The famous story, as it goes, is that as Rome burned Nero played the harp. A similar chilling fable is currently being played out in India as it reels, under a virulent manmade wave of Covid-19, while its political leadership indulges in meaningless rhetoric and blame games.
This humanitarian crisis is a result of criminal political negligence and deliberate complacency. Not too long ago, India’s leadership claimed that Covid-19, was almost behind us. A public narrative fed by compliant experts and a pandering media encouraged Indians to go back to business as usual and created a misleading sense of victory. The arrival of two vaccines strengthened this delusion. Meanwhile, a deadly second wave was brewing.
The world over, second and third waves are being witnessed . Why did we not prepare for them? Simple. Because our leaders didn’t care – or didn’t pay attention to the experts or the numbers. Even when the vaccine rollout began in January, the lack of leadership, transparency and public trust was clear. We, however, planned the Kumbh mela.
Until the bodies piled up near the political thrones, our rulers did not notice that preparation was non-existent. Today India is short of everything from hospital beds, medicines and oxygen to even cremation sites and graveyards.
What can be done now? Here are four things India can act on immediately.
First, we urgently need a crisis war room consisting of public health and management experts that needs to urgently address the shortfalls in testing, medicines, beds and oxygen. This task force needs to replicated at the state and district levels. Make them accountable and they, not our politicians, should be in charge. School, colleges and religious institutions need to be converted into a Covid facility for testing or care of differing levels from mild and moderate to severe. Remember that most Covid-19 patients recover so contact tracing, isolation and monitoring needs to be strengthened. Oxygen should be imported the production of medicines needed for Covid-19 care must be ramped up.
Second, we need to expand testing and also prepare for treatment for the immediate future. We need to ensure that there will not be any shortfalls of medicine, injections or oxygen in the next few months. Production cannot falter and buffer stocks must be built up.
We have to realise that this pandemic will rage for several months until the third wave. So we need strategies that differ from state to state and district to district. Lockdowns are only a temporary solution but have to be used to strengthen infrastructure. In preparation, hot spots need to be identified and given special support, both in terms of infrastructure and resources. Our strategy needs to anticipate the worst for the next few months. The worst is not over yet.
Third, India needs to rapidly scale up production and have a participative vaccine strategy. The recent announcement lowering the age of those eligible is welcome but asking states to procure vaccines on their own is ethically and functionally incorrect. The price announcement is unjust as it asks states and the private sector pay more than the Central government will for its stocks. Why should we commodify a public good like vaccines? Does every Indian not have the right to the vaccine? We need price control and commitment. Additionally we need to create effective communications to build confidence in vaccines right from the local level.
Finally, as thoughtless lockdowns emerge everywhere, we need to help our people especially those in the informal sector to survive. Till the pandemic ends, Indians need an economic support policy nationally that gives a basic income to ensure sustenance for everybody who needs it. If not Covid-19, hunger, desperation and mental health challenges will get to our people. As we witness, repeat images of migrant labour flocking to their villages, it shows the lack of trust people have in every government. They have lost jobs, homes and have no savings. This is the ethical, moral responsibility of the state. If we can build statues, temples and new capitals we don’t need, we could easily feed and treat our population reeling from the pandemic.
The time for excuses is over. If India’s ruling class does not act on these issues, it will have demonstrably failed the republic and its people in every way. We have already lost most of the economic gains made in the last several decades due to this pandemic. It’s our moral, ethical, political, social and economic imperative to act.
In the end, the senseless deaths, devastation and suffering will be recorded as our collective failure, of experts who do not speak up, leaders that do not walk the talk, bureaucrats who toe the line, and the shameless media that panders to the ruling establishment. And, of course, we the people, who vote for hate and rhetoric but not hospitals and schools.
The blood, undeniably is on all our hands.
Chapal Mehra is a public health specialist who works extensively in the areas of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV.
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