As cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus increase across India, many who had predicted this crisis have a sense of déjà vu. Another Covid-19 wave is here and we seem to have walked into it unprepared because of apathy and political neglect.
The pandemic has returned, the virus is mutating and though it is comparatively mild, those affected are struggling every day. These struggles are not just of those battling the infection and suffering, but of fear, of everyday livelihoods and rising mental health concerns.
There is growing fatigue at the lack of preparation or strategy to battle the current wave. In all of this, misinformation, trivialisation and a game of numbers combined with a strange apathy appears to be playing out.
Omicron should have been a variant of concern immediately, because in an interconnected world we knew it would eventually arrive here. Yet, no preparation or alarm resulted in lax systems that let the variant slip in and thrive.
We are now caught somewhere between platitudes about varying levels of severity and lower hospitalisations. Our solution to everything has been lockdowns and curfews. We still do not know what our strategy is, how to engage with people to take precautions and what scenarios will play out based on the available data. All this points to a familiar theme – poor preparation and no accountability.
The media may report about the rising number of cases, doctors and health staff may get infected and patients may continue to suffer, but India’s ruling class remains unprepared. Elections will not be postponed, rallies will continue and god forbid if a festival arrives in the middle of all this.
In many ways, the deliberate downplaying of the Omicron variant as mild and less dangerous was the start of this crisis. This was a lost opportunity to communicate effectively and guide public behavior. It is a reminder that Indian political fortunes do not rest on accountability.
Ignoring Omicron is coming with severe consequences that we are already witnessing. Healthcare staff is rapidly being infected, people have been in home isolation, anxious and ambivalent. This is only a trailer of what is to come as the virus evolves.
Though the variant is currently causing comparatively mild symptoms, the fear is that the epic scale at which it will spread will overwhelm the healthcare system and its workforce. What also seems to have been ignored are the vulnerable. The elderly, children and compromised groups – a sizable number – remain at high risk of hospitalisation and severe disease. Are we prepared for this? Are we prepared for the cascading impact this will have on other diseases from tuberculosis, non-communicable diseases and other health concerns? We still do not sufficiently understand the long-term impact of this variant.
Then, there is also the human side of this crisis. Those who advocate home isolation forget that most of India lives in small tenements unsuited for this. Moreover, what is the plan to provide wages, nourishment, food to affected individuals and families in an uncertain economy? Who will pay for their medical expenses when they need care?
From here on, the crisis will be predictable, the media will run a full course of stories and we, the people, will fall to the virus in droves, first in the cities and then elsewhere. Hospitals may or may not overflow and oxygen demand may be lower than before but people will undoubtedly suffer.
In many ways, all this could have been mitigated or better managed. This is a reminder of how governments push us to the brink of crisis, only to pretend action and concern later until we have no one to blame.
India urgently needs a comprehensive Covid-19 plan – from now till the end of the year – with scenario mapping and responses. This should consist of daily public communication, rapid testing and scaling up home support services, expanding telemedicine and shoring up the health infrastructure. At the same time, the poor and vulnerable need economic and social support and community-based services. Accompanying this must be a rapid expansion of the vaccination plan which is inadequate. Finally, we need more health personnel and to also pay those at the frontlines better.
A good strategy should involve the public in taking decisions and provide facts calmly with context. Delaying information or support mechanisms for those who lose livelihoods will erode confidence and trust.
Limping from one wave to another is negligence and this puts people not just at risk of Covid-19 but other diseases currently being neglected in an overwhelmed system.
In the end, the Omicron wave would have always been a hard climb. But our lack of preparation will make it a crisis we didn’t need: not you, not me, not the daily wager, and certainly not the average health worker.
While we find solutions, we should also ask what could be done better? We need to ask governments why we are still so ill-prepared? Because, India is by no means a poor country anymore. We have the resources and skills to counter this. Because, if we can build a new capital complex during a pandemic, we can very well prepare for it. Because, as a democracy, we ought to have done better.
The author is a public health specialist who works extensively in the areas of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV.