Images of India in all its disturbing dichotomy embraced us exactly a year ago. Migrant labour was frantically going home on foot and without food, pots and pans were being banged loudly to ward off COVID-19 and cynics alike, Amitabh Bachchan was telling his legion of fans that vibrations from a conch shell (shankha) will destroy the virus potency and others were still playing Holi.
12 months of a lifetime later, not many remember the little boy desperately trying to wake up his dead mother lying on a railway platform. The migrants have disappeared from public view and memory even though some of those families will mark the one- year anniversary of India’s lockdown still waiting for a death certificate of their loved ones who perished during the humanitarian crisis.
But it seems the more things changed, the more they remain the same. The idea of a night curfew is being mooted again as though Corona sneaks in at night like a hostel student and the festival of Holi is once again around the corner. But ask those who haven’t met their families in a year, and they will tell you, Holi is for the privileged- those untouched by tragedy, unemployment or separation.
This week the country saw the highest daily rise in the last four months. 5 states- Maharashtra, Punjab, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have accounted for more than 80% of the new infections.
Mumbai seems to be on a free-fall once again reporting more than 30,000 cases in a single day- its highest daily rise. Capital Delhi has also been red flagged and as states are back in firefighting mode, schools are being closed and there are rumours of a fresh round of lockdown, something the country can ill afford.
It has been a scary downturn from just last month when India was registering less than 10,000 cases daily in the beginning of February. But along with the roll-out of the vaccination drive, it made a country that anyway believes more in jugad than rules, complacent.
Pandemic pushback showing
Understandable fatigue masqueraded as disdain - of even a deadly virus notwithstanding it claiming 1,60,166 lives. Masks have been dropped, markets are packed, and social distancing is a western phenomenon. And the pandemic pushback is showing.
For the fourth consecutive day, the country has reported more than 40,000 fresh cases and experts warn the situation is alarming. Vaccination on a war footing is the only answer, yet why aren’t we doing it?
Many vaccination centres are empty, anti-vaxxers are a reality and their minds the real placebo. But they just need to ask the recovering patients without a sense of smell for months or speak to the battered fortunate who made it back from the ventilator.
Those who are willing to get the jab- young India, are patiently waiting for their turn. In a pandemic, even Godot may come faster or a citizen in La Paz, Bolivia- India’s latest vaccine maitri country. Nor have we redefined who constitutes front line workers- people who are fighting the exposure to bring us the news or educate our children are also warriors today. (The government has announced that those over 45 can now be vaccinated.)
Do the math- 50% of India’s population is below 25, 65% of India’s population is below 35%, so, imagine what a tiny fraction of people have just got vaccinated. 40 million vaccinations are all relative when we have the second largest population in the world or that we have sent 60 million doses to other countries. The latest Spectator Index rating indicates only 3 in 100 people have got a dose.
Wasted vaccine vials
India’s unfathomable vaccination drive stands out especially when precious vials are going wasted. At least three states have been accused of 17% wastage by the government. The problem is two-fold, once opened the vial has to inoculate 10-11 people, many hospitals say there are not adequate takers.
In other instances, those vaccinating aren’t trained enough to efficiently optimise the use of a single vial. Over 23 lakh doses have been wasted and in these, times it is nothing less than a tragedy.
And we still haven’t touched rural India which remains low key. Hopefully no news is good news, but there is worrying data. A recent research has found that 32 million have dropped off from India’s middle-class in 2020.
The study by PEW Research Center says, “the pandemic is estimated to have erased a year of growth.” With the second wave imminent- if you are optimistic, by expert accounts it is already here, a hit to the hinterland will stretch our health care.
It will also take down our medical systems in big cities, warn doctors cautioning at the possibility of the next wave being as severe as the first if people don’t follow appropriate COVID behaviour. The three-fold mantra of testing, contact tracing and quarantine needs to urgently make a comeback.
We just have to look at the global pattern, Germany has announced that it is in a ‘new pandemic.’ Urgent ramping of the vaccination drive is the only answer, weekend lockdowns are almost farcical if not futile.
The virus is constantly mutating while it seems we refuse to evolve. Elections rallies in four states and one Union Territory going to the polls are business as usual. Thousands of supporters waving party flags stand unmasked, with social distancing not in any party’s manifesto.
The Prime Minister called for a meeting of states as the cases increased, yet soon after he addressed an election crowd that could easily become a COVID cluster.
Our newest cricket stadium- the Narendra Modi stadium had its baptism by fire, 50,000 fans thronged the stands to watch India play. Hopefully, they will not be hit for a six themselves because if they are, no banging of pots or showering of petals will help them. Gujarat is among the states with the highest cases in the country.
Meanwhile the Kumbh Mela — the largest religious gathering in the world where lakhs of devotees take a dip in the Ganga river is quietly taking on the pandemic.
Government estimates say 10-20 pilgrims and 10-20 locals are testing positive daily, but that must be either a very conservative or a politically correct estimate when at least 30 lakh pilgrims have already taken the holy dip. And it is not over yet, there are three more auspicious days for the shahi snan coming up.
The last year has been a wipeout physically and emotionally for a vast section of the population, others have just tried to put some food on the table.
Yet we Indians like to duel with fate, thinking ourselves invincible simply because we made it this far. But the race is long, and we are behind. And will pay hard for the overconfidence and complacency. Summer is coming again.