How quickly the tables turn. Last year, as Europe, the US and many other nations struggled with the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the Indian government stepped in and supplied two key drugs — hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir — used to treat those infected with the virus. By late March 2020, the pandemic had become full-blown in India too but, despite dire predictions, the first wave peaked in six months.
From November onwards, as the number of fresh cases fell dramatically and rather surprisingly, the Indian government began patting itself on the back about how quickly the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) had been beaten back in the country. Several ministers began making unfounded claims about why this was so — from higher immunity among Indians to yoga and Ayurveda.
With the ebbing of new cases, large doses of carelessness and complacency crept into the attitude of the people, as well as the government. Even though protests by opposition parties were banned due to the pandemic, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party organized several large-scale events. The government also surprisingly allowed a major Hindu festival, the Maha Kumbh Mela, which sees more than 100 million devotees gather every 12 years, to go ahead in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Moreover, with elections in five states currently in progress, large-scale political rallies have been held on a daily basis in different parts of the country, with thousands of people participating without taking heed of any safety protocols such as social distancing or the wearing of face masks.
Thus, it is little wonder that the number of fresh daily cases in India has jumped manifold from the lows of February. On Wednesday, India reported just under 295,000 new infections, about 26 times as many as on March 1 and more than triple the highest total in the previous wave, which touched 97,000 last September.
And, just as the second wave began to ravage the country, India — the global hub of vaccine manufacturing, reportedly accounting for more than 60 percent of all doses made — began to run out of vaccines. Ironically, until just a few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been tweeting about vaccine donations the country had been generously making to dozens of nations around the world. It has donated more than 60 million doses so far.
However, at home, hundreds of people started tweeting about long waiting lists for vaccination or even total unavailability. Soon enough, some of the states governed by opposition parties began to complain of extreme shortages and asked the federal government to let them procure vaccine doses directly, besides asking for other vaccines to be allowed in India, notably Pfizer and Moderna from the US and Russia’s Sputnik V.
If the situation is grim in India, it is hardly any better in other South Asian nations, notably Pakistan and Bangladesh, both of which are also in the midst of a disastrous second wave. Media reports from various Pakistani hospitals are as despairing as those emerging from India, with hospitals and morgues running over capacity and the death toll rising sharply, even while leaders continue to play down the seriousness of the crisis.
The news is alarming from other parts of the world as well, notably Latin America and Europe, which have continued to struggle to contain the pandemic, primarily for the same reasons as the South Asian nations: A lack of adequate healthcare infrastructure, short supply of medicines and oxygen, and a severe shortage of vaccines as manufacturers fail to keep pace with the rising demand and even their delivery commitments.
France is one such nation. President Emmanuel Macron often seems to be seriously out of his depth. After already going through a second wave, the country is currently being ravaged by a third. Its case count is over 5 million and the death toll has passed the 100,000 mark, making it the fourth-most affected country in the world after the US, India and Brazil. The situation in several other European nations is also becoming alarming, especially Italy, Poland and Germany.
Across the English Channel, the UK had stumbled during the first wave last year but, since then, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has done an admirable job of giving more than 60 percent of the entire adult population at least one vaccine dose, while aggressively carrying on the vaccination drive. This has allowed Johnson to reopen the British economy in well-organized, properly orchestrated stages.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a humanitarian catastrophe is underway in Brazil, according to Doctors Without Borders. It blames the government for an uncoordinated response and lack of any strategy. The pandemic has cost the lives of more than 378,000 Brazilians and has infected over 14 million. The death toll has been rising again in the last few weeks, with President Jair Bolsonaro proving to be entirely ineffectual in providing the leadership needed to handle this unprecedented health emergency. The situation is only marginally better in other Latin American countries, especially Colombia and Argentina.
Across the region and indeed around the world, people are paying a hefty price for various governments’ poor investment in the healthcare sector. While the rich have the option to get treated in the most expensive and exclusive hospitals — or even have the best healthcare delivered to them at home — the poor are forced to rely on government hospitals that have been under-funded for decades. This is true even in a country like France, which is reputed to have one of the world’s best social security systems, as well as populous and poor nations like India, where government expenditure on public health is among the lowest in the world.
Globally, the countries that have displayed complacency or carelessness in dealing with COVID-19 are seeing the strongest surges of the virus. But, almost everywhere, it is the poor and underprivileged who pay the price, while the leaders get away unscathed.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
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