By Shastri Ramachandaran*
The tsunami of Covid-19 infections and deaths in India continues unabated as people and governments at the Centre and states continue to battle the shortage of hospital beds, medicines, ventilators and much else that is required to overcome this crisis. The horrifying deaths and the plight of the dying have also created a climate of fear with people not knowing when it may strike, where and whom in what form; and, how they would cope if they or their near and dear ones are stricken.
As a journalist, I am in several message groups—work-related, where messages keep flowing like a ticker-tape, about 100 or more in an hour, from my newsroom, the ministries, peer groups etc. Almost every item is about Covid, the toll it is taking in India and worldwide and medical relief supplies from scores of countries that have been stirred to help India—in what, perhaps, is the country’s darkest period of mass deaths since Partition in 1947.
I live in a complex of 1350 flats and in the several community WhatsApp groups, all messages are Covid-related: someone is dead, dying, desperately seeking oxygen, an oxygen concentrator, a hospital bed with or without a ventilator in or outside an ICU; or seeking an ambulance; a particular medicine; or survival support by way of food, money, physical assistance, medicines, an oximeter or hands to carry a body to the crematorium.
All the WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal and such OTT groups, be they professional, social, cultural, of a club, community, organisation or workgroup I am part of are flooded with heart-breaking news, urgent appeals and frantic requests of individuals, families, groups, NGOs, service gigs and institutions immersed in the battle to survive the unrelenting onslaught of Covid. Social media like Twitter are also swamped with SOS messages and offers of help.
This is life in confinement, under lockdown or curfew, where it is a relief when the person at the door has come to deliver groceries, dairy, fruits, vegetables or other essentials. Mercifully, it is not one of your neighbours, whom you haven’t seen for days if not weeks whereas you run into them a few times daily when life is normal. Not seeing any neighbour or friend at the door means there is no news, which is good news.
Glimpses of the outside world can be direct, during fleeting escapades on an errand for something essential; or through newspapers, TV, the countless videos and photographs that flood social media and my phone. Life in this pandemic is far worse than anything I’ve read or seen in films of Europe’s plague, last century’s Spanish Flu epidemic or India’s Partition deaths in 1947.
“How did we sleepwalk into a disaster of such magnitude, the worst India has faced since the partition in India”, asks former diplomat Rakesh Sood, who was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-proliferation in 2013. Hundreds of thousands perished in the bloodbath that followed India’s partition in 1947 with the creation of Pakistan.
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Many might wince at this comparison of an epidemic with the Partition riots; one being a natural calamity and the other a man-made conflict. However, common to situations of mass death is the failure of the government and state institutions, which have compounded the devastation and exacerbated the collapse of order, thereby swelling the fatalities. As India is being ravaged by Covid’s second wave, it is hard to say whether the mounting toll of death is caused by the infection or negligence; or, mass deprivation of critical medical attention, life-saving support like oxygen or simply a hospital bed that comes with some medication.
In Delhi, people are dying all around, at least 10-15, if not more, every hour. The whole city is a dystopia of dead and the dying, an extension of the mortuaries and crematoria where scores of pyres burn endlessly and extend beyond its boundaries to the pavements, and even roads. TV, social media and newspapers bring home similar nightmares that people are living through in other Indian cities, big and small. The cremations are unending, 24×7; the dense clouds of smoke rising from the pyres and spreading like a pall over the cities; the steel pipes, through which the smoke passes, often melting in the heat.
There are long lines of bodies outside every crematorium in Delhi as well as other cities. The figures of the dead given by the crematoria in every city far exceed the official numbers, which are grim enough. On May 5, India accounted for half the Covid deaths worldwide—close to 4000 in 24 hours—and the number of those infected was 382,000. Medical experts say that the actual deaths and infections could be five to ten times the official numbers. Britain’s Financial Times had published an authoritative estimate of deaths and infections being eight times the official figure. Beyond a point, figures do not matter, for they do not tell the felt truth of loss, of family, friends and people turning into statistics by the hour.
