How did India fare in coping with Covid-19 in the first year of the pandemic?

In the early days, when almost nothing was known about the virus, there was much speculation that India would come out without experiencing the worst of Covid-19. A supposed in-built immunity and the high summer temperatures on the subcontinent would all help the country escape relatively unaffected. These unverified expectations led not only to a neglect of early precautionary measures like the contact tracing (and not just screening) of travellers returning from abroad, but also to the expression of plainly unscientific opinions on containing the virus.

In the event, India has felt the full brunt of Covid-19. The bald figures are that, as of 7 December 2020, 9.70 million Indians were infected by Covid-19 infections, of whom 1,40,974 have died. India registered the second largest number of cases (after the US) and the third highest number of deaths (after the US and Brazil). Given the size of India’s population, this scale of infections and deaths should have been expected.

In relative terms – by cases per million population or deaths per million population – India fares much better than what the absolute numbers suggest.

Helped by an age structure that weighs in favour of the young (who are known to mainly suffer only mild infections), it has a relatively low case-fatality rate. Yet, it must be noted that there is scepticism about the reported numbers, and legerdemain about what constitutes a “Covid-19 death”; and we might never exactly know the toll from the disease.

From September 2020 onwards, the number of new infections in India started to drop. Where earlier there were fears that the number would stay around 1,00,000 everyday, they fell to around 20,000 by early December. It would appear that the country had put the worst behind it, absent a “second wave” in 2021.

Looking back, it is not so much India’s inability to prevent the large number of infections in 2020 that should be cause for regret as to how the country coped with the pandemic. There was an absence of community and a lack of humanity in how both the state and society responded to Covid-19. Collectively, the people were wrenched through an enormous amount of suffering which the country, when it looks back later at the events of 2020, will not be proud of. Much of public discourse orchestrated by the state seemed at times to be more about creating the impression that India was doing very well, than of actually dealing with the pandemic.

Clear the fog of propaganda about how well the country did, and there does not seem much to defend in the first year of Covid-19.

On the part of the government, initially there was a reluctance to deal with the approaching pandemic with any serious urgency, distracted as the central political leadership seemed with other events. Then when it was apparent that the pandemic was beginning to spread uncontrollably in the metros, on the evening of 24 March, the central government imposed a three-week national lockdown with just four hours’ notice. There was no prior announcement and there seemed to have been no planning, unlike in other countries such as South Africa, which did give some warning and had carried out as much planning as was possible in an emergency situation.

The lockdown in India lasted for a total of nine weeks (25 March to 1 May, and was then extended partially or fully in different parts of the country until 31 May). The Indian lockdown was considered the most severe in the world, but one does not need the counter-factual to acknowledge that it failed to control the spread of the virus.

When the lockdown was finally lifted, infections and deaths started to rise sharply, with India in a few months becoming the country with the second largest number of infections. It also turned out that neither the central nor the state governments had used the lockdown to strengthen public health facilities on an emergency footing to cope with the spurt in infections that was to follow, though that was one of the unstated justifications for the lockdown.

The “life over livelihood” argument had failed, with both lives and livelihoods lost to the pandemic and the lockdown.

Even more egregious was the enormous centralisation of the whole process, despite health being a joint responsibility of the central and state governments, and despite the reality that it was the states which would have to implement any control measures. The colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, enacted to deal with the Bombay plague, was wielded like a sledgehammer; and the powers under the National Disaster Management Act of 2005 were read as giving the Centre overriding authority over the states.

State governments were barely consulted while framing rules. A series of notifications, clarifications and amendments on the dos and don’ts began to flow with worrying regularity from the central home ministry, which, rather than the health ministry, took the lead in dealing with Covid-19.

States were saddled with the responsibilities and costs of dealing with disease surveillance, quarantine, emergency healthcare and welfare during the lockdown, but little came by way of economic support from the Centre. The national lockdown was ill-suited, both from an epidemiological and economic point of view, for a diverse country as India.

In hindsight, the lockdown only created dangerous incubation spots in the cities, and as workers scrambled to the safety of their homes with the relaxation of lockdown, they became unwitting carriers of the virus into small towns and villages. And finally, when the lockdown began to weigh down dangerously on the economy and wearily on people’s morale, the Centre simply receded, passing on the responsibility to the states to cope with the aftermath, including in the poorly provisioned hinterland.

While one-party China appeared to have controlled the spread of the virus after it locked down the province of Hubei, democratic India with a more severe shutdown of an entire country did not achieve the same success.

It is not, however, the failure to control Covid-19 that stands out in the aftermath of the lockdown. It is the unimaginable devastation wreaked on the urban poor that will define those nine weeks.

