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India’s bureaucratic debacle amidst Covid-19 second wave

Source: Unsplash

Sameera Pillai

One and a half years on from the start of the pandemic and the second-most populous country in the world is still grappling with the debilitating effects of COVID-19. Images circulating social media of overwhelmed crematorium sites in the capital, New Delhi, reflect the sombre reality of life during the pandemic. Until March, there was slow but steady progress in the administration of vaccination drives across the country. Despite this, India has since April been wrestling with a catastrophic second wave that has swept across the country almost unhindered. On 23 April alone the number of cases recorded reached 332,000 – the world’s highest single-day spike.

A range of factors, including the Indian government’s political and religious priorities, the shortcomings of the healthcare system and the negligence of the public have led the country to this unfortunate yet avoidable predicament. These factors demonstrate the failibilities of both the government and society, and the absence of decisive action in the face of a public health emergency raises questions around the legitimacy of the government of the world’s largest democracy.

The scientific factor: The new variant

India’s second wave of the pandemic was catalysed by the new coronavirus variant that was first detected in March in the United Kingdom. In February, more than 80 percent of the cases found in the Indian state of Punjab were linked to the UK variant. Within a few weeks, a new “double mutant” strain had been detected, with scientists attributing the surge in cases to the new variant. The Union Health Ministry and Centre for Disease Control continues to understate the role of the new strain, despite genome sequencing suggesting a possible link between the rise in number of infections with the new “B.1.617” variant. While researchers are still studying the lethality of the new variant, World Health Organisation technical lead Maria van Herkhove has called the presence of two mutations in a single strain “concerning”. Van Herkhove explains that the mutations in B.1.617 are very similar to others that are known to cause increased transmission and reduced neutralisation – meaning it could be harder to vaccinate against. Although this indicates that there is a high possibility of a causal link between the variant and the sudden surge of infections, there is in fact a substantial lack of evidence that confirms this. Experts argue that along with the double mutant variant, factors such as the easing of restrictions, negligence shown by people in social distancing and lax mask-wearing have also greatly contributed to the spreading of the virus. As concerning as this new variant is, it must be acknowledged that Indian society has fallen short when it comes to controlling the spread of the virus and adhering to the rules that might otherwise have ensured their safety.

The political factor: West Bengal elections

Since early March, rallies have been held for upcoming state elections, with political parties addressing massive crowds in states like West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. Political parties continued to campaign, paying no heed to Covid safety protocols. With the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party short of a majority in West Bengal, the elections in that state were particularly crucial for the Modi government. Despite the uptick in Covid cases, elections there were held unhindered and citizens encouraged to cast their votes at polling booths. Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged citizens to vote in the final phase of the elections and pushed for the “festival of democracy” to be hailed, inviting criticism from home and abroad. Prioritising political agendas in the face of a nationwide crisis, Prime Minister Modi failed to realise the magnitude of the wave that continues to uproot the country. On May 18, 2021, India recorded its highest single day death toll: 4,529 deaths. Yet it is likely that true figures are far greater, with some reports suggesting it could be “two to five times” more than what is being recorded.

The religious factor: The Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela is a pilgrimage festival celebrated by Hindus, held once every 12 years on holy Indian rivers to honour the Hindu myth of the “elixir of immortality”, centred around the belief that bathing in the holy waters grants eternal life and purges the devotees of their sins. Traditionally, the festival is celebrated from January to April, however this year the Government of India pushed the Mela back to April due to fears of a coronavirus outbreak.

Despite there being a spike in cases across the country in the month of April, the festival went ahead, with nearly a million Hindu devotees gathering in the northern Indian city of Haridwar to celebrate Kumbh Mela in what is now being termed a super-spreader event. State-issued Covid-safe protocols were put in place, however it has been reported that mandates around masks, distancing, and producing a negative test result could not be strictly followed due to the lack of number of tests and the overwhelming amount of people. Reports state that the Indian government decided against cancelling this month-long celebration “fearing a backlash” from its predominantly Hindu constituents. The Modi government has always been perceived as a Hindu nationalist government, propagating an outright agenda that hails Hinduism as the supreme religion. By virtue of the stance it has taken, the government has been criticised for its silence over the issue of holding the festival this year and for the lack of pre-emptive measures taken to curb the spread of the virus.

By contrast, a similar gathering took place in New Delhi in 2020, of the Muslim group Tablighi Jamaat. The group faced tremendous flak from the online community that was fuelled by the Modi government’s rhetoric towards the event. These discrepancies in the discourse around two similar super-spreader scenarios must be highlighted. The official reaction varied based purely on religious grounds, which is a serious cause for concern and is symptomatic of a greater political issue – one that foreshadows the rise of a nation ruled based entirely on a religious framework, even at the expense of public health.

India’s fragile health infrastructure

While the country continues to reel from the detrimental effects of the outbreak, its health infrastructure is facing a major crisis. There has been a concerning dearth of beds in hospitals, and patients do not have proper oxygen supply, leading to deaths in states like New Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Haryana. Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, blames the federal government’s improper allocation of oxygen quotas for the shortages in Delhi hospitals. The unavailability of cryogenic tanks in India has also caused problems for the transport of oxygen, and railway and military services have since been deployed by the government to address the issue.

From a critical perspective, this incident reflects a lack of preparedness, and when faced with a dangerous second wave the system started to crumble. Early this year, case numbers were waning, and this led to complacency on the side of both the government and its citizens. The country’s risk management approach is questionable and reflects a clear lack of understanding of precautionary and preventive principles.

Moving forward: Where to from here?

To combat this catastrophic new wave of Covid-19, India must move quickly to vaccinate its citizens. In the QUAD meeting of March 2021, involving the US, Australia, Japan, and India, it was decided that by 2022 India’s vaccination capacity will be increased to produce 1 billion doses. This is imperative considering the country’s current vaccine shortage, wherein low supplies have left many citizens who are eligible for a jab waiting in anticipation. The second wave disproportionately affected younger people, and the government has opened vaccination slots from May 1 covering 18-44 year olds. The two major vaccine makers – the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech – are expected to produce millions of doses in May to meet the rising demands. Furthermore, to combat the issue of oxygen supply, the Indian government airlifted 23 mobile oxygen generating plants from Germany, and oxygen tankers from Singapore.

A noteworthy trend amidst all the chaos is the role of content creators and netizens who have taken to social media to raise awareness about issues and rally support for patients who need oxygen, plasma, or ICU beds. The impact of this movement, made possible by the digital generation, cannot be underestimated. Online presence has accelerated the progress to recovery for many families and continues to offer hope for many more.

Ultimately it was the confluence of several different factors – the new mutations, political and religious issues, negligence and complacency, and a crumbling health infrastructure – that led India into this deadly second wave, and the government and society must reckon with their shortcomings if they are to avoid even further catastrophe. The consequences of inaction would be dire both for India and the world, as the spread of the new variant across the globe threatens hard-won progress everywhere. But with the advancements made so far, the help of the international community and the activism of citizens, there may yet be hope for what India’s future holds.


Sameera Pillai is a Bachelor of Journalism and Communications graduate from the University of New South Wales. Her interests include human rights, climate change and sustainability, and gender issues.