7 mistakes that led to India’s Covid tragedy
A timeline of errors that left millions gasping for breath.
“No need for total lockdown. Unlike in 2020, India is now fully equipped to handle the second wave.”
The Prime Minister was wrong.
When Narendra Modi quashed lockdown fears in a televised speech last month, millions across the country breathed a sigh of relief. But before the month was over, a single trending hashtag summed up the nation’s wildly escalating Covid crisis: #IndiaCantBreathe.
A nation in distress
From hospitals turning away gasping patients for lack of resources to chilling images of funeral pyres burning around the clock, the stories coming out of the world’s largest democracy — home to 1.3 billion Indians — in recent weeks have been nothing short of harrowing.
The country began setting new global records for daily Covid-19 infections just 12 days after the Prime Minister’s speech, repeatedly surpassing the 300,000 tally previously set by the United States.
The last official counts have pegged the total number of pandemic-related deaths at over 225,000 — with data from Johns Hopkins University showing more than 48,000 lost their lives to the virus in the last month alone.
How did we get here?
That is the question being demanded of the premier who, at the World Economic Forum in January this year, declared that India had “contained corona effectively”. The answer is buried in a timeline of errors.
Mistake 1: Unforeseen reverse exodus
On March 24 last year, Modi imposed a 21-day national lockdown with four hours’ notice.
“There will be a total ban on people stepping outside their houses from 12 midnight today,” he announced in a televised address. “Lockdown is being imposed on every state, union territory, district, village, mohalla and street.
The proclamation sparked nationwide agitation, as expected — but also triggered an instant, unprecedented reverse exodus of millions of migrant workers from the cities. “Should we fight starvation or coronavirus?” every one of them asked. It was the crisis within a crisis that the government had not accounted for, let alone prepared for.
A group of migrant workers walk to their native places amid the nationwide complete lockdown. Photo AP
Headline after screaming headline spotlighted tragic deaths, as the daily wage labourers trekked thousands of kilometres home on foot, slept on railway tracks, and battled exhaustion. And those who survived inevitably carried the virus deeper and farther throughout the land.
Mistake 2: Panic repatriations
When the novel coronavirus first emerged, panic ensued very quickly. Indian expats began clamouring to return to their homelands. People were convinced they’d be safer from the deadly virus in their native country and closer to loved ones. And political parties were equally quick to fuel online campaigns to bring the diaspora home.
On May 7, 2020, India’s biggest evacuation mission since 1990 kicked off. As of March this year, nearly seven million Indians have been repatriated from 27 countries around the world. But while the aviation ministry counts it a success story, health authorities couldn’t deny that burgeoning cases were irretrievably linked to the sudden influx from abroad.
Nevertheless, despite the mass migration, cases began to fall steadily by mid-September, 2020.
Then came a series of superspreader events.
Mistake 3: Mishandling farmers’ protests
The latter half of the year 2020 was marked by nationwide farmers’ protests against the passage of new farm laws. Hundreds of thousands of farmers took to the streets, exercising little caution by way of Covid protocols.
These strikes have now continued for months together, with tens of thousands of committed protestors continuing to station themselves at the Delhi border.
The farmers have been “unwilling” to undergo Covid tests too, fearing protests would be derailed if the results came back positive. The contribution of these protests to the spread of the virus is, therefore, undocumented — but one can certainly hazard a guess.
Mistake 4: Pandemic politics
The sharpest uptick in infections began in March this year — coinciding with election rallies hosted by various political parties.
These campaigns often involved numerous rallies with large crowds — with minimal social distancing and very little mask-wearing. Even political campaigners and candidates were spotted not following Covid safety protocols.
Within days of the rallies, a series of party leaders soon reported that they had tested positive for the virus, asking all who had been in contact with them to go into self-isolation.
In a reflection of public anger, the Madras High Court slammed the Election Commission of India (ECI) as being “singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19”.
Mistake 5: Religion above reality
As the country buckled under a devastating second wave, more backlash was in the offing as the government steadfastly refused to ban mass religious gatherings.
In April, against the backdrop of the state of Uttarakhand recording its highest daily cases ever, an estimated six million devotees descended upon the banks of the Ganges river in the northern city of Haridwar to take a dip in what the faithful believe to be holy water.
While officials issued symbolic statements assuring that Covid regulations were in place, the visuals really said it all. Packed tightly together and devoid of masks, pilgrims jostled each other as they dipped, splashed and celebrated in the river.
Over 1,700 eventually tested positive between April 10 to 14 alone.
Mistake 6: Experts’ warning ignored
Last week, it was revealed that a forum of scientific advisers set up by the government had warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus taking hold in the country.
Despite the warning, four of the scientists said the federal government did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. They also did not plan sufficiently in preparation for the next wave.
India’s healthcare spending, including both private and public, has not only been notoriously low — around 3.6 per cent of the GDP for the past six years — it also has the lowest percentage among the five BRICS countries.
Developed nations spend a far higher proportion of their GDP on health. In 2018, for instance, spending in the US was 16.9 per cent and Germany 11.2 per cent. Even smaller nations like Sri Lanka (3.76 per cent) and Thailand (3.79 per cent) spend more than India.
According to a recent BBC report, India has fewer than 10 doctors per 10,000 people. In some states, the figure is less than five.
Mistake 7: Vaccine vanity
Currently, the country’s already-tottering healthcare response is being set back further by a vaccination campaign that is still struggling to get off the ground.
Despite boasting the world’s biggest vaccine-making capacity, the nation has partially or fully immunised only 9.5 per cent of its vast population, according to data from the government’s Co-Win portal.
As part of a World Health Organization (WHO)-led scheme, India was proudly exporting vaccines to countries in need up until the end of March this year. That was before Prime Minister Modi cancelled exports, reneging on international commitments in light of vaccine stocks in the country that have nearly dried up.
Public forecasts by its only two current vaccine producers show their total monthly output of 70–80 million doses will take another couple of months to increase. However, the number of people eligible for vaccines has doubled to an estimated 800 million since May 1.
From crisis to catastrophe
The ‘apocalyptic’ second wave of Covid-19 outbreak in India has now crossed a grim milestone of 20 million cases. Yet, the end does not seem to be in sight for the gasping nation, with experts warning of “horrible” weeks ahead and a “peak” that is only yet to come.
For its part, this time, the government is not concealing its awareness of what is to come. On Wednesday, it said a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic was “inevitable”, although a time-frame for it could not be predicted.
“Phase three is inevitable given the higher levels of circulating virus, but it is not clear on what time-scale this phase three will occur. We should be prepared for new waves,” said K Vijay Raghavan, principal scientific advisor to the Centre.
Countries around the world have rushed to India’s rescue, supplying shipments of oxygen supplies, among other resources. And, earlier this week, America’s top public health expert Dr Anthony Fauci recommended that India impose a nationwide lockdown, push for a massive vaccination drive, and implement the construction of a large number of makeshift hospitals as the only way to help India breathe again.
Without a doubt, the Covid-struck nation is witnessing a tragedy of epic proportions and the question much of the media has been asking is whether the current government of India will survive its mishandling of the pandemic. The bigger question is: will its people?