First Wave and the Aftermath: What Went Wrong

Chander Sangra

Henry Ford once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” The experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning; it is the reflection that makes sense of the experience to us and hence makes the experience meaningful for us. John Dewey rightly observed, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” If we had reflected on the experiences from the first wave of the Covid-19 Pandemic, we wouldn’t have been facing it as it stands now. It is hard to believe that a country which surprised the world by swaying the spread dramatically is facing a disparate scenario in the second phase. While the epidemiologists confidently predicted millions of deaths by August 2020, India remained focused and unitedly fought the battle under a strong leadership at the centre along with the collective hardships of the entire government machinery across the nation. Looking at the prevailing situation, one is compelled to make sense of the events that lead to the turn of a strategically well monitored and controlled situation. How did we miss to remain on the track? Decentralisation As the cases dropped in 2020 and we begin to unlock in phases, a decentralised strategy was adopted to contain the spread by passing many powers and decision-making process to the local governance. The States were now equipped to handle the Covid-19 crisis independently with a freedom to enforce the restrictions as per the situation. But did the States Governments deliver? Initially, the 2nd wave was confined only to a few states such as Maharashtra, Kerala and Punjab which contributed to a large extent for the present fiasco. A timely action by these State Governments could have contained the virus spreading all across the Nation. Regrettably, no one is questioning the respective state government’s laxity that led the 2nd wave to explode out of proportion. Farmer’s Protests When Indian farmers began gathering to protest way back in November 2020, experts predicted such activities could lead us to super spreader events. Instead of protesting carefully by following the Covid norms, the protestors rather adopted all those activities that would act as a catalytic booster to the virus spread ability. Those same people who were questioning the Central Government now were busy glorifying the protest back then. They all are now completely silent on the critical contributory linkage of farmer’s protests to the second wave. Protestors from USA, Canada and UK also participated in these protests and the experts have already identified Delhi and Punjab’s surge linked to a highly transmissible mutant B.1.1.7 lineage, also known as UK variant. None of these strains have come from the Kumbh or election rallies The protestors are still determined to continue their protest despite such alarming situation across India but unfortunately, there’s hardly any critical evaluation of the same. Elections The election schedule for West Bengal was announced in February 2021 when the Covid graph was at its lowest ebb. By this time India had already gone through a series of elections across the Nation without any surge in the Covid cases. The by-elections in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujrat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, MP, Haryana, Telangana, UP in Nov-2020 and mega Hyderabad Municipal elections in Dec 2020 didn’t result in any surge of Covid cases. Moreover, it is the non-election states like Delhi, Maharashtra, Punjab & UP that have been the top contributors to the 2nd wave in India. The comparison of the number of daily cases in the election states vs non-election states negates the claim that the election alone was responsible for the Covid surge. PM Modi made an appeal for a virtual campaigning for these elections to avoid any social gathering but not a single party agreed to it. Had this proposal been accepted unanimously, we would have setup an example for the rest of the world democracies but unfortunately it became a prime point of criticism for the world. Had Modi exercised his executive powers to overrule the Election Commission by enforcing any restrictions on election process, he would have been tagged as a dictator suppressing the democracy and fiddling with the election machinery . Vaccines Vaccination is a key to build herd immunity against Covid-19 and break the chain of transmission but we wasted around 4.6 million doses in just first four months alone. That’s around 40 thousand doses per day with Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Haryana being the top contributor to this wastage. While there can be several factors behind the vaccine wastage but the most disheartening contributing factor has been the irresponsible conduct of the beneficiaries i.e. people not turning up once registered, rejecting it as one specific party’s vaccine and spreading false rumours. Despite all these challenges, thanks to our leadership we managed to jump to the 3rd topmost rank with 155 million doses administered so far. Our vaccine programme is designed to reach every corner of the country. To boost it further, Government has sanctioned around 4,500 crore to Serum Institute & Bharat Biotech to scale up the vaccine production. In the rollout of the vaccines too, the Centre has given a freedom to the States to manage the vaccination programme on their own so that it can be carried out productively. Oxygen Crisis No doubt, our hospitals were better prepared this time to face the second wave but nobody anticipated the unprecedented demand for the medical services. This led to a sudden shortage of the ICU beds, oxygen & critical medicines like Remdesivir etc. Firstly, there’s no shortage of oxygen in the country, we have always been over producing oxygen. Our medical grade oxygen demand has increased by more than 80% in just three weeks alone which no health system in the world is capable of handling.. Still, we are able to surpass the total demand of 8,100 MT by producing 9,100 MT every day. It is therefore not a capacity but a logistic crisis that is linked to the supply chain of oxygen from the production facilities to the consumer in the hospital involving a complex cryogenic tanker, transportable vessels to the end user’s portable cylinders. Since 2020, Government is silently engaging with the multiple players around the globe to reduce the logistic gap due to pandemic but it takes time to meet such an unprecedented demand. Virulence The new variant (B.1.617) of the virus with two mutations (E484Q and L452R) reported together for the first time in India. Together, it becomes more transmissible and can potentially enhance viral replication. It is therefore, suspected to be behind the ongoing surge. Nobody seems to have expected highly infectious nature of the new wave or calculated that beyond a point it would go exponential. Many countries around the globe had multiple waves but none were exponential like ours. Any country facing such an alarming surge in infections would invariably have its medical infrastructure seriously strained. Irresponsible Behaviour One of the major contributing factor for the second wave has been an irresponsible behaviour of the citizens. Despite experts warnings and advisories, we became lax towards Covid guidelines. To make the case worst, various rumours were spread around the virus, its treatment and conspiracies around its vaccinations. While many people did follow advice and maintained a strict discipline but those who did not were good enough to damage the entire efforts. With smart gadgets in hand, we all have become a self-declared expert in everything. Hoarding of a emergency medicines and oxygen cylinders created a havoc in the public. It is beyond any understanding how some groups in the country are able to claim an oxygen langar (feast) on their own? It is not a commodity which is readily accessible in the market that you can facilitate as a public service. In many cases, it was found that people were unnecessarily occupying the beds in the metro cities denying those who needed it the most. Ignoring the countless examples, it is a time for us to introspect our behaviour before criticizing the government. Centre’s Response The Centre, however, was spontaneous in responding to the rising cases of second wave and immediately deployed a 50 high-level multi-disciplinary health teams across the key vulnerable districts of these States to analyse and report a surge in cases. The Central Government has been warning about another breakout and issued several circulars under Section 22 of the Disaster Management Act that advises all the states and UTs to impose restrictions prior to the festive season but none of these advisories ring a bell to the state administration. It is time for us to learn a lesson from our past experience to guide us in the present and hopefully direct ourselves into a better future. That’s the power of reflection. If we managed to beat the virus in the first wave when the unknowns were high and resources were low then we can definitely tame it again in the second wave when we are many times better equipped to deal with it. Let’s unite in this global fight together to prove the human supremacy over this virus. Individual responsibility is the key to safe and better world. (The author is a Data Architect based in Ireland)