The Second Covid-19 Wave and Modi Government’s Abdication of Responsibility

THE Covid-19 pandemic shows no sign of slowing down in the country, with figures touching 2,75,000 on April 18th. Hospitals are running out of beds, ICU capacity and even oxygen. Consequently, the death toll is also rising, with reports of dead bodies piling up in mortuaries, crematoriums and burial grounds.

India’s numbers have far outstripped countries like the US and Brazil, which have been the poor performers till now. Worse, the flattening up of the curve is still some time away, as new states and cities are getting affected. More worryingly, the number of positives to tests are now more than one out of five, more than four times what it was a few months back, indicating that the actual numbers of infected could be even higher.

What went wrong with the central government’s handling the epidemic? The government was unprepared for the second wave which started its steep climb about a month back. The central government and its experts believed that the Covid-19 pandemic would be over by February 2021, and the country would go back to normal after that. The Modi government truly believed its propaganda of the so-called DST(Department of Science and Technology) supermodel and was busy chest-thumping on its great success in fighting the pandemic. It was preparing to convert its “success” into electoral victory in the next set of state elections when the second wave struck.

As the numbers started rising, instead of trying to work out a cooperative plan on a countrywide basis to combat the epidemic, the BJP went on an offensive. The central ministers blamed the state governments for not doing enough and the people for having abandoned the safety norms of masks and social distancing. This, notwithstanding that the central government had itself signalled a return to normal with public rallies, election campaigns and huge religious gatherings such as the Kumbha Mela. If people did relax the Covid-19 norms, they were only following what the leaders on the dais during rallies—Narendra Modi and Amit Shah included—were doing.

The first Covid-19 wave had peaked around mid-September, touching nearly 100,000 new infections. It had gone down to half of that in one month, and from mid-October onwards, the numbers dropped even further till February end. This nearly four months of respite should have been used to strengthen the public health system in the country: increasing hospital beds, ICU facilities, building a supply chain for oxygen, and preparing protocols on how to handle the next wave. Strengthening the public health system, introducing clear guidelines, getting the state and local governments to function together is the first line of defence in handling the pandemic. The tragedy is that the central government, which has centralised all powers under the Disaster Management Act, refused to prepare either itself or the states for this second wave in the belief that the pandemic was over.

The worst failing in the current crisis is the lack of oxygen in the hospitals. When the lungs of patients are affected due to Covid-19, the most important ‘medicine’ is oxygen. News reports tell us of patients dying as hospitals run out of oxygen. Many hospitals in the capital are reporting that they have only a few hours of oxygen remaining. If this is the situation in the nation’s capital, that too in the elite hospitals, imagine the plight of hospitals elsewhere.

In the first wave, the spread was limited to a few states, and even there, in certain densely populated areas. This time, it is spread across almost all states and a much larger cross-section of people. It is the outstripping of the hospital capacities across the country that is the core of the current crisis. The major reason for deaths during an epidemic is when the number of serious patients outstrips the availability of hospital beds and the supply of oxygen. That is when fatalities start mounting.

Why did we not prepare for this eventuality even three weeks back? When the speed of the rise of cases should have warned the central government of an impending crisis. With the alarm signals available three weeks back, at least arranging increased oxygen production and its logistics—reaching it to states and hospitals—should have been planned from that time. And giving priority to medical oxygen over its industrial use, as we are doing belatedly now.

Why did the government not take urgent steps and prepare for a rise of this magnitude? This government is unfortunately completely centralised, only the prime minister and the home minister have the ability to act. The other ministers are harnessed only to dismiss any criticism, even constructive ones like Manmohan Singh’s. It appears both Modi and Amit Shah’s sights were set on winning the elections in the east, particularly West Bengal. It is only after all other political parties stopped their rallies, the BJP realised the poor optics of the PM still in electioneering mode in the middle of a major pandemic. By then it was too late landing us in dire straits.

The government’s continuous announcements about vaccinations are claiming much more than what we have achieved. First, the claim that we have vaccinated 12. 7 crores. We have not. While 12.7 crore vaccine doses have been injected, not even 2 crore people have received the two doses required.

At the beginning of April, states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab were complaining about vaccine supplies running low. The health minister, Harsh Vardhan Singh dismissed their complaints as politicising their ‘failure to control the Covid-19 pandemic’. Unfortunately for the minister’s claims, figures for vaccination show that the number of vaccine doses injected per day has indeed come down to half what they were in early April, confirming what these states were saying then.

In his letter, the health minister had also said, “So long as the supply of vaccines remains limited, there is no option but to prioritise (who gets the vaccines). This is also the established practice around the world, and is well known to all state governments.” If this was the correct policy two weeks back, can the Modi government explain why they are now proposing all people above 18 be vaccinated? No explanation has been offered on such a change considering that vaccine supplies are not only still limited, but half of what they were two-three weeks back.

No plan has also been announced for how the country will ramp up its production and delivery to meet the expanded target of vaccinating everybody above 18. Instead, the central government has abandoned the responsibility for either acquiring or delivering the vaccines except to health workers and people above 45 years. It will supply this requirement from 50 per cent of the country’s vaccine production. The rest 50 per cent will be for the state governments and the open market. The state governments are now directly responsible for their vaccine procurement without any mechanism in their hands to do so. The centre has also removed all price controls on vaccines, allowing vaccine makers to sell them in the open market.

Instead of a well thought out plan to increase vaccine production and vaccinate all the people, this appears to be a cynical exercise in abandoning the responsibility for vaccinating the people and blaming the state governments for failing to vaccinate everybody.

The central government is now meeting the vaccine manufacturers to discuss how to ramp up production. This was the exercise that should have been done four-six months back. Modi talks about the private sector and its contributions to vaccines, forgetting that it was the public sector, with institutions like Haffkine Institute that pioneered vaccine manufacturing in the country. It was ICMR and the National Institute of Virology (NIV) that developed Covaxin and licensed it to Bharat Biotech as a monopoly. There is no reason why ICMR-NIV should not have licensed it to other vaccine manufacturers including half a dozen public sector units that are today idling. This would have increased our vaccine manufacturing capacity and placed us in a much better position regarding the availability of vaccine supplies.

The Modi government believes in centralising all political power in its hands and letting the “free market” led by big monopoly houses solve the problems of the country. And if such a policy fails, blame the state governments, the anti-national forces and finally the opposition.

How long can it continue such a policy before the people call them out? Peoples’ memories may not be as short as the Modi government and the BJP propaganda machine believes.