What explains India's Covid-19 disaster?
Late on Wednesday evening this week, as shocking stories emerged from several Indian states at the same time, about hospitals and crematoria besieged way past capacity with uncountable hordes of Covid-19 casualties, the University of Michigan School of Public Health’s chair of biostatistics (and professor of epidemiology) Dr Bhramar Mukherjee ventured to offer an explanatory analysis via her Twitter account.
The Kolkata born-and-educated researcher -- her first degree was from Presidency College -- wrote: “A journalist asked me today why India is witnessing this severe surge. I always like to think forward and not dwell on mistakes, but here is what came out: Hubris, complacence, negligence, nonchalance, data denial, slow vaccination, and lack of clear and cogent strategy.”
In addition to these readily evident miscalculations and poor choices, so precisely outlined by Dr Mukherjee, there’s undoubtedly an “x factor” which no one has been able to quantify yet.
This is because Covid-19 is surging so unstoppably in such separate, highly disparate locations across South Asia, that it almost certainly indicates the presence of new, exceptionally contagious (and seemingly correspondingly deadly) variants that have proven capable of overwhelming whatever barriers of resistance had held off the kind of devastation that struck other parts of the world across the past year.
And yet, as Dr Mukherjee indicates, even by the appalling standards of misgovernance and irresponsibility that we have seen exhibited throughout the pandemic from countries like the US, Brazil, and the UK, as well as EU members including Spain, Italy, and Belgium, what continues to unfold in India stands out as especially surreal, even schizophrenic.
Thus, on the one hand, the city of Pune in Maharashtra is by far the world’s largest producer of vaccines -- including the Oxford-AstraZeneca anti-coronavirus workhorse -- via its Serum Institute of India. But it is also the epicentre of India’s “second wave” with over 100,000 active Covid-19 infections, and critical shortages of hospital beds, oxygen capacity, and antiviral therapies like Remdesivir.
How could this have happened here, of all places? Believe it or not, there was a “district-wide shortage” throughout last month of the very same vaccine that is being manufactured at the clip of two million doses per day in the city’s own precincts.
Perhaps even more damaging to public health, at the level of both national and regional leadership, a distinct doublespeak has come to pervade India’s political rhetoric regarding Covid-19.
For example, earlier this week on April 11, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the “Tika Utsav” vaccination campaign, which he called “in a way, the beginning of another war against corona.” He urged the citizenry to vaccinate themselves, help others get vaccinated, wear masks, and also co-operate with “micro-containment zones.” He underlined: “Remember -- medicine as well as strict adherence to protocols.”
But the very same day that he broadcast those creditably salutary messages, the prime minister tweeted: “In every district, village, town and city of West Bengal, there is unparalleled support for BJP,” and attached a video of himself addressing vast, packed-in crowds with zero distancing, and very few masks apparent on anyone.
The BJP’s main opponent in Bengal, the All India Trinamool Congress party led by Mamata Banerjee, has jumped to to blame the state’s dramatic rise in Covid-19 infections (its cumulative death count has now spiked beyond 10,000) to Modi’s party workers, but their own rallies also display very few masks and no distancing to speak of. Across the map, an identical situation prevails: Every state heading to the polls -- West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam (and the union territory of Puducherry) -- has registered an exponential rise in cases and deaths.
There is a case to be made that democracy must not be delayed. Several countries have held consequential elections during the Covid-19 pandemic, and these Indian state contests are just as important. Far less justifiable, however, are the massive religious events being held simultaneously, notably the Kumbh Mela in the upper reaches of the Ganges river.
At least five million pilgrims are expected to pass through Haridwar this week alone (its usual population is just 220,000) and thousands have already tested positive. There are no controls on movement, and very few masks in evidence.
This adds up to an uncomfortable truth: In the midst of the most severe Covid-19 spike, India has insisted on hosting what is probably the greatest super-spreader event in pandemic history. The thing about Covid-19 is that you can’t tell right away how much damage has been done. It percolates through the population, and hits hardest weeks later.
The situation in India is going to get much more dire, as the renowned pulmonologist Dr Jalil Parkar of Lilavati Hospital in Mumbai warned in an interview with television anchor Barkha Dutt: “I think [the system] has already collapsed, if I may say so. It’s a desperate situation. Maharashtra is sinking, and other states will follow.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.