Just when we were beginning to celebrate our success in managing the first phase of the pandemic, the second wave of Covid-19 emerged as a hydra-headed monster. The first wave receded only to deceive, lulling us into a state of complacence. It has caught the nation with its mask down. While the enormity of the problem cannot be understated, the response of the governments - both at the Centre and states - have been rather curious.
The silence of our Prime Minister in this hour of national calamity is astounding. He is known to choose his time for speaking. But it is so uncharacteristic of him not to rally the people and lead from the front in a crisis. Last year, at this time, he was out there like the head of the family, addressing the country at regular intervals, instilling confidence, counselling caution and encouraging Covid-appropriate behaviour at every opportunity. The PM reached out to health workers across the country on telephone during the lockdown. That was a huge morale booster for the frontline warriors.
The Prime Minister may not wish to come to the public without a credible and comprehensive plan of action to fight the Covid pandemic. (Photo: TV grab)
This year, in contrast, apart from official reports of his review meetings with officials and chief ministers, there has been little communication. The only Union Minister talking regularly on the subject is Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan. Appropriately so, because it is his portfolio. Other Cabinet ministers have been conspicuous by their reticence. Yesterday, for the first time, the Prime Minister talked about dialling down the Kumbh Mela celebrations in Haridwar to a symbolic level. Many felt this is a case of too little, too late. Narendra Modi, the politician, has not cancelled his election rallies in West Bengal, which have been attracting large crowds. One cannot pretend that such massive mobilisation is possible without compromising safety protocols. In his speeches, one has not heard him invoking the audience to use masks, maintain social distancing and adopt hygiene safeguards to contain the spread of the virus. One need not emphasise the impact such an appeal from Mr Modi – without doubt one of the most popular political figures of our times – would have had on the public.
A self-avowed admirer of Mr Modi like me has been at a loss to understand this sharp deviation in his style of functioning. The only explanation one can think of, is that the government is still trying to get its arms around all dimensions of the emergency and the Prime Minister does not wish to come to the public without a credible and comprehensive plan of action. In all likelihood, the prescriptions this time around are going to be far more demanding and uncompromising. That would call for a great deal of preparation not just from an administrative standpoint, but also build political consensus and get people ready for harsh measures. Till then the government has to work on a holding and firefighting strategy. However, the window for a holding strategy cannot be long. Time is already running out before an apocalypse hits us - so the hard calls have to be taken soon.
The problem is multidimensional and multi-layered. On the first level it is medical. Epidemiologists and scientists are still grappling with figuring out the nature of the beast or the virus as it were. The jury is still out on the way it spreads. New theories are being floated every day. The latest being the virus travels airborne. This, if true, opens up a whole new angle. There is no consensus on the efficacy of vaccines as a shield against the new strain. The symptoms are different from what one had seen last year. That it is affecting the younger age groups and children has thrown previous projections on a spin - as it puts practically the entire population at risk. This radically changes the scale of threat.
Ramping up vaccination is being suggested as a panacea. Within a short time, from questioning the need and advisability of releasing under-trial vaccines, the government is being blamed for not securing adequate supplies of vaccines for our domestic needs. Be that as it may, even if the government manages to procure more vaccines through imports and accelerate the speed of vaccination, it will still take time for immunity to kick in. Besides, there is no guarantee that these vaccines will work against the mutated virus. Already, global manufacturers like Pfizer have indicated a need for annual inoculation to take care of new strains.
Throughout the first phase, there was no major shortage of oxygen reported barring some localised supply issues. Today, most states with a high incidence of infections are gasping for breath. Emergency measures to divert industrial oxygen to hospitals are proving to be inadequate. Logistics constraints (as oxygen can only be transported in cryogenic containers) come in the way of inter-regional transfers. Besides, states that have surplus oxygen may easily go into deficit if infection spreads to those areas as well.
Scarcity of SOS medicines like Remdesivir - though its utility is debatable - is raising the panic quotient. It appears that with infection rates dropping, manufacturers of the drug had tapered down production. There is a minimum lead time for production that cannot be cut short for a pharmaceutical product. So, it will take a few weeks for supplies to normalise. Similar issues afflict other essentials for medical management including PPE kits.
With an exponential rise in infection testing has become a major bottleneck. Non-availability of testing kits and the workload on laboratories are delaying test results to three or four days at many places. It, in turn, is coming in the way of hospital admission and timely treatment. This too contributes to the cumulative increase in fatality rates.
Cities across India have run out of hospital beds. Doctors and healthcare providers working round the clock are cracking under pressure. Temporary hospitals and makeshift shelters are of little use if they cannot be serviced with trained caregivers. The macabre scenes of funeral pyres at crematoriums and river banks are best not recounted.
The tragic images of reverse exodus of migrant workers from cities are still fresh in our collective memory and we are already seeing an encore of last year’s scenes. A saving grace of the 2020 pandemic was the lower than expected spread of infection in rural India. This was achieved by local vigilantism and systematic quarantining of returning migrants on arrival in their home states. One is not sure how well the state governments are geared to tackle this challenge again. Uttar Pradesh, one of the largest providers of workers to urban centres, is battered by the fresh outbreak. Bihar is on the verge of collapse. The situation in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan is no better. The impact of pilgrims returning from the Kumbh Mela is causing jitters among the authorities. The potential of a veritable explosion in West Bengal after the elections is giving many people, except the politicians, sleepless nights. In the midst of this, Uttar Pradesh is going in for panchayat polls.
At the end of the day, it will all come back to the economy. Only a few weeks ago, we were secretly salivating at the prospect of double-digit economic growth in this fiscal year, albeit over a lower base. The tsunami of the second wave will most definitely wash away all those hopes. Therefore, the economic package the government will need to come up with is going to be of a radically different order. One would like to believe that is what the government is working on now.
So, when the Prime Minister, finally speaks to the nation - which one suspects can only be after May 2, when the restrictions of the ‘Model Code of (Election) Conduct’ are lifted, one hopes that he will come with a 360-degree plan that will encompass both life and livelihood or jaan bhi aur jahan bhi.