Indians can claim to fight at the borders but, in a strange paradox are allowed to die, in the tens of thousands within their borders.
By Nazarul Islam
With the debilitating pandemic in full control of life in a number of densely populated states of India, there is no escaping the death and destruction that is upon the victims—in a second disastrous wave. Experts have confirmed that the country will hit a peak soon to well over 100,000 per day—then the numbers shall begin to climb down. Nature would have found a way to bring some calm. Obviously, Indians did precious little and can only pray that there will be no third wave.
Even if the survivors excuse their shockingly lackluster response during the first hit last March, there is no excuse for doing worse, the second time around. Consider that Indians can claim to fight at the borders but, in a strange paradox are allowed to die, in the tens of thousands within their borders.
And … in the recent times, this country has been declared by senior functionaries of the government as a space superpower, knowledge superpower, economic superpower, manufacturing superpower; even a vaccine superpower. The demoralized people can get their countrymen to come together to beat empty vessels and light lamps, encouraging several hundred thousand may march out with a ‘leap of faith’, to their Kumbh Mela, but unfortunately can’t arrange hospital beds when a pandemic we know was around, and flared up.
Examples of how poorly the Indians have fought this war come from all directions. It has been close to impossible to get ambulances. Remdesivir, the vaccine 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 Center 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. They preferred to stoop down far below the belt, to blow their trumpets.
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.
Therefore, the question arises: 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 killed their people: 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. Careless 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.
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 best 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 has begged 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.
Is it really true that Covid-19 is a terrible disease that is killing Indians, without prejudice but the disease that has really allowed this Covid-19 to thrive and spread with impunity, is the disease that Indians 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 we go crashing down tomorrow?
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