The hospital scene is as bad as the sight at any crematorium. People are thronging hospitals and there are scores, if not hundreds, of ambulances and vehicles waiting with patients desperate for a bed, oxygen and emergency relief; which are beyond the capacity of most hospitals and their staff to provide in this crisis. In the first wave of Covid, which began last year, the largest number of those who died were doctors, nurses and healthcare workers.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being squarely blamed for this situation, resulting in large measure from its unpreparedness; but also caused by Modi’s hubris, negligence of public health as a priority and contempt for those who had warned of a second wave. Only days before India began reeling under the second wave, Modi and his health minister had declared victory in the war against Covid-19. With much bombast, Modi told the World Economic Forum that India was an example to the world for its success in the battle against Covid. With great fanfare, the Covid vaccine made by the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer in India was exported to many countries amidst ringing declarations of India being the “world’s pharmacy”.
In keeping with this projection, India returned to business as usual with malls, movie houses, clubs, bars, hotels, restaurants, public transport, workplaces and all being thrown open with Covid precautions being actually ignored while being reiterated as a matter of form. So confident was the Prime Minister and his government of having put the pandemic behind, that Modi, his ministers and top party functionaries plunged into election campaigning with great gusto. Public health precautions and priorities were not only shunned but abandoned. The efforts initiated for oxygen, bed and hospital capacities that are so necessary to cope with a Covid outbreak were jettisoned. Forgotten was the need to keep making ventilators, building capacity for oxygen and concentrators. Instead of hospitals and bed capacity being increased and expanded, the makeshift ones put up in the first instance were dismantled.
The government also allowed the Kumbha Mela, a religious festival on the banks of the Ganga, to be held in March-April, and it was attended by some five to seven million people without any Covid protocol whatsoever being observed. It is now feared that the super-spread of infection flowing from the Kumbh Mela may take months to run its course. Amidst this scenario, the government has warned of a third wave, for which no time period has been specified. And, at this juncture while makeshift hospitals are coming up rapidly in Delhi (and other cities), these are sorely short of doctors, healthcare staff and medical equipment and supplies. Even the relief material received from across the world were, for reasons not given, sitting uncleared at the airports.
Ashish Jha, Professor and Dean at Brown University School of Public Health and a leading expert on global health said, in an interview to The Wire, that the Modi government’s refusal to accept advice from its own scientists is one of the main causes of India’s current Covid-19 crisis.
Just as hospitals no longer mean a lifeline for survival, insurance is of no practical use especially for frontline workers including journalists. Even those covered, if they contract the infection in Delhi (or another Covid hotspot), there is no place to go and nothing to be done, but to just lie down and die; because there are no medical supplies, healthcare staff, hospital beds and facilities, oxygen and the required medicines available for the treatment of all those who need it. At least 52 journalists have died in Delhi and more than 100 in India.
The second surge has forced the Central Government to hasten with vaccinations, but most states did not have the stocks to begin the process on the day, May 1, it was to begin. Official claims are at variance with reality. Even though India is the world’s largest vaccine-producing nation, only 141.60 million people have received at least one vaccine dose, which is about ten per cent of its population of 1.35 billion, according to health ministry data. The country has fully vaccinated just over 40 million people or 2.9 per cent of its population. At this rate, it could take two years to inoculate the whole population, especially when even vaccine supplies are expected only after August, closer to December. By which time, Covid may be far away or at least its second surge would have run its course of devastation and death.
The so-called plan for mass vaccination is in a mess as is the management of the epidemic, the medical supplies, the infrastructure, lines of treatment; and, all of these are far short of the demand. Besides massive mismanagement, the governments at the Centre and states are also accused of not sharing the actual figures of deaths, stonewalling enquiries, resisting suggestions from scientists and medical experts and generally being far less responsive than required during such a crisis.
This is underscored by the resignation, on May 16, of senior virologist Shahid Jameel from a forum of scientific advisers set up by the government to detect variants of the coronavirus. His resignation comes days after he questioned the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. Dr Jameel had recently written a piece in The New York Times in which he had said that scientists in India are facing a “stubborn response to evidence-based policymaking.” He had drawn attention to the issues with India’s Covid-19 management, especially the lower testing, slow pace of vaccination, vaccine shortage and the need for a bigger healthcare workforce. “All of these measures have wide support among my fellow scientists in India. But they are facing stubborn resistance to evidence-based policymaking,” he wrote.
There is no dearth of novels and films that conjure up images of a dystopia. The reality in India though is indescribably grimmer than anything imagined or picturised in fiction or films. Not even the most authentic and devastating accounts of the plague and Spanish flu in Europe can prepare one to cope with the nightmare that Covid’s second surge has turned out to be in India.
* The author, a senior journalist based in New Delhi, is Editorial Consultant-WION TV and Senior Editorial Consultant of IDN.