Written by Anamika Satheesh
In January, every time a citizen of India tried to call anyone on the phone, they would first have to listen to a recorded message talking about how the new year has brought new hope to overcome the pandemic with vaccines set to be rolled out. Within three months, the recorded message became a redundant joke. Despite warnings, the Health Ministry of India seemed to have declared an endgame to the pandemic, but things went south when the second wave of COVID-19 hit the country around mid-March – this time, even worse than the first. New variants began to emerge, causing a significant surge in the number of infected people as well as a rise in the number of deaths every day. The Central Government’s crisis management and vaccine strategy has begun to receive vehement criticism as India recorded over 4 lakh fresh cases every day for a week. Owing to this, the health infrastructure of the country was subjected to great stress, compelling hospitals to deny many patients treatment. Contrary to the first wave where the majority of the contributors of cases came from the urban areas, the second wave has begun to contribute nearly half the freshly reported cases. Fear haunts the minds of the citizens of India as people struggle to gasp for breath on the streets and succumb at a shockingly upsetting rate. At this point, citizens are desperate to know when this cacophonous nightmare will come to an end, but another potent question is how.
The first wave of the pandemic was indeed getting under control, and the people were slowly able to return to their normal lifestyles for a brief period. Serum Institute of India (SII) became the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by making AstraZeneca-Oxford (locally known as Covishield), and India even began to export its vaccine supply to aid other nations. However, their success did not last long. The blame can be placed primarily on two parties: the Central Government’s incompetent crisis management and non-COVID appropriate and callous behaviour among even the educated population. Following the decline of cases in the nation, people resumed their routines, but in many cases, it was observed that they neglected safety precautions. Some refused to wear masks and follow social distancing protocol. The blatant repercussion was the inevitable rise in cases. The Centre exported vaccines to 93 countries when in the country itself, only 2.5% of the population has been fully vaccinated. Administration of vaccines for the general public was rolled out in phases from March 1st, but halfway through the second phase, many hospitals began to report a shortage of vaccines. Simultaneously, the number of reported cases began to soar like never before, inducing widespread anxiety in the mass. Upon observations that this time, the youngsters – who were previously deemed to have better immunity levels – were getting affected and succumbing, the Centre announced phase three through which anyone who is 18 or above can get themselves vaccinated. While this was an indispensable move, its execution came a bit too late. States began to request more vaccines, but upon being deprived of raw materials, Serum Institute also began to face obstacles in manufacturing enough for the entire nation. India, which has a population of 1.21 billion, collectively echoed their disdain against the Centre’s export of vaccines before procuring enough for its own citizens.
As commended by France’s President, India did indeed export for humanity. However, its own citizens are unable to process the horrors of the second wave of the pandemic. Reprimands are not about the export itself, but rather being unable to manage the
requirements efficiently. States have been imploring the Centre to release more doses, but the gates of vaccine administration centres have a piece of paper with the words ‘No vaccine available’ handwritten on it. Moreover, the portal for registrations of vaccines, CoWIN, shows no available slots for disappointed youth, and some places even suspended vaccinations. The portal also fails to reach the rural areas and those who are not adept with the use of technology. Maharashtra, the country’s richest state, contributes the highest number of cases, followed by Karnataka, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan, all with over 2 lakh active cases at present. The fast-paced increase in infections created an insurmountable crisis in medical facilities. Hospitals are running out of beds for patients and are forced to decline to take in more people. Patients can be seen on the streets, gasping for breath and begging for even the most minimal treatment they ought to have access to. Aside from beds, hospitals all over the country also face a shortage of Remdesivir injections and oxygen. Many hospitals reported deaths en masse when they could not provide enough oxygen. There have been, of course, instances where state governments took matters into their own hands and managed to save lives. The crisis, however, continues to remain critical. Hospitals are often coerced into choosing between a 20-year-old man and an 80-year-old-woman since they only have the resources to save one of them. The situation not only puts a risk on the physical health of medical professionals but also their mental health. Another appalling occurrence is the lack of burial grounds to cremate the dead. Shortage of ambulances to transport dead bodies, long hours of wait to be able to lay them to rest, mass burials, and the overwhelming number of dead bodies continue to numb everyone, including those in the funeral industry.
When the question of accountability is raised, the ball is passed around between multiple stakeholders. However, the level of accountability is not tantamount among all of them. Fingers are primarily pointed at the Centre and the laxity of the people, both of which have certainly contributed to the current turbulence. The Centre had been warned, on numerous occasions, by their own experts, that if caution is not exercised, a second wave would arise. Unfortunately, the Centre did not take any proactive measures that could have helped the nation take a detour from the direction they are presently going in. Two pragmatic ways that could tackle the pandemic are border closure – as demonstrated by New Zealand, and increased vaccination – which the UK is currently attempting to do. A combination of both could have potentially placed a lesser strain on India’s social, economic, political, and health infrastructure; with cons which would be a less fatal sacrifice for the more effective tackling. Instead, India’s government met these warnings with indifference and made a series of mistakes. Aside from exporting SII’s vaccines without accurately calculating the needs of its nation, it tried to push India’s indigenous vaccine, Covaxin, manufactured by Bharat Biotech Ltd., by approving its use before reviewing Phase 3 trials data and simultaneously demanding that Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson conduct trials in India, holding back its approval while other countries enjoyed the availability of both. Further, 4 states and 1 union territory had elections this year, political rallies were organized: without any doubt, large crowds gathered without appropriate precautionary behaviour and a surge was inevitable. These election rallies were outrightly condemned for adding fuel to fire. Negligence on the part of the public, who, under the illusion that they have defeated the pandemic, treated themselves to premature relaxation of precautionary measures. An instance of people’s ignorance and recklessness would be the result of religious beliefs. Millions of pilgrims gathered for Kumbh Mela, a pilgrimage and festival of Hindus marked by a ritual dip in the
waters with the belief that it would cleanse them of their sins. Long-distance travelling and neglecting COVID protocols lead this to become the greatest reason for the surge in cases.
Citizens now fear a third wave, which could wipe out hope from their minds for good. Therefore, it is important to assess the secondary participants of the second wave crisis to rectify and avoid the situation from escalating further. Following the first wave, the Centre did allocate funds to establish oxygen plants in hospitals, but not many were compliant. With the second wave, while India’s production of oxygen is, in fact, greater than its demands, its supply has been hindered during transportation. State governments also began to shut down facilities when they believed the fallacy that the pandemic had come to an end. Building this infrastructure again wasted time that could have made at least a small difference. Moving on, the opposition had unfortunately instilled in the minds of the people that Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin is ineffective. This made many hesitant towards getting themselves vaccinated when the drives started.
The consequences of this wave have been hazardous just like the previous one. India has been breaking its own records when it comes to fatalities, witnessing the deaths of numerous mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, doctors, health workers, teachers, journalists, police officers, and precious citizens. The fatality rate does appear low at 1.1%, but the life of every single person is precious. Losing even one is a loss to many. The nation also sees economic declination as shops, industries, and businesses are forced to shut down during the lockdown period. The rise of the pandemic has also inversely impacted the rate of employment, and with increased unemployment comes a lower economy and adoption of deteriorating lifestyles. Many are deprived of basic amenities and food. Reports of domestic violence and harassment have increased, and many cases continue to go unreported. The blame game being played has made the situation political in nature, ignoring humanity. Citizens see the social and political system crumble before their eyes. All of this wears people down mentally and emotionally. In addition to the deaths caused by the virus itself, collateral damage takes place inadvertently when some people do not receive the treatment they need for a medical reason not related to COVID due to misdiagnosis, refusal of treatment, or fear of the virus at hospitals. Moreover, countries like Bhutan, which relies on India for vaccines, are also anxiously wondering when they should expect the second dose since India has paused export during the second wave.
In spite of pleads and enraged protests against poor management and lack of prudent thinking, the Central government is yet to impose any stringent regulation to curb this. This made state governments take necessary measures in their respective states. Many states have declared partial and total lockdowns with stringent regulations to reduce the spread while also attempting to adopt strategies that appear to have been effective in other states. Night and weekend curfews are in place in many states. People have now taken to social media to amplify the cries of those who desperately need help. Every day, posts show up on statuses requesting leads on procuring hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and medicines. Students have volunteered to help by consolidating verified leads and requesting help through platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Others are willing to cook meals for those who are infected. Many celebrities have also donated funds for COVID relief in India and constantly urge people to stay safe. Meanwhile, the Centre continues to fund the production of its indigenous Covaxin, which sends hope across minds. The vaccine is quite promising and the Centre hopes to immunize not just Indian citizens but also others around the globe with this.
Fortunately, India’s benevolence has garnered helping hands from other nations. Russia has already sent 1.5 lakh doses of Sputnik V, which is expected to be available to the Indian public soon and has partnered with local Indian companies for more production. They also flew in 20 oxygen production plants, ventilators, and 200,000 medicine packs. The US renders its help by supplying raw materials, medical equipment, Remdesivir, and oxygen cylinders. France, Germany, Taiwan, Romania, Singapore, UAE, the UK, and others have also stood with the nation as they battle the chaos by supplying oxygen generating units and other medical necessities. International celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Shawn Mendes, Hugh Jackman, Mindy Kaling, etc., have contributed to Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s GiveIndia campaign. Non-profit organizations like the Indian Red Cross Society, Care India, GIVE.asia, Ketto, OxygenForIndia are accepting donations to help the country rise from the catastrophe. In the end, India will forever be grateful to all of its well-wishers who have supported and hoped for its recovery. On May 10, the number of recoveries were greater than the number of fresh cases, so the flattening of the curve will hopefully take place soon and India will see light again.
Read more of Issue 7 here.