Watching closely – India’s Calamitous Covid-19 Second Wave: Reality Check

Every morning the world wakes up to the grim covid-19 statistics from India and visuals of the overwhelmed Indian hospitals and crematorium – which surpasses anything India witnessed last year. Undoubtedly, this is a great human tragedy and health crisis; however, is it a fair representation of India’s plight? And as claimed by several media houses, is the Indian health system inching towards the brink of collapse?

The Numbers

The devastating second wave of covid-19 struck India in April. From April 24 onwards, India has been recording more than 300,000 covid cases daily and an average of 3,200 deaths per day between April 24 – May 4. But it is also a fact that India – a developing nation, is home to almost 1.3 billion people, so although the daily statistic may appear ominous, one should also consider its huge population. For example, in total, India records around 160 covid related deaths per million, whereas countries like the United Kingdom (population 60 million) has recorded 1900 covid deaths per million, and America (population 330 million) reported 1700 covid deaths per million. There have been allegations that the Indian covid death counts are underreported substantially. Similar claims are made against the United States, UK, and China – infamous for masking statistics in general anyways. This does not negate the fact that national governments may have covered up the death figures; however, it is difficult to establish the absolute authenticity of these claims as they are primarily based on speculative models and personal accounts. 

Source: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India.

The Indian National Covid-19 Supermodel Committee has projected the peak of the second wave around May 12 with a potential covid caseload of around 400,000 and a gradual descend thereafter. However, without a stricter lockdown and a general mockery of the covid safety protocols during the political rallies, religious gatherings and protests such as the ongoing farmer’s agitation were about to be replenished thousands of farmers, cast doubts upon flattening of this curve anytime soon.

Source: Professor M Vidyasagar, the head of the government-appointed panel, while speaking on a private news channel.

The Health Infrastructure

There is no doubt that the Indian healthcare system is under unprecedented pressure to deal with the mounting covid cases and hospitals reeling under an acute shortage of medical oxygen and beds. The Government of India’s position – “the second wave took everyone in the country by surprise” is anything but convincing. India managed to steer through the first wave with relative ease, but it wasted this precious time to prepare for the inevitable second wave. Countries with far more superior health infrastructure than India, such as the UK, were devasted by the second wave, which overwhelmed its healthcare system (NHS). And the UK reported over 40,000 covid deaths during December 20-January’21 alone. So, failing to learn from the ruthless manifestation of the second wave elsewhere cannot be categorized as “being surprised” but complacency shown by the Indian central and state governments. Whilst it is also true that no healthcare system in the world can be fully prepared for a pandemic. In the case of India, another burdensome factor is a general panic among its population. Echoing sentiments of other top doctors, Dr Randeep Guleria, Director at AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences), has reiterated that, although the new covid strain is potentially more contagious, its impact is still mild, so people should use oxygen judicially. The Delhi High Court has expressed deep concern around hoarding and black marketing of oxygen cylinders and concentrators – skyrocketing its demand and creating shortfalls. Dr Guleria further added that 

Please remember, in this disease 85 per cent of cases will have mild disease. The data from India and globally shows most have recovered from supportive treatment with no hospitalization“. 

Yet, even with mild symptoms, anxious and fearsome people are flocking down to the hospitals in thousands and occupying beds and oxygen resources when it’s not required and, most importantly, depriving the needy of this resource. The same goes with the shortage of Remdesivir injection and the public misconception on drug use, which has increased its price in the illegal black market. In this hour of crisis, emergency medical aid is pouring into pandemic-stricken India from around the world. Professor Harsh Pant, Head of strategic studies at Observer Research Foundation, has commented that,

“Global support for India is also a reciprocal appreciation of New Delhi’s efforts over the last few months. From supplying hydroxychloroquine to more than 100 nations to providing 64 million doses of vaccines to more than 80 nations… where some of the richest and most powerful nations in the world turned inwards and erected barriers, India opened its heart and purse strings as a responsible member of the world community….”

The international assistance will supplement the Indian domestic efforts to ramp up its healthcare system – Instituting hundreds of oxygen generation plants and makeshift hospitals, its mega vaccination drive (now open to everyone over the age of 18), bringing in tens of thousands of additional medical staff etc. However, to realize the impact of these efforts over a country of 1.3 billion people with a history of a patchy healthcare system, will take a while. So, while other countries had their fair share of a devasting second covid-19 wave and recovering gradually, India continues to post gloomy covid statistics daily. 

The Editor: Sumit Mishra

Sumit Mishra is currently pursuing a MA in War in the Modern World from King’s college London and holding an MSc (from Imperial College London) and a B.Eng (from Queen Mary University of London). Sumit has a strong interest in the field of Geo-Politics and International Relations, and has gained significant exposure in situational analysis, risk assessment through educational research and a professional career in finance. His main research interest focuses on conflicts, non-state actors and foreign policy.

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