Covid-19 is the disease but just beneath the surface is the real disease that kills all of us, regardless of our religious or political beliefs
By Nazarul Islam
There is absolutely no escape from the death and destruction of the pandemic that is upon the people of India. Does it matter, if it is the first, second or…just another disastrous wave, of a debilitating disease? Experts only hope that this mayhem will hit a peak soon; then (hopefully) the numbers will climb down. In a chaos, nature always finds a way to bring some calm. Indians did precious little and can only pray that there will be no more killer ways, taunting the defenseless people, driven into this situation by bad leadership.
Even if we may excuse the poor response during the first hit last March, there can be no excuse for doing worse the second time around. Consider that the people can claim to fight at the borders but die in the tens of thousands inside the borders. The nation has been described in recent days by senior functionaries of the government as a space superpower, knowledge superpower, economic superpower, manufacturing superpower; even a vaccine superpower. Now the leadership cannot get people to come together to beat empty vessels and light lamps and lakhs march out with a leap of faith to the Kumbh Mela. The reality is they can’t arrange hospital beds when a pandemic we know is around and flares up.
Examples of how badly the Indians fought this war come from all directions. It is difficult to get ambulances. Remdesivir is being black-marketed: the latest being the BJP seeking to procure these vials in a private operation in Mumbai, leading to the arrest of two directors of a manufacturing company.
The distribution of vaccines has become a bone of contention between the Centre and non-BJP-ruled states. In Maharashtra, for example, no one can miss the fact that vaccines are in short supply. Several vaccination centers have closed. Yet, this has led to the lowness of a Trumpian Twitter war, not a fix of the problem at hand.
Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has offered a simple and wise solution: distribute vaccines transparently using an agreed formula so that states know how much is coming, when to expect stocks and, accordingly, plan their rollouts. Coupled with advance orders to vaccine manufacturers and compulsory licensing, we should set the course for a swift coverage for a wider age group. The second round of the pandemic already indicates that the virus is no more sparing the young.
What does it take to keep away pettiness, to take decisions that are simple yet bold and to let the nation see and feel that this is a government geared to fight the pandemic, not merely to win the next election round the corner?
We can see Covid-19 is the disease but just beneath the surface is the real disease that kills all of us, regardless of our religious or political beliefs: narrow-mindedness, one-upmanship and turning away from an evidence-based approach that allowed the government to endorse a holy snaan and a gathering of lakhs; the devotees duly facilitated with 12 pairs of special trains and welcomed with front page ads featuring the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand.
The announcement to end the mammoth Kumbh Mela gathering came too late in the day. The announcement is significant because it tells us that belief, faith and ritual are not contradictory to the scientific approach. Yet, the former has been put to work and exploited at the cost of the latter.
An Associate Professor at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh, has been funded by the Department of Science and Technology to run a pilot to study the “effect of Gayatri mantra and pranayama in terms of inflammatory markers in hospitalized Covid-19 patients”.
The official record states: “…Scientists are racing against time for a miracle cure/vaccine to fight this pandemic which has gripped the world. In this scenario, the role of pranayama and Gayatri mantra chanting which has been used in other diseases and has shown promising effects becomes vital.” Millions of Indians who chant the Gayatri mantra, Hindus and non-Hindus alike, will understand that this is not the proper way to respond to the pandemic.
On the other hand, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (named ‘INSACOG’), comprising 10 labs identified to study variants of the virus in India and launched in December 2020, had received no funds till at least as late as March-end.
This was critical activity because variants are thought to have delivered the new wave. Yet, the nation has been too slow to launch this kind of sustained, planned and coordinated activity to sequence the virus genome.
On March 24, the health ministry reported that “though VOC (variants of concern) and a new double mutant variant have been found in India, these have not been detected in numbers sufficient to either establish or direct relationship or explain the rapid increase in cases in some states”.
That begs the question: What has caused the current spike? Where is the epidemiological insight? As of April 16, only 13,614 Whole Genome Sequenced samples were processed at the 10 designated INSACOG labs. Sequencing was targeted for 5% of total positives beginning December 2020; what was sequenced cumulatively as of mid-April is barely 5% of daily rise in infections!
Meanwhile, there is a daily release on vaccination numbers that look large in absolute terms but offer the true picture of the task at hand when we see that barely 1.2% of India is fully vaccinated, according to data from the University of Oxford.
This compares to 25% fully vaccinated in the US, 14% in the UK and 3.8% in Brazil, which India overtook this month to have the second largest number of infections in the world after the US.
It is true that Covid-19 is a terrible disease that is killing people, but the disease that allows this disease to thrive and spread with impunity is the disease that we have had for long – a longing to live by a mythical story of a much-told greatness of yesterday to bring on an air of celebration today before the people of India go crashing down tomorrow.
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