India’s COVID numbers have far outstripped countries like the US and Brazil, which have been the poor performers till now. 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 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.