Reports of mass cremations, of crumbling health care, of people running from pillar to post to get basic oxygen supplies have become grimly familiar to Indians as the country’s death toll from COVID-19 nearly tripled over the past three weeks. Yet, there seems to be no strategy, no clear directive from the government on how to tackle the situation at hand.
Dr. Diptendra Sarkar, oncologist and consultant surgeon from Kolkata, India recalled a play by Henrik Ibsen, “An Enemy of the People” that denounces societal hypocrisy and moral codes, to describe the current state of affairs in the country.
“We, the small little doctors, we continue to shout and tell people that something is not right,” but the politicians continue to take it “very casually, extremely casually,” the doctor told Global News.
An Enemy of the People
India’s second COVID-19 infection surge came soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi affirmed victory over the coronavirus in January, telling the virtual gathering of the World Economic Forum that India’s success couldn’t be compared with any other nation.
“In a country which is home to 18 per cent of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively,” Modi said.
However, over the past weeks, several health experts have slammed India’s complacency in dealing with the coronavirus. At a time when new cases were running moderately low at about 10,000 a day and seemed to be under control, authorities lifted restrictions and allowed the resumption of big gatherings, including large festivals and political rallies for local elections.
India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, said earlier this month that activities such as elections, religious gatherings and a lack of mask-wearing at functions such as weddings had contributed to the upsurge in cases.
The minister also called out people in general for their carelessness, during a video conference this month.
“People largely gave up on COVID-appropriate behaviour, became very careless,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vardhan himself has faced severe criticism for tweeting dozens of images and videos of political seminars and rallies.
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Lack of a clear narrative
Starting May 1, the Indian government announced mass vaccinations for all adults across the nation.
However, in the state of Maharashtra — one of the worst affected states in India — COVID-19 vaccination for people between 18-44 years of age “have been deferred by 15 days,” Joy Chakraborty, COO of P.D. Hinduja Hospital and chairperson of the Healthcare Subcommittee of Confederation of Indian Industries, told Global News.
“The government has indicated vaccination for this age group will be done in private facilities,” Chakraborty confirmed.
So far, government vaccines have been free, and private hospitals have been allowed to sell jabs at a price capped at 250 rupees, or around $4. That practice is now set to change. Prices for state governments and private hospitals will now be determined by vaccine companies.
Local administration is supposed to provide shots to private COVID-19 vaccination clinics but “logistics and vaccine price for private centres are yet to be finalized,” Chakraborty further confirmed.
“Hopefully, before May 15, private hospitals will receive vaccines,” he said.
The situation is no different in other states.
Jyoti Kanabar, 23, a resident of Kolkata, West Bengal, was able to register herself for a vaccination after multiple attempts online, only to be told that there were “no slots available”.
“The catch here is, we did not receive an appointment date as of now,” she told Global News.
“We don’t know when we’re going to receive the vaccine… There are no appointments available before July 21st. I don’t even know if there are appointments after July 21st because the website doesn’t let you check that.”
There is “not even a functional national helpline” people can call if they need any information regarding COVID-19, she said, “we are all dependent on social media.”
The state of Karnataka, home to tech hub Bengaluru, has also postponed its new vaccination drive for adults that was to start on Saturday.
Experts have since long pointed out that mass vaccination is the only way out of this – given the impossibility of a complete lockdown in a country of India’s bulk – however, there is still no clarity on when or where shots would become available in some states.
“For a country like India, lockdowns would be a very difficult thing from an economic point of view,” Dr. Sarkar said.
“The government should have charted and planned out sort of a navigation map” of hotspots for targeted vaccination, he said.
The distribution of COVID-19 vaccines “should have started right before the very beginning” of the second wave, given India’s domestic capacity to produce the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine, Sarkar added.
However, despite being the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, India now does not have enough vaccines for itself.
Only about 9 per cent of its 1.4 billion people have had a dose so far.
India has struggled to increase capacity beyond 80 million doses a month due to lack of raw materials and a fire at the Serum Institute, which makes the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Need of the hour
Total deaths in India have surpassed 200,000 and cases are nearing 19 million – nearly 8 million since February alone. Second only to the United States in total infections, the country has now reported more than 300,000 new cases daily for nine days in a row, hitting another global record of over 400,000 cases on Saturday.
As of April 30, several states across India called for temporary lockdowns in the light of the constant boom in the number of COVID-19 cases, but Dr. Sarkar holds that systematic vaccination is the only long-term solution to this problem.
“Instead of hurrying into a lockdown,” he said, “they should force vaccination of people in a very door-to-door approach,” he said.
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Other experts, however, have cautioned that conducting a massive inoculation effort now could worsen the surge in India.
People waiting in a “long, crowded, disorderly queue could itself be a source of infection,” Dr. Bharat Pankhania, a senior clinical lecturer specializing in infectious diseases at Britain’s University of Exeter told The Associated Press.
He urged India to first control the spread of the virus by imposing “a long, sustained, strictly enforced lockdown.”
Pankhania also warned that vaccination efforts alone would not help immediately stem the current spike of COVID-19, since vaccines “only start to bear fruit in about three months’ time.”
Vaccination would help prevent future waves of infection, he said.
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press