Though I live outside India, I have family in India and am writing this as people are losing loved ones and are genuinely outraged by the near-collapse of the health infrastructure in a few big Indian cities. There are desperate appeals on social media for oxygen cylinders, ICU beds and medicines. Yet we must go by facts, though when we lose our loved ones it is natural to be emotional.
Many commentators are making claims that India’s response to Covid has been bad from the beginning; also it is being asserted that the second severe wave was entirely predictable and the oxygen shortage was a simple solvable problem. Was it? I argue that India’s response to the first wave was much better than the global average. Pandemics are rare events which can overwhelm systems. Historian David Arnold estimates at least 12 million Indians died in India due to the Spanish flu of 1918. Due to a much larger population, there was always a risk of a pandemic like Covid overwhelming India’s limited health infrastructure. And India did react quickly to the first wave of Covid in early 2020, putting in place a very admirable public awareness campaign and a nationwide lockdown keeping in view the systematic risks of a large-scale pandemic. Of course, there were heart-breaking scenes like a very large number of migrant workers leaving cities en masse and for their villages without any transport. There are always lessons to be learned, but under the circumstances, the government of the day did a good job.
Now, let us look at the assertion that the second severe wave in India was predictable and deliberate callousness was shown. It is far from black and white. With India’s economy battered, the government had to do a balancing act between building business confidence and putting restrictions. Plus unlike the US, Europe, and many other nations, India was not hit by a second wave in November to December 2020, and some policy makers relied perhaps too much on their intuition that even if there was a second wave, it would be a small one.
An article in the respected science journal Nature dated April 24 summed up the paradox in its headline which read: “India’s massive COVID surge puzzles scientists”. The article states: ‘…just months earlier, antibody data had suggested that many people in cities such as Delhi and Chennai had already been infected, leading some researchers to conclude that the worst of the pandemic was over in the country”. The Nature article posits that the most likely explanation is the new cocktail mutations of the virus. It also postulates that mass religious gatherings, election rallies ‘may’ have contributed. But more importantly, it makes no cocksure conclusions that the severity of the second wave was fully predictable, and is non-committal on the exact causes. Many commentators are making claims on the contrary with neither facts, nor science to back this up. Emotions and social media noise and claims do not count as proof unfortunately.
Let’s come to the oxygen issue. The reason for the shortage isn’t supply; it’s getting oxygen to where it’s needed. Though factories have ramped up production, most of them are located in the eastern part of the country — more than a thousand miles from major cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Transport is proving to be a big obstacle since tanks of compressed gases usually travel by road or train. Now these tanks have to travel farther than ever before to keep up with surging demand in north and west India. Plus, the cryogenic tanks that hold compressed oxygen take about four to six months to manufacture. And private hospitals were loath to invest in their own oxygen generating plants (possible but quite expensive). So there was no magic wand, pandemics can overwhelm any system.
Now, let us look at things that could have been done better. The state had neither contracted in advance, nor offered a price that would have incentivised vaccine makers to build sufficient capacity. Further as writer Gurcharan Das wrote in his TOI column last week, the government should have followed the same market-friendly and decentralised strategy for vaccine procurement as it followed for Covid testing. The government did relent finally last week, but it was too late. Congress party’s statist mindset and contempt for the private sector did not help either in the push towards a sensible vaccination policy. Further as Das rightly points out, the government should have demanded more accountability from the bureaucratic machinery which let it down in the second wave, and used the army to help with logistics.
Now, we must stay focused on overcoming the immediate challenge and long term focus on fixing our dismal governance. Lastly while every life lost is too many, the world and India as a nation will overcome this too.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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