With a sudden and complete closure of all economic activities, the urban workers, who in any case were leading a precarious existence, found themselves – literally – on the streets. The urban economy in India runs on migrant workers. Yet, an insensitive state refused to provide any immediate relief. These workers then had no choice but to go home. With all train and bus services at a halt for the first four weeks of the lockdown, the migrant workers and their families began to take the long journey back on foot, in what should be called India’s Great Trudge Home.

It was a human tragedy that had not been witnessed since Partition. At the very least, 5 million workers and their families in cities all over the country headed back to the North East, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and elsewhere. Men, women and children walked hundreds of kilometres in the blazing summer sun. It was a sight on the roads that should have caused collective shame. It did not.

Barring a few exceptions, the media chose not to highlight this human tragedy. The lockdown had stifled all democratic political activities; so political parties too were largely silent. If the central government was callous, state governments were insensitive. Sometimes the workers were not allowed to cross state borders; sometimes the police harassed them for walking on the highways; sometimes they were forced to set up temporary shelters outside towns and cities, and on at least one occasion they were sprayed with disinfectant.

Those who managed to reach their homes were herded into makeshift quarantine centres lacking basic amenities, and quite often they were left to fend for themselves as they contracted the illness and spread it to their families.

We may never know how many died during this ordeal, not of the disease but of the events surrounding it. No state agency cared to monitor their movement. We do know that many died in accidents. Some died when the trucks in which they were packed to the edges overturned; some collapsed on the roads; and in one instance, a group of workers sleeping on what they thought were silent railway tracks were crushed to death by a train. Some died silently on railway platforms and roadsides as hunger and physical exhaustion overtook them.

Yet, neither then nor later did the political leadership express regret, other than posting the occasional social media message, over this tragedy that had been wrought by the sudden imposition of a nation-wide blanket lockdown. It was left to concerned citizens working with civil society organisations to organise relief by way of food, transport assistance and, in some cases, even shelter.

If the callousness of the state towards the migrant workers was unforgivable, it is just as damning that within a few months the episode and its fallout seem to have disappeared from public memory. The central government belatedly announced in late May – two months after the lockdown was imposed and the Great Trudge Home had begun – that the returning migrants would be eligible to free grain for two months and could be enrolled in an expanded Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

Another section of society that suffered immensely during the lockdown and thereafter was India’s school-going children.

With schools closed, first during the lockdown ahead of the summer break and then until end 2020, and children unable to physically attend class, “online education” became a major part of the lives of Indians of all classes. Yet, with the country unprepared, with teachers untrained, with online education systems made up on the go, and with most children without either adequate computer facilities at home or reliable internet connectivity, it was more than “a lost year” for them.

Strangely, beyond preparing material for digital distribution, neither the central nor state governments seemed to be worried about how to help children navigate this most difficult of years. As always, in India’s divided society, it was the children of the rural poor who suffered the most.

The larger economy collapsed during the height of the lockdown. As subsequent official (provisional) estimates showed, the economy contracted by 23.9 per cent in the April–June quarter of the fiscal year 2020–21 (covering the peak of the lockdown), and by 7.5 per cent during July–September, both with respect to the corresponding quarters in 2019–20. The Indian contraction was the steepest in the world, a natural outcome of the most severe lockdown.

The human cost of this lockdown was shown up in the first instance by a sharp surge in unemployment rates which, according to independent agencies, climbed to 23.5 and 21.7 per cent in April and May 2020, respectively. The full effects of this body blow to people’s livelihoods and wellbeing is yet to be reckoned with, especially as it came on the heels of an economic downturn that had already reversed several of the improvements in health and nutrition of the past decades.

Over the course of the year, the central government announced a series of relief measures for the poor, for agriculture, and for small and large businesses. These were in the form of additional spending, temporary direct and indirect tax concessions, credit guarantees, liquidity enhancements and also bank finance. Yet, the size of additional government spending was small given the circumstances.

According to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) analysis, India’s direct stimulus spending until September 2020 amounted to only 1.8 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP), while “below the line” aid (that is, off-budget support like waivers, credit guarantees, etc.) was equivalent to 5.2 per cent of GDP, amounting to a total of 7 per cent of GDP.

Despite suggestions to the central government to expand spending, if necessary by monetisation of the deficit as well, there was a strange refusal to do so. It appeared that even in the midst of the biggest ever economic contraction in decades, the government found it more important to stick to fiscal orthodoxy and not widen the fiscal deficit. There was instead a pooling of old and new programmes, adding new ones with off-budget funding and packaging it as a fresh attempt at self-reliance: “Atmanirbhar Bharat”.

The other consequence of the refusal to open the purse-strings was a debilitating impact on state governments, which found their revenues collapsing even as they were expected to share a larger part of the burden of spending on health services. Indeed, all of 2020 saw a continuing struggle between the states and the Centre, with the latter pleading for what were their statutory dues [compensation for a decline in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) collections], as well as additional funds. Yet, this was met with a stubborn refusal to do so.

