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.