Complacency and mismanagement spiralling India’s Covid crisis

Lack of foresight, planning and flexibility in its pandemic response have led to India’s overwhelming surge of infections, say experts

Complacency and mismanagement spiralling India’s Covid crisis
 Plane-loads of foreign aid remains stuck in India even as the country runs out of medical supplies. Photo: Reuters 

(ATF) A little over three months back it seemed India was “in the endgame” in the battle against Covid, when Health Minister Harsh Vardhan in late January said "India has successfully contained the pandemic."

Two days before that declaration – January 28 – India had reported a little over 9,300 new cases per day as active caseload reduced to 173,000 with a recovery rate peaking at 96%, which was one of the highest globally.

On Tuesday, as India's total tally of Covid cases crossed the 20 million mark with over 5 million infections being added in just 15 days that repeatedly surpassed the 300,000 daily tally set previously by the US, India’s crisis has blown past anything seen elsewhere in the world.

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A string of missteps, complacency and the government’s chaotic approach in handling the furious second wave have turned India into a global epicentre for the pandemic, pushing the country deeper into a Covid crisis, say experts.

And as epidemiologists warn that the crisis in India could have global consequences as well, pressure is mounting too on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stem its spread and for a more efficient handling of the crisis.

“If you were careful, if you were cautious, you had to recognise that it wasn’t done yet,” said Raghuram Rajan, a former governor of the country’s central bank on Tuesday in a Bloomberg Television interview. “Anybody paying attention to what was happening in the rest of the world, in Brazil for example, should have recognised the virus does come back and potentially in more virulent forms.”

India’s overwhelming surge has revealed its complacency after last year’s first wave, as well as a “lack of foresight, a lack of leadership,” added Rajan, who is also a former International Monetary Fund chief economist and now a professor of finance at University of Chicago.

MASS GATHERINGS

Critics are turning their guns on Prime Minister Modi and especially his government for being complacent and irresponsible in dealing with the second wave.

Looking back, says Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, early this year policy makers thought that India had overcome the pandemic and acquired herd immunity – even sections of the scientific community propagated this view.

“The belief that there would be no second wave, was also spurred on by the desire to reopen society and revive economic growth,” he adds.

So, when five states held elections in April, politicians including Modi and leaders of several parties, conducted hundreds of massive political rallies around India. These election rallies became super-spreaders, they claim.

HINDU FESTIVALS

Worse, ignoring the pandemic and the risk of a major rise in cases, New Delhi and state governments also permitted the annual Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela, where millions gathered for prayers and a dip in the river Ganges, considered auspicious.

Reportedly the festival, that began on April 1, and was only called off by local authorities 17 days later, ended up with nearly 2,000 infected participants who dissolved into all corners of a country with 1.4 billion people.

Fully opening society with unrestrained crowding, mass gatherings, large scale travel, and lack of personal protective measures such as masks permitted the virus to move freely, says Reddy.

India’s relative success against the first wave of infections also led the administration to not swiftly churn out enough vaccine doses for swift vaccinations, and that policy complacence also aided the speed and ferocity of the second wave, said experts from the Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank in New Delhi.

VACCINE PURCHASES

According to Yamini Aiyar, president of the think-tank, Modi’s insistence on ‘atmanirbhar Bharat’, the principle of self-reliance, slowed down Modi’s administration in approving and purchase foreign vaccines, and “created a scenario where Covid got the better of us,” she says.

Mid-April though, India allowed the importing of a new lot of vaccines, including ones made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, but details on the pricing and procurement guidelines of these vaccines are still under works.

Meanwhile, as plane-loads of aid have started arriving in India to help the country through the crisis, questions are emerging over whether the aid is reaching its destination.

More than 20 flights with hundreds of tonnes of emergency relief supplies including 5,500 oxygen concentrators, 3,200 oxygen cylinders and 136,000 Remdesivir injections have landed in India’s capital from around the world, but they are stuck in New Delhi’s airport due to logistic and "compatibility" problems, say reports.

FOREIGN AID

Government officials admit to "teething problems" in distributing foreign aid, while airports officials say that that lack of clear orders from the authorities are causing the hold-ups.

Experts say what India needs now is focused efforts to contain infections and buy time to make vaccinations more widely available and faster.

“Aggressive containment or lockdown is the only key as no healthcare system in the world can manage this kind of load,” said Randeep Guleria, a member of the national task force on Covid.

According to him, India had been caught off guard by the ferocity with which the virus was spreading, and that night curfews and weekend lockdowns imposed by various states such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana and other states have proved ineffective.

  • With reporting by news agencies.

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