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23 April 2021updated 12 Sep 2021 1:55pm

A human catastrophe: How India lost control of Covid-19

The Modi government’s complacency has been exposed by a ferocious second wave and a faltering vaccine roll-out. 

By Soumya Bhattacharya

New Year’s Day dawned bright and cold in Delhi. The temperature was 1°C. The sun was out, the skies clear. In India’s capital, there was a general feeling of well-being on the first day of 2021. The number of Covid-19 cases had started falling in the last months of the previous year. Vaccines were imminent. The economy was showing signs of a rebound. Across the country, people were beginning to believe that the nightmare of 2020 was behind them. On 16 January, India’s vaccine roll-out – then limited to healthcare workers and other front line staff – began.

***

The number of cases reported daily continued to dwindle in the first two months of the year. On 15 February, it stood at 9,121. The mood was one of elation tinged with triumphalism. While nearly every country had endured a second wave of Covid-19, India was an exception, we were told. A government-appointed panel had already claimed that the virus would be under control by February. In March, India’s health minister said the country was entering the “endgame” of the pandemic.  So it was proving, many felt.

But was it? The first red flag ought to have gone up when cases started rising – gradually at first – in March. No one paid any heed. On 10 March, nearly 20,000 new cases were reported; on 24 March, the number had spiked to 50,000.

Then came April, the cruellest month. Here are the grim markers of how the devastating second wave of the virus swept across the country.  

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4 April: Passed 100,000 new daily cases.

14 April: Passed 200,000 new daily cases.

21 April: Passed 300,000 new daily cases.

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On 21 April, India recorded a total of 314, 835 new daily cases – the highest single-day tally for any country since the beginning of the pandemic. It overtook the US’s single-day January tally of 297,430. The rate of progression from 200,000 to 300,000 was far swifter than in the US. There were 2,102 deaths on that day. 

Since then, the numbers have continued to swell. As of 23 April, the seven-day average of new cases stands at 264,838 infections a day. The trajectory indicates that by the end of April, new daily cases may pass 500,000. To date, the virus is recorded as having killed 186,928 people in India. But even this is an underestimate. Given the grinding poverty and lack of facilities in the vast swathes of India’s rural hinterland, the actual numbers are likely to be far higher.

***

What went wrong? Well, a number of things.

As soon as the numbers started falling, people weary of lockdowns, restrictions and confinement, and buoyed by the promise of vaccines, came out in large crowds in public places. Social distancing was abandoned, masks were left at home. Big, fat Indian weddings, swarming with guests, and other large private events returned to the social calendar.

A double mutant variant of the virus, first spotted in the western state of Maharashtra, raged through the country. Scientists are yet to determine if it is more lethal, as was the case with the variant identified in the UK, but it is believed to be more transmissible. 

The Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious festival, and one of the largest in the world, began in January in Haridwar, on the banks of the river Ganges, in north India. Since then, more than 25 million pilgrims have visited, and behaved as though the pandemic never happened. Other smaller festivals and congregations went ahead unimpeded.

Through March and April, in the run-up to elections in five states, politicians campaigned with their usual zeal and enthusiasm. Political rallies, packed with tens of thousands of supporters, were presided over by leaders who themselves neither wore masks nor adhered to social distancing.

The government did not anticipate such a ferocious second wave and has mishandled the vaccine roll-out, which was sluggish and did not encompass the demographic breadth it should have. The government kept private players out of the vaccination drive, massively curtailing its reach. Only 8 per cent of India’s population has received one dose of the vaccine so far and only 1.3 per cent has been fully vaccinated. In comparison, the US has fully vaccinated 26 per cent of its population, while the UK has inoculated 16 per cent.

The government miscalculated the number of doses that would be needed if the numbers turned grim and is now scrambling to find the necessary shots. It also failed to use the months when the virus appeared to have been tamed to strengthen its health infrastructure.

As a result, the health system today is overwhelmed. There is a scarcity of hospital beds, of oxygen cylinders, of medicine and of other care facilities. India is on the brink.

***

Where do we go from here? The government will allow the import of vaccines cleared for use by regulators in the US, UK, EU and Japan. That will increase the range available. But it will take months for them to become widely accessible. The Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, has also been authorised for use.

At present, Indians have access to two vaccines: the domestically developed Covaxin and Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine being manufactured locally by the Serum Institute of India.

Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan, told the BBC that India needed to administer ten million shots daily “instead of being complacent with three million” doses a day. Achieving that target, in view of the stocks available and manufacturing capacity, seems months away – if it is possible at all.

Vaccinating a critical mass of the population is the only real solution to this devastating crisis. But in a country as large, diverse and populous as India, that is a challenge of Sisyphean proportions.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the author of six books of fiction, non-fiction and memoir, the latest being the novel, “Thirteen Kinds of Love” (HarperCollins India)

[see also: 2021’s Covid-19 recovery risks excluding developing economies]

This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas