The Covid-19 pandemic will be remembered by history as a public health emergency that was mishandled by the entire international community. Starting with China, where the virus originated, either through a lab accident or through the Chinese penchant for eating exotic animals, coronavirus attained pandemic proportions because of the reluctance of the Chinese in informing other countries about the outbreak of the disease. Then, we had the unpardonable delay by WHO in recognising Covid-19 as a pandemic and alerting the international community.
President Trump facilitated the spread of the pandemic in the USA by not wearing a mask in public and repeatedly telling his countrymen: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Then, Italy launched a ‘hug a Chinese’ campaign in February 2020 at the time when Chinese travellers were carrying the virus to Italy. Sadly, common people suffered grievously for their leaders’ foolhardiness.
Thankfully, our leadership never underestimated the deadly potential of coronavirus but we were done in by some peculiar Indian characteristics ~ our know-all attitude, refusal to acknowledge our mistakes, doing little but hoping for outstanding results, trumpeting our success even when the job was only half done, and endless politicking.
In the second half of March 2020, when coronavirus was making its entry in India, our leaders convinced themselves that a lockdown for a few weeks would eliminate the virus. A member of the Niti Aayog declared that India would be coronavirus free by 15 May 2020. There was little scientific evidence behind such an assertion, which was based only on a personal understanding of the pathology of coronavirus.
Whether the sixty-eight-day lockdown slowed the coronavirus pandemic is debatable, but the effect on livelihoods of millions of the poor was catastrophic. Once lockdown was imposed, migrant workers, who had no
means of sustenance left in their adopted cities, headed to their native places on foot, on bicycles, inside dumper trucks, in the blazing sun, in the most inhumanely distressing ways possible. The political leadership pointedly ignored their plight; even the Supreme Court convinced itself that there was little movement of migrant labour and the few who were on the roads were being taken care of. Later on, in the face of irrefutable evidence of the sufferings of migrant workers and to prevent recurrence of a mass exodus, the Government promised to roll out a tech-driven system of ‘one nation, one ration card’ and put in place a system for registration of migrant workers.
However, the current exodus of migrant workers, in identical circumstances, shows that these much-publicised measures were not implemented on the ground. Our love of religiosity and politics is squarely responsible for the current wave of infections. Not a single person objected when elections for assemblies in five States, various municipalities and zilla parishads were announced. Political leaders went maskless at the head of large crowds during elections. Large religious congregations were held with State support. A satirical meme showing a single person in a car being fined by policemen but large mask-less gatherings going on merrily, sums up the attitude of the administration. Looking at newspaper headlines, and the caustic observations of various High Courts, one gets the impression that the Government is trying to show control over the pandemic by hiding the actual number of deaths and infections.
PM Modi had endorsed “test, track, treat, follow Covid-appropriate behaviour and vaccinate” as the golden mantra to contain Coronavirus infections. Yet, suddenly, our country, that was in the forefront of the international vaccination drive appears to have run short of vaccine doses. Opposition parties have blamed India’s generosity in sharing 65 million vaccine doses, mostly with poorer nations, for the vaccine shortage. Charity, per se, is an admirable concept, and as the PM has pointed out, in line with our ethos of vasudhaiva kutumbakam. However, before exporting the vaccine, we should have first ramped up our vaccine production to fulfil both domestic and international demand. Although, the Government insists that enough vaccine doses are available, its hurried negotiations with foreign vaccine makers indicates otherwise.
Sadly, immeasurable harm is done to our fight against Covid by the sense of complacency that sets in after only a few days of reduction in Covid infections. The public immediately forget social distancing and quickly put down their masks, trade bodies lobby for more opening up and the Government plans mega-events. This lack of seriousness is exacerbated by apologists for the Government, who are permanently in denial mode, playing down the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic by comparing Covid statistics of India to that of other countries. Obviously, the ratio of the number of infected persons in India to its large population is quite small, which enables the apologists to claim that Covid is almost non-existent in India.
Knowing that the percentage of Indians fully vaccinated against Covid is insignificant, the apologists prove their point by comparing the number of persons vaccinated in India to the number of persons vaccinated in other countries. Then, relying on flawed figures, apologists argue that Covid19 is not as fatal as it was earlier. No one points out that comparison with other countries is meaningless because each country fights Covid on its own and after nearly 1.55 crore Covid infections and 1.82 lakh Covid deaths, the time has come to stop believing that Covid-19 would leave our shores soon or by itself.
Decoding a disease by a study of its epidemiology takes years if not decades, so medical studies of Covid-19 are still scientifically incomplete and the conclusions of experts are not fully reliable. As of now, the exact mode(s) of transmission of coronavirus are still unknown; a proper cure for Covid-19 is yet to be discovered and the efficacy and the period for which various vaccines offer protection against Covid-19 is a matter of conjecture.
Not knowing much beyond the fact that coronavirus assails our airways and is highly infectious, the only sure way to counter the virus is to remain masked, maintain hygiene and social distancing and halt all non-essential and non business activities for the next one year. Mass congregations for elections, religious activities or sports, all should be totally banned. We should also aim at vaccinating at least 100 crore persons in the shortest possible time, through efficient vaccine management. The current surge in Coronavirus infections has started a zero-sum blame game between the Centre and non-BJP States, while the public looks on disappointedly ~ at the abysmal healthcare facilities, little improved since the first wave of coronavirus infections with critical medicines, hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and ventilators again being in short supply. We have to stop believing that this is the last wave of coronavirus infections; more waves may be lurking in the shadows and our famed inertia may prove fatal for many of our countrymen. Rejuvenating our crumbling healthcare infrastructure is the only way to contain the coronavirus pandemic, or the other pandemics that may visit us in future.
Along with healthcare, enabling the education system to impart online learning at all levels, is necessary. We have to plan, so that another academic year is not lost. In any case, even after the pandemic is over, online learning will help students in remote areas and would also decongest our overcrowded classrooms. Science has progressed at an astonishing pace during the pandemic. Six months ago, there were a handful of vaccine candidates in clinical trials.
Today, 13 vaccines have been approved and 29 are in Phase 2 or 3 trials. Despite the incredible achievement of proceeding from scratch to having so many approved vaccines within a year, the final challenge remains: producing enough doses to vaccinate the world’s population, and distributing vaccines in a fair and equitable manner because till everyone is vaccinated the danger of recurrence of coronavirus would not be over.
Yet, co-operation is the last thing on the mind of countries like the USA and EU member states which are practising ‘vaccine nationalism’, even with millions of vaccine doses lying in their freezers. British writer Damian Barr has succinctly written: “We may be in the same storm, but we are in different boats.” Melinda Gates was more direct: “This pandemic has magnified every existing inequality in our society ~ like systemic racism, gender inequality, and poverty.”
To stop the pandemic fully, we can only pray to God to make the political leadership of all countries see reason.