The Covid-19 pandemic shows no sign of slowing down in the country, with figures touching nearly three lakhs on 20 April. Hospitals are running out of beds, ICU capacity and even oxygen. Consequently, the death toll is also rising, with reports of dead bodies piling up in mortuaries, crematoriums and burial grounds.
India’s numbers have far outstripped countries like the US and Brazil, which were the poor performers until now. Worse, the flattening of the curve is still some time away. As seen in the chart above, new states and cities are getting affected, and their numbers are rising quite steeply even as Maharashtra’s numbers are beginning to flatten. Even more worrying, the number of positives to tests is now more than one out of five—more than four times what it was a few months back, which indicates that the actual numbers of infected are even higher.
What went wrong with the central government’s handling of the epidemic? The government was completely unprepared for the second wave, which started its steep climb about a month back. The central government and its experts believed that the Covid-19 pandemic would be over by February 2021, after which the country could return to normalcy. The Modi government truly believed its propaganda of the so-called DST supermodel and was busy chest-thumping on its great success. It was preparing to convert this “success” into electoral victory in the next set of state elections when the second wave struck.
As the numbers started rising, instead of trying to work out a cooperative plan on a countrywide basis to combat the epidemic, the BJP went on an offensive. Central ministers blamed the state governments for not doing enough and the people for having abandoned the safety norms of masks and social distancing. This is notwithstanding that the Cente had itself signalled a return to normal with public rallies, election campaigns and huge religious gatherings such as the Kumbha Mela. If people did relax the Covid-19 norms, they were only following what the leaders on the daises during rallies—Narendra Modi and Amit Shah included—were doing.
The first Covid-19 wave peaked around mid-September 2020, touching nearly 1,00,000 new infections. It went down to half of that in one month, and from mid-October onwards, the numbers dropped even more until the end of February. This nearly four-month respite should have been used to strengthen the public health system in the country: increase hospital beds, ICU facilities, build a supply chain for oxygen, and prepare protocols on how to handle the next wave.
To strengthen the public health system, introduce clear guidelines, and get states and local governments to function together is the first line of defence in handling a pandemic. The tragedy is that the central government, which has centralised all powers under the Disaster Management Act, refused to prepare itself or the states for this second wave, believing that the pandemic is over.
The worst failure in the current crisis is the lack of oxygen in the hospitals. When the lungs of patients are affected by Covid-19, the most important “medicine” is oxygen. News reports tell us of patients dying as hospitals run out of oxygen. Many hospitals in the nation’s capital are reporting they have only a few hours of oxygen left. If this is the situation in the capital, that too in elite hospitals, imagine the plight of hospitals elsewhere.
In the first wave, the spread was limited to a few states and, in them, to densely-populated areas. This time, the disease has spread across almost all states and a much larger cross-section of people. The core of the current crisis is that the spread has outstripped hospital capacities across the country. A prominent reason for deaths during an epidemic is that the number of serious patients outstrips the availability of hospital beds and oxygen supplies. That is when fatalities start mounting.
Why did we not start to prepare for this eventuality even three weeks back? That is when the speed at which cases were rising should have warned the central government of an impending crisis. With alarming signals apparent three weeks ago, at least it could have planned to arrange for the production of more oxygen and the logistics of reaching it to states and hospitals. Right from that time, it could have prioritised medical oxygen over its industrial use, as we are doing now, belatedly.
Why did the government not take urgent steps and prepare for a surge of this magnitude? This government is unfortunately completely centralised. Only the Prime Minister and Home Minister have the ability to act. The other ministers are harnessed only to dismiss any criticism, even of the constructive kind, as from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It appears both Modi and Amit Shah’s sights were set on winning the elections in the east, particularly to the West Bengal Assembly. Only after all other political parties stopped their rallies did the BJP realise the poor optics of the PM still in electioneering mode in the middle of a major pandemic. By then, it was too late, and this has landed us in dire straits.
With its continuous announcements about vaccinations, the government is claiming much more credit than what we have achieved. First, the claim that we have vaccinated 12.7 crore people. We have not. While 12.7 crore vaccine doses have been injected, not even two crore people have received the two required doses.
At the beginning of April, states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab were complaining about vaccine supplies running low. The Health Minister Harsh Vardhan Singh dismissed their complaints as politicising their “failure to control the Covid-19 pandemic”. Unfortunately for the Minister’s claims, figures for vaccination show that the number of vaccine doses injected per day has indeed come to half of what they were in early April (see chart), confirming what these states were saying then.
In his statement on 7 April quoted above, the Health Minister also said, “So long as the supply of vaccines remains limited, there is no option but to prioritise [who gets the vaccines]. This is also the established practice around the world, and is well known to all state governments.” If this was the correct policy two weeks back, can the Modi government explain why they are now proposing all people above 18 be vaccinated? No explanation has been offered on such a change, considering that vaccine supplies are not only still limited, but less than half of what they were two or three weeks back.
No plan has also been announced for how the country will ramp up its production and delivery to meet the expanded target of vaccinating everybody above 18. Instead, the central government has abandoned the responsibility for either acquiring or delivering the vaccines except to health workers and people above 45 years old. It will supply this requirement from 50% of the country’s vaccine production. The rest 50% will be for the state governments and the open market. So, state governments are now directly responsible for their vaccine procurement, but without any mechanism in their hands to do so. The Centre has also removed all price controls on vaccines, allowing vaccine makers to sell them in the open market.
Instead of a well thought out plan to increase vaccine production and vaccinate all the people, this appears to be a cynical exercise in abandoning the responsibility to vaccinating the people and blaming state governments for failing to vaccinate everybody.
The central government is now meeting with the vaccine manufacturers to discuss how to ramp up production. This is an exercise that should have been done 4-6 months back. Modi talks about the private sector and its contributions to vaccines, forgetting that it is the public sector, institutions such as the Haffkine Institute, that pioneered vaccine manufacturing in the country. It is ICMR and the National Institute of Virology (NIV) that developed Covaxin and licensed it to Bharat Biotech as a monopoly.
There is no reason why ICMR-NIV should not have licensed it to other vaccine manufacturers including half-a-dozen public sector units that are idling today. This would have increased our vaccine manufacturing capacity and placed us in a much better position regarding the availability of vaccine supplies—instead of creating another vaccine monopoly with public-sector technology and public money.
The Modi government believes in centralising all political power in its hands and letting the “free market” led by big monopoly houses solve the problems of the country. And if such a policy fails, blame the state governments, the anti-national forces and finally, the Opposition.
How long can the Centre continue this policy before the people call them out? Peoples’ memories may not be as short as the Modi government and the BJP propaganda machine believe.