Monday September 27, 2021

Covid lessons from India

India’s health minister declared victory over Covid-19 in January 2021. A month or so later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also celebrated India’s victory over the virus in words that seem hollow today: “At the beginning of this pandemic, the whole world was worried about India’s situation, but today India’s fight against corona is inspiring the entire world. He added: “With made-in-India solutions, we controlled the spread of the virus and improved our health infrastructure. Our vaccination research and production capacity have given a shield not just to India but [also] to many other countries in the world”.

No matter how premature and boastful these claims appear today, they were premised on the fact that both Covid-19 cases and deaths due to the virus were declining rapidly in India by the middle of September 2020. Nobody could have expected this trend to reverse within weeks – and that too with such fury and ferocity that India now has the second highest number of Covid-19 cases after the United States.

India, indeed, is the current global epicenter of Covid-19, with more than 21 million confirmed cases (despite relatively low testing compared to Europe and North America) and close to a quarter of a million deaths (even though this officially recorded number is reported to be much lower than the actual one). India is also breaking the record of Covid infections detected in a single day. A million new Covid patients have been added to its national tally every third day over the last few weeks.

Also, contrary to what Modi claimed two months ago, Covid-19 has overwhelmed India’s health infrastructure. There is a severe shortage of Remdesivir (a medicine used for severe Covid-19 cases), hospital beds and oxygen supplies. Even mortuaries and crematories are running out of space to handle the ever-increasing Covid-19 deaths. The media (both social and mainstream) is replete with harrowing stories of disease and death and frenetic appeals by the relatives of ailing patients looking for oxygen or hospital beds. In one of the most tragic of these incidents, a 65-year-old journalist, Vinay Srivastava, died immediately after tweeting that he needed an oxygen cylinder.

As similar tragedies continue to unfold in India during its ongoing second wave of Covid-19, experts are already issuing warnings about a possible third wave. Will these two waves stop at India’s borders?

The spread of the pandemic during 2020 has taught us that whatever happens in one country does not stay there forever. It is, therefore, only a matter of time that the virus strain believed to be responsible for the deadly second wave of Covid-19 in India starts appearing in other parts of the world – including Pakistan. That is why it is essential for Pakistani authorities and people to learn from India’s missteps so that they can stop the pandemic from turning into a humanitarian crisis in their own country.

Let us see where India went wrong in dealing with Covid-19. First, an all-too-early declaration of victory over the virus created a false sense of security both among the government and the people of India. Most Indians stopped observing social distance or wearing face masks – not only in their daily lives but also in large gatherings. Flouting the SOPs required to contain the spread of the virus, the ruling BJP and its political opponents focused obsessively on election campaigns for five state assembly elections. Modi himself addressed some 20 giant rallies across West Bengal. These massive public gatherings came to a halt only after two candidates contracted the virus in West Bengal and died.

Likewise, the BJP government allowed the Kumbh Mela to be brought forward to 2021 – a once-in-12-years Hindu religious gathering originally scheduled for 2022 – on account of “auspicious dates”. During this mela, millions of pilgrims dived into the Ganges, ignoring all Covid-19 SOPs.

The third instance of large public gatherings taking place in the wake of the pandemic was protests by farmers against some controversial farm laws. They remained on the roads for days before starting a huge sit-in protest in the heart of Delhi. Because their participants hardly ever observed any corona SOPs, these gatherings eventually became a source for spreading the pandemic.

Second, the Indian government did not put any serious effort into genomic sequencing of the Covid-19 virus until the second wave of the pandemic hit the country. Its health authorities, therefore, could not determine which variant of the virus was causing the fresh Covid-19 cases. It is only now that experts have identified the new variant causing India’s latest surge of Covid-19 infections (B.1.617). They have also issued alerts that this variant can spread quickly to other parts of the world. Already, its presence has been confirmed in at least ten other countries, including the US and the UK.

Third, the Indian government underestimated its vaccination needs. It did not procure the doses the country required even when it could have easily done that from domestic sources considering that it is the world’s largest vaccine maker. What made a bad situation worse was the government’s insistence on the ‘made in India’ mantra. It, therefore, did not allow the import of any foreign vaccines without local trials until the second wave started exacting massive human costs.

It was only on April 13, 2021 that India allowed fast-track import of Covid-19 vaccines. Though by the end of the last month, it managed to vaccinate 1.96 percent of its population, the remaining 98.04 percent population is still vulnerable to various variants of the virus.

In the meanwhile, following another half-baked idea, the government banned the export of the vaccines its companies were producing, without fully considering the fact that most of their raw materials were being imported from the United States. The ban, on the one hand, negatively affected vaccination drives in Europe and many developing countries waiting for vaccine supplies through the global Covax program. On the other, it triggered bans by the US on the export of vaccine raw materials to India.

Fourth, meaningful nationwide collaboration has been lacking in India. This hampered real-time surveillance, detection, control and elimination of the pandemic outbreak in different parts of India.

Given that there are 28 states and around half a dozen union territories in India, it must have been an arduous task to develop synergies and coordination between the central government and the authorities in all the states and territories. The absence of a central coordinating agency, such as Pakistan’s National Command Operation Center (NCOC), has made this task even more difficult. Resultantly, some state governments are moving superior courts to get an equitable share in the supply of oxygen, vaccines, and life-saving drugs.

The silver lining amidst this crisis is the volunteerism of the Indian civil society. Many citizen groups are trying to fill the void left by the government. They are organizing the supply of oxygen cylinders and circulating information about the availability of beds, ventilators and other essential supplies.

Can Pakistanis replicate the same spirit of volunteerism if, God forbid, the virus starts surging rapidly here? The answer to this question will be an important factor in how we deal with such a surge though, ultimately, the success or failure of our endeavors will not only be determined by the government’s policies and actions, but also with our individual actions.

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

Twitter: @abidsuleri