But voices like his were drowned out by news from the federal government suggesting India had somehow outwitted the virus. The hype was so strong that even some medical professionals got involved. A Harvard Medical School professor told the financial newspaper Mint that “the pandemic behaved in a very unique way in India.”
“The real harm in the under-counting is that people are taking the pandemic lightly,” says Arun. “If few people are supposed to die from Covid, the public will think it doesn’t kill and they won’t change their behavior.” In fact, India had reached another dire milestone in mid-December: it recorded its 10 millionth infection. It was only the second country to do this after the USA.
The government didn’t use the first lockdown wisely, but December is their chance to fix things, says Gagandeep Kang, professor of microbiology at Christian Medical College in Vellore, Tamil Nadu. She says a number of tactics – speeding up sequencing, investigating public behavior, collecting more data, denying permission for superspreader events, and starting vaccine implementation earlier than planned – saved many lives during the now inevitable second wave.
Instead, she says, the government has continued its “top-down” approach, in which bureaucrats, rather than scientists and healthcare professionals, make decisions.
“We live in a very unequal society,” she says. “That’s why we have to involve people and build partnerships on a granular level if we want to provide information and resources effectively.”
In December, the Goa government completely dropped its vigilance. The state is heavily dependent on tourism, which accounts for almost 17% of its income. Most of the tourists come in December to celebrate Christmas and New Year on sandy beaches with raves and fireworks.
Vivek Menezes, a Goan journalist, says the state’s reputation as “the place to be” has not faded during the pandemic. “It’s the place for the rich of India and for Bollywood, and so it’s the place for India,” says Menezes. The pandemic had deterred foreign tourists from visiting, but domestic vacationers flocked in. Some states like Maharashtra had restrictions on their borders; others, like Kerala, had strict contact tracing policies. In Goa, visitors didn’t even have to show a negative Covid test. And the state’s masking policy only extended to health workers, visitors to health care facilities, and those who showed symptoms. “Goa was left to the dogs,” says Menezes.
The largest super spreader in the world
India started 2021 with nearly 150,000 dead. It wasn’t until then, in January, that the government placed its first vaccine order for a shockingly small amount – just 11 million doses of Covishield, the Indian version of the AstraZeneca vaccine. It also ordered 5.5 million doses of Covaxin, a locally developed vaccine that has not yet released efficacy data. These orders fell far short of what the country actually needed. Subhash Salunke, a senior advisor to the independent Public Health Foundation of India, estimates that 1.4 billion doses would have been required to fully vaccinate all eligible adults.
On January 28th in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Modi explained that India “saved humanity from a major catastrophe by effectively containing Corona”. His government then gave the go-ahead for the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival that attracts millions of people to the holy city of Haridwar in the northern state of Uttarakhand, famous for its temples and pilgrimage sites. When the former prime minister of the state suggested making the festival “symbolic” this year, given the circumstances, he was fired.
A senior politician from the Prime Minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party told the Indian magazine The Caravan that the federal government has the upcoming state elections in mind and does not want to lose the support of religious leaders. As it turned out, Kumbh wasn’t just a superspreader event – it was the largest in the world, with 9.1 million registered visitors biggest Superspreader event. “Anyone with a basic public health textbook would have told you this was not the time,” says Kang.
In February, the public health expert, Salunke, was working in an agricultural district in the western state of Maharashtra when he noticed the virus was being transmitted “much faster” than before. It affected whole families.
“I felt like we were dealing with an agent who had changed or who seemed to have changed,” he says. “I started researching.” Salunke, as it now turns out, had found a mutation in a variant that had been discovered in India last October. He suspected that the variant now known as the Delta was about to spread. It did. It is now represented in more than 90 countries.
“I went to everyone in charge and to those who matter – be it district officials or central bureaucrats, whatever. I immediately shared this information with everyone I knew, ”he says.
Salunke’s discovery does not appear to have affected the official response. Even as the second wave accelerated and the WHO labeled the new mutation “a variant of interest” on April 4, Modi kept up his hectic schedule ahead of the West Bengal state elections and appeared in person at numerous public rallies.
At some point he did pleased about the size of the crowd he had drawn: “I see huge crowds in all directions … I’ve never seen such crowds at a rally.”
“The rallies were a direct message from leadership that the virus is gone,” says Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy.
The second wave filled hospitals, which were quickly running out of beds, oxygen, and medication, forcing wheezing patients to wait inside – and then die Parking spaces, and further Sidewalks. Crematoriums had to build makeshift pyres to meet demand, and there were Reports that the ash spout was driven so far that it stained clothing a kilometer away. Many poor people could not even afford the funeral rites and dipped their loved ones’ bodies straight into the Ganges, causing hundreds of bodies to wash ashore in several states. Alongside these apocalyptic scenes came the news that fatal yeast infections are overwhelming Covid patients, likely due to lower infection control and an excessive reliance on steroids to treat the virus.
The chaos continues; Delta spreads
And all along there were modes. The Prime Minister was the face of India’s fight against the pandemic – literally: his headshot appears prominently on the certificate given to people who receive their vaccine. But after the second wave, his premature triumphalism was mocked and his unwillingness to be widely mocked. He has largely disappeared from the public eye since then, leaving it up to his peers to blame elsewhere, mostly – and imprecisely – the government’s political opposition. As a result, Indians will have to face the greatest national crisis of their lives alone.
This abandonment has created a sense of camaraderie with some Indian groups many use social media and WhatsApp to help one another by sharing information on hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. They also organized themselves on site and distributed food to those in need.
But the leadership vacuum has also created a huge market for profiteers and fraudsters at the highest level. In May, opposition politicians accused a leader of the ruling BJP party, Tejaswi Surya, of having been involved in a vaccination commission fraud. And Goan Health Minister Vishwajit Rane had to deny claims that he was involved in a ventilator purchase fraud. Even the Prime Minister’s Covid Relief Fund, PM Cares, came under fire after selling $ 2,250 billion “too risky to use.” The fund, which attracted at least $ 423 million in donations, has also raised concerns about corruption and a lack of transparency.
A successful vaccination agenda might have helped erase memories of the string of missteps, but under Modi it was just one technocratic mistake at a time. In late May, the government announced that it would begin mixing doses of different vaccine types with far fewer vaccines than needed. And at the height of the second wave, Co-WIN was introduced, an online booking system that was mandatory for anyone under 45 who wanted to get vaccinated. The system, which has been on the test bench for monthsIt was catastrophic: not only did it automatically shut out those who didn’t use computers and smartphones, but it was also bugged and overwhelmed by people desperate for protection.