Nothing in the popular discourse has been able to capture the severity and implications of the second Covid-19 wave that began in the middle of March and peaked early in May. According to the WHO, of the 2,91,331 total deaths reported until 21 May, 40% occurred during the ongoing second wave. The numbers reported during this wave far surpassed the earlier wave on all parameters, be it daily reported cases, case positivity rate or death toll. On the day the first wave peaked, 16 September 2020, India reported more the one lakh cases. But on 6 May 2021, the peak of the second wave, the daily number of positive cases was four times higher.
Even these numbers could well be underestimations, considering the WHO’s recent warning that many countries are under-reporting their Covid-19 cases. There are several indications that India is one of those countries, for example, the scores of bodies that floated down the Ganga, the hundreds more found buried along its banks, the low rate of testing considering the size of its population, the alleged discrepancies in reported death figures, and so on. All of these signal a tragedy of far higher magnitude than is being acknowledged.
Indians are still scrambling to come to terms with the death, devastation and trauma of the second wave, but some messages from it are already in bold letters. These messages fall into three broad categories: the helplessness of people, failure of the government to own up responsibility and widening trust deficit between the government and the governed. The trust deficit is an outcome of the sheer hopelessness people experienced during the last two months. Their struggle to save their own lives and their friends and relatives is unparalleled in the history of modern India. Across the nation, there were not enough beds in hospitals, or hospitals refused to admit patients, or there was not enough life-saving oxygen and other medicines. Report after report narrated how Covid-19 patients died on the roads while hunting for a hospital that would take them in. There are also reports of patients dying in hospitals because medical oxygen supplies ran out. People became helpless because no government authority came forward to address their crisis and anguish responsibly.
The government was unprepared and utterly mismanaged the crisis, for it refused to learn any lessons from the first wave in India. Nor did it pay heed to the second and third waves other countries experienced. It shirked responsibility and acted carelessly, and that is why the second wave was severe beyond imagination. The acute sense of helplessness will haunt people for the rest of their lives. However, they are also searching for answers: Why did we have to go through such a crisis? Why was nobody there to help us? Where was the government when we needed it most?
The Union government spearheaded the management of the first wave until September last year but then became complacent. When the challenging second wave arrived, the political leadership failed to act with care or urgency. The apex leadership ignored the experiences of figures such as President Donald Trump in the United States, President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Each of them either mocked the Covid-19 crisis or adopted a careless attitude towards managing it. In all these countries, people paid a high price for this negligence in lives lost and economic setbacks.
Therefore, we cannot divorce political developments from lived experiences. People suffered tremendously during the second wave and will strive to apportion responsibility—or blame—for it. The ongoing political churning in Uttar Pradesh is a marker of the scale of people’s hardships and their realisation that the leadership was oblivious to it. After all, whatever little the Indian authorities had done to prepare to meet the first wave, they left those unfinished or dismantled them prematurely. That amounts to shirking from a national responsibility, just like the leaders of these other countries did.
India has the Disaster Management Act since 2005. This law mandates the Union government to put a National Disaster Management Plan in place—but where is this plan on the ground today? India has a host of scientists and pandemic experts, but the government failed to deploy them to assess whether life-saving drugs and oxygen were available in enough quantities to meet possible future challenges. Ironically, the Centre invoked the Disaster Act during the first wave to coordinate and manage national efforts. This Act gives the Union government enormous overriding powers to direct and control national efforts to deal with a pandemic, irrespective that health is a subject on the State List in the Constitution. So, even on this front, the government has no room to shirk responsibility. Despite this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi left it to states to fend for themselves during the second wave. It deprived India of national coordination, planning and leadership when the pandemic was most severe.
Then, political leaders participated in and encouraged attendance at superspreader events. Huge rallies were organised during the Assembly elections to four states, the Kumbh Mela got the go-ahead, and panchayat elections were held in Uttar Pradesh. All these allowed the virus to spread rapidly even to small towns and rural areas. Even now, the government keeps on taking non-pragmatic initiatives to deal with the crisis. For example, the Centre announced that vaccination is open for the 18 to 45 age group from the first week of May. The total population of this age group is about 59 crores. But the government failed to assess how it would manage the supply of 59 crore vaccine vials—the first dose for this age group. Remember that many in the 45 and above age group are still left out or need their second dose. The result of this lack of planning is before us: Many states, including Delhi, have closed their vaccination centres for the younger population as they have run out of supplies. Across the country, huge crowds gather daily for a vaccine shot but return without getting one. So, was the announcement of vaccines for the younger age group a pragmatic decision or just an image-building exercise? It is questions like this that people are asking themselves and each other right now.
The sad part is that no one in the top leadership has come forward to own responsibility for these lapses. The leadership has failed to understand that there is a distinction between the political management of an election and managing a pandemic. To own up to mistakes and faults would be the first step towards reform and rectification during a pandemic. There may not be a parliamentary debate on this issue, but people are raising this question on social media.
Modi has addressed the nation many times of late. When will he answer the questions the people are asking? Recall that after India’s defeat in the 1962 war with China, after a parliamentary debate, the then defence minister Krishna Menon had to own moral responsibility for India’s defeat and resign (though then prime minister Nehru was saved). While the levels of political rectitude have fallen in India, the ostrich-like attitude of the present political leadership in the face of such a calamity will do it no good. Avoidance will only limit the scope of rectification, and people will be the ones who bear the brunt of more lapses. The image of a leader cannot be more valuable than the lives of people.
The point is that whether the leadership owns up to the lapses in pandemic management or not, Indian people cutting across age, gender, caste and religion will continue to search for answers for a tragedy that has been tremendously traumatic for them. When governments and politics fail, the trust deficit between the government and the governed rises. Hopelessness builds on mistrust, and together they widen this trust deficit.
It is perhaps a truism that governments commit many lapses and people tend to forget them and move on. However, when we lose their near and dear ones, the feeling of loss and associated helplessness makes a home deeper in our psyche. The anguish lingers on. And that is why political shenanigans and deceptions have their limits. Governments and leaders cannot escape from the judgement call summed up in that Abraham Lincoln adage, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
Prof Sudhir Pawar is a professor at University of Lucknow and political analyst. Dr Arunoday Bajpai is associate professor and head, Department of Political Science, Agra College. The views are personal.