working crematoriums with waiting lists. The situation is so grim that the healthcare workers themselves cannot get beds in their own or other hospitals. 

Second, the failure of the political class. Many political leaders, cutting across Indian geography and party lines, have either held political rallies or organized religious congregations. PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah held massive rallies in West Bengal even as the cases spiralled this month, flouting all safety protocols. Some leaders even downplayed the pandemic. 

Third, the carelessness and culpability of people. After seeing a trend of declining cases for four months (November 2020 - February 2021), people assumed that the pandemic had waned away. With a false sense of security, they violated safety protocols like social distancing and wearing masking. A narrative about the innate immunity of Indian people also surfaced and was readily bought by them; this happened even when the epidemiologists have been continuously warning about the imminent second wave. 

Fourth, failure of the three pillars of democracy. The SC and mainstream TV media and Election Commission of India (ECI) could have also played a better role. Taking a very delayed cognizance of the matter, and only after various High Courts passed very critical orders and observations, the SC adjourned the matter to 27 April, despite the urgency of the oxygen crisis. The ECI failed to rein in political parties and leaders as they campaigned in the polling states. Mainstream TV media also failed to highlight people's sufferings and, like the SC and the ECI, failed to hold the central and state governments accountable. 

What does it mean? 
The ongoing second wave has exposed the lack of administrative preparation at both federal and state levels. It has also highlighted the inadequacies of healthcare infrastructure to cope with any major crisis. Despite the experience of the first wave, and despite more than a year to build healthcare capacity, India did little on this front. And, that some states are even disrupting the movement of oxygen tankers highlights the failure of cooperative federalism in this moment of crisis. Finally, people would have to strictly adhere to safety protocols to beat the second wave as vaccination will take many months, if not years, to reach a significant proportion of the population.

The only positive story so far, notwithstanding the delayed approval to the Sputnik V vaccine, is India's vaccination programme. According to the Health Ministry, India became the fastest nation to administer 13 crore doses in 95 days. Rolling out vaccines for all aged above 18 is a welcome development. 

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