Case numbers rose sharply after the lockdown, despite restrictions remaining in place, but by September, India had seen off the peak of the first wave.(Kamal Kishore / PTI)
Case numbers rose sharply after the lockdown, despite restrictions remaining in place, but by September, India had seen off the peak of the first wave.(Kamal Kishore / PTI)

Covid-19: What really matters

  • In India, for some time, it looked like the response of the Union and state governments, and also of people, was ideal.
By R Sukumar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON APR 26, 2021 06:51 AM IST

What really matters? No, it’s not what you think.

When a country is faced with a pandemic such as the coronavirus disease, the priorities (for both State and individuals) write themselves — health, well-being, economy, education, then everything else. The phrasing may vary, but the priorities, and their order, largely remain the same.

In India, for some time, it looked like the response of the Union and state governments, and also of people, was ideal. Governments scrambled to strengthen health infrastructure. And people, at least those who could afford to, hunkered down to stay safe and abided by the 68-day lockdown. The Centre announced a stimulus programme, although it was criticised by some for an over-emphasis on monetary measures over fiscal ones. It also tried to make life better for the poor, although it mishandled the migrant labour situation till at least May 1 (when it launched special trains for migrant workers to return home).

Case numbers rose sharply after the lockdown, despite restrictions remaining in place, but by September, India had seen off the peak of the first wave. The festive season passed without incident. The Bihar elections came and went, and cases continued to fall. By early February, India’s cases were well off their peak, and its vaccine programme was underway. The economy was almost where it was before the pandemic (Nomura’s NIBRI, a business resumption index, touched 99.3 in the week of February 21; 100 indicates pre-pandemic level of business activity).

But, by then, things had already started to go wrong.

By the end of 2020, people were partying and vacationing. Schools reopened for physical classes in many parts of the country. Restaurants, bars, malls, and multiplexes all rushed to make up for lost time (and money). Emboldened by the low Covid-19 footprint of the Bihar elections — the state’s testing has always been suspect given the predominant use of rapid antigen tests — the Election Commission decided to hold elections in four states and a Union territory.

All parties participated enthusiastically. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially, pulled out all the stops, scenting victory in West Bengal, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi donning the avatar of campaigner-in-chief. It was only in the third week of April that the BJP finally decided it would no longer hold large rallies. And it was only on April 22 that the PM decided the situation warranted his presence in New Delhi, and cancelled a campaign trip — this was a day after India crossed 300,000 daily cases for the first time, and recorded 2,102 deaths, its highest till then.

Uttarakhand decided to go ahead with the Mahakumbh, which had a high probability of turning into a classic super-spreader event. The Centre did nothing to stop the state. A belated appeal from the PM to observe the festival in spirit (and without the usual crowds) went out only on April 17.

The second wave broke in late February, and is continuing to rage. On Thursday, cases touched 332,394 and the death toll was 2,255. By Saturday, it went up to 349,158 and 2,759, respectively. Both numbers are likely under-reported; the first because many of those infected remain asymptomatic and testing is inadequate, and the second because states appear to have instructed hospitals to not record Covid-19 as the cause of death. And NIBRI’s latest value, for the week ending April 18, stood at 83.8.

The one thing that could have delayed, may be even prevented, the second wave was a more aggressive vaccine drive. Challenging as the logistics are, the reason why India didn’t push for more vaccinations was perhaps because no one saw the second wave coming. India’s approach to vaccines was unlike that of the United States, which pumped billions of dollars into companies developing vaccines — it was among the few things the Trump administration got spectacularly right. Only on April 19 did the finance ministry sanction 4,500 crore as credit to the two vaccine makers (SII and Bharat Biotech).

And the one thing that could have warned of a coming second wave was sequencing of enough viral genomes to track the mutating variants of the virus that are clearly responsible (in some measure), for it — and India wasn’t and isn’t sequencing enough.

All decisions involve trade-offs and those made by India’s political leadership, officials, and citizens, are accurate indicators of what really matters to them.

For the leadership, this has clearly been politics and the economy. It’s almost as if it was alright for India to lose if that’s what it took for elections to be held in four states. And as cases surged, states delayed instituting curbs that would have prevented spikes in infections (they didn’t, the spikes happened, cases overran health systems, and then the states locked down, resulting in even more damage to the economy).

For those managing India’s Covid-19 response, the only thing that matters appears to be validation. For some of the rich, or young, or both, it was having a good time even amid the pandemic. For the faithful, it was religion, and few political leaders dared criticise them for fear of offending an existing or potential vote bank. Even a state that touts its progressiveness, Kerala, hemmed and hawed before finally deciding to scale down the Thrissur Pooram festival.

And so, at a time when only science and data should have driven all decisions, we allowed ourselves to be driven by politics and religion and short-term economic concerns, sought instant gratification by flocking to Goa or Nainital, and when challenged, validated our actions by pointing to dubious science or data that showed India was doing better than other countries.

The results of this are all around. As a famous band once sang, “If you plant ice, you’re gonna harvest wind.” This is a whirlwind.

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