It was a mark of the times that in the midst of the lockdown and during the limping recovery thereafter, India’s wealthy saw their assets increase manifold, and oligopolies strengthened their grip on the Indian economy.

According to one reliable estimate, even as the Indian economy shrunk and rendered millions unemployed, the wealth of the industrial tycoon Gautam Adani more than doubled to $32 billion, while that of the bigger tycoon, Mukesh Ambani, grew by a more “modest” quarter to $75 billion. A handful of India’s biggest companies received large amounts of foreign investment; they were awarded lucrative contracts in infrastructure; and they came to straddle virtually all sectors of the economy. It was as if a weakened economy was available for the picking by the richest firms in the country.

Another reflection of the times was that the stock market, after suffering slumps in the early days of the lockdown, recovered by the end of the year to cross previous peaks. It was found that India’s top 100 billionaires had been able to preserve their wealth during the year and “fewer billionaires had seen an erosion of their wealth than in 2019”. All this in an economy that was still in a recession and where the poor in rural and urban India had seen loss of work and a decline in consumption (as revealed in a number of field surveys conducted by civil society organisations, one of which is reported in this volume).

When the curtains of propaganda and media management were drawn, it was clear that India had done poorly when compared to other countries in the neighbourhood and in Asia. A compilation by a former chief economic advisor to the Government of India is striking (below). As of mid-October 2020, India suffered the highest number of Covid-19 deaths per million population in a select group of Asian countries, and was slated to show the largest degree of contraction in 2020. There could not be a stronger rebuttal of the misplaced sense of confidence among official circles in the country about India’s record in dealing with Covid-19, and mitigating its impact on the economy.

From IMF and Worldometer, 18 October 2020, as tweeted by @kaushikcbasu, 19 October 2020, available at

A crisis should have brought Indian society together, and its institutions should have combined to deal with Covid-19 and its after-effects. But the opposite happened. There was little sign of either community or togetherness. Instead, all the cleavages were out in the open, and more were added.

The Centre seemed to work to further strain the spirit of federalism in its relations with the states. The courts seemed oblivious to the suffering of the people, especially the migrants. It took an urgent appeal from senior lawyers and jurists before the Supreme Court belatedly ordered relief to the migrants in late May, by which time most of them had reached home.

In the realm of politics and governance, it was almost as if the Executive was using the pandemic to dilute democratic practice in the country. Parliament saw only a brief and further shortened Monsoon session in the middle of 2020, and the Winter session was cancelled altogether citing Covid-19. This was in contrast to elsewhere in the world, where parliaments did their best to function normally.

With Parliament not in session, important ordinances were passed in the fields of agriculture and industrial labour, and later rushed through the legislature without proper scrutiny. The dilution and abuse of democratic practice was so widespread and deep that one respected international study identified India as the democracy with the most number of “concerns about democracy developments” during the pandemic. India had already been identified in the same study as a country that was already “backsliding” in democratic practice on the eve of the pandemic.

In urban India, in the early days, fearful communities ostracised those who had been infected and did little to support the quarantined. In colonies and apartment complexes, the middle class and wealthy shut out the rest of the world, asked domestic help not to come to work and refused to pay them salaries. The elderly and the disabled who lived alone were denied the services of their paid caregivers and were left to fend for themselves.

India’s service sector workers who kept the urban economy ticking asked why they had to suffer because of “a disease brought from outside by the rich”. Indeed, there were even reports in the early days of Covid-19 of health workers who were asked by landlords to vacate their homes.

The most striking manifestation of a sharpening of the divide came in the form of the frenzy built up by the media, and tacitly encouraged by the state, over an early case of the spread of the virus in a congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi in March 2020 which had participants from different parts of the world.

This was portrayed in the media as an example of ‘Muslims’ spreading the virus, leading to virulent anti-Muslim hysteria across social media. Government spokespersons too started handing out data on the Tablighi infections, claiming that nationally infections had spiked because of the congregation. This forced the World Health Organisation to caution against the “religious profiling” of Covid-19 victims. In spite of such warnings, many of the members of the congregation were arrested, ostensibly for spreading the infection and violating visa rules. It was months before high courts struck down the arrests with harsh indictments of the authorities.

The darker side of India on display during 2020 should not blind us to the tremendous commitment demonstrated by doctors, nurses, public health staff of local governments and the paramedical staff. As in other countries, the healthcare workers were the ones who cared for the sick in hospitals, often at great personal cost and for low wages. A number of civil society organisations—small and large—demonstrated extraordinary sensitivity to support the migrant workers during their exodus, providing income support, offering temporary shelter and arranging for their travel home, with little regard for exposure to the virus. It seemed that it was left to the healthcare workers and isolated citizens’ groups to try and step in and repair the damage caused by state and society at large.

Excerpted with permission from the “IAn excer, Orient BlackSwan.