Why India needs a new pathway to conquer Covid 2.0
The Indian mutant is perhaps the most calamitous form of the Coronavirus yet known. It has tested the limits of our healthcare system, our administration and our resolution to take decisive actions in a short time.
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At the very start of April, India was a nation that was self-assured in its handling of the crisis caused by the novel Coronavirus. Many international experts had also reported on how India managed to stay unharmed from its Covid wave of September-October 2020.
But what we ignored was the sheer ability of the coronavirus to mutate to the conditions. The UK-strain combined with the Californian-strain, led to “double mutation” - the Indian mutant. This mutant, perhaps the most calamitous form of the virus yet known, tested the limits of our healthcare system, our administration and our resolution to take decisive actions in a short time.
From April 1, till the end of the month, active cases of Covid in India grew over five times. The virus thrived in late-acting cities and then invaded rural areas and towns through panicking migrants who reached home. The gruesome pictures of migrant workers walking home in the first wave were replaced by heartbreaking videos of Indians desperately seeking oxygen and medicines for their loved ones.
The gruesome pictures of migrant workers walking home in the first wave were replaced by heartbreaking videos of Indians desperately seeking oxygen and medicines for their loved ones. (Photo: Reuters)
In reality, the second wave is not a new concept — we should have seen it coming long ago. The USA saw one early on in July-August 2020, and then again in December. The UK saw its waves in November and then in January 2021. Yet somehow we missed learning from others, and are suffering now.
We need to get our act together to create a pathway for a permanent victory from this virus.
First, we need to invest massively in Covid-infection data-based decision making. We need to collect as much data, as fast as possible from as many locations and create triggers based on these data trends. Today, citizens are using social media to communicate addresses for access to medical supplies. This is not at all efficient and in fact it adds to the panic.
This information should have been with the government, verified and updated in real time.
Artificial Intelligence needs to help our decisions, and compromises created due to action (or lack of) by human elements must be done away with. The Covid second wave has shown us that every hour matters. The delay of a day means the loss of thousands of lives.
Second, we have seen how Israel and the USA, after achieving significant vaccination goals, have relaxed their local mask and social distance guidelines. In the last week of April 2021, Israel also achieved the target of zero Covid deaths in a day. This shows that vaccines work, but only when a large proportion of the population is vaccinated.
India must create a better roadmap to vaccination - and involve its massive armed forces into it. We must also keep a watch on under-development drugs like Molnupiravir, which can stop the infection from spreading rapidly. Several Indian companies are working on developing many new vaccines and medicines. These indigenous works need support from the government. Unlike most large economies, India made the error of not investing early into vaccine research. Now onwards, we must use our investments to create early access to new research.
Third, we cannot treat a pandemic like any other illness. Handling a pandemic is like fighting a war. It needs absolute urgency and meticulous coordination. India must design a separate mission-mode Department for Contagious Diseases. This cannot just be limited to the Ministry of Health but also include Defence, Commerce and Home Ministries. It must have the power to rapidly mobilise the military, deploy large emergency funds, access to data, command over district authorities, policing, procurement and logistics.
Fourth, this department must be under the command of the Prime Minister. It should have technologists and domain experts to head it instead of career bureaucrats. Rapid decisions can be taken only when the top leadership understands the science of managing a pandemic. The decision-making must be the responsibility of the Central government and cannot be outsourced to states - this was one big difference in how we managed the first wave and how we failed in the second.
Fifth, a global pandemic is a problem for all humankind. What happened in Wuhan, China, reached all continents in a couple of months, and what is happening in India would reach a global scale if left unchecked. India is a global power, we head the World Health Assembly International, we make more vaccines than anyone else, and hence we command global diplomacy. India must facilitate a global alliance network for data sharing, stockpile sharing, research collaboration and even manpower assistance from one nation to another.
Lastly, there needs to be more open, transparent and regular communication on Covid where the Prime Minister and his experts need to appear regularly before people. Despite some of the mishandlings, the one thing we must attribute to former US President Donald Trump was that in the darkest hour of the Covid crisis, he appeared regularly with his advisors in the White House Pressroom. Communication of what is being done is as important as the action itself.
PM Modi used his passion and faith to good effect in the first wave, but he seems stonewalled this time. People need assurance that the system is working for them and that their topmost leaders are on it. When governments, both Central and State, end up in court exchanging notes and passing blame and attempting to censor social media and denying the obvious - it weakens the faith of the common citizen in the leadership, its commitment, and its ability to act.
India needs to set clear targets - reach 50 per cent full vaccinations by Diwali, i.e. early November 2021. That means administrating 20 crore jabs a month — 2.5 times the current rate. This is well within our reach. We must create strategic stockpiles of medical supplies, the crisis of oxygen should never happen again in any other form. We need to invest in more doctors and nurses, who have reached the breaking point of stress during this wave.
As India grieves lost families it must recognise its two greatest enemies: poverty and illness. Let us fight these battles in this decade.