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OP-ED: Here comes the third wave

  • Published at 06:44 am August 13th, 2021
west bengal covishield covid-19
Covishield is taken door to door in rural West Bengal, India REUTERS

India is staggering through one of the worst years in memory, and there seems to be no silver lining

Red flags are popping up all over India to indicate that Covid-19 is about to roar back to wreak its devastation all over again. 

Epidemiologists refer to the average number of people who get infected from each patient as the “R” value. It’s not the best way to make pandemic policy, but it’s relatively easy to understand, because, when it goes above one, the disease is understood to be spreading. This week, eight states in India shot above that ominous benchmark.

Within that broader picture, there are even more worrying signs. For just one example, earlier this week, Kerala (which is one state where the numbers are always reliable) announced it has tallied over 40,000 “breakthrough” cases. This accounts for victims who have become infected despite being fully vaccinated, or having already contracted and recovered from the coronavirus previously. 

It’s very early yet, but this could be a potential warning sign that there’s yet another deadly, and elusive Covid-19 variant on the loose.

Earlier this year, the emergence of what’s now known as “the Delta variant” hammered India right to its breaking point. At that time, the columnist Mihir Sharma wrote in Bloomberg “as is typical in India, official arrogance, hyper-nationalism, populism, and an ample dose of bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis.” 

Fast forward some months, and the situation is unchanged. None of those factors have been relieved, and nothing seems to have been learned. 

One additional factor that Sharma did not mention is actually integral to the emergency that is on our hands now. That is denial and obfuscation. 

The administrative frameworks in both the individual states and the centre are blatantly fudging the numbers, and relying on the public to forget what it endured. 

Thus, at the height of the catastrophe in my home state of Goa in May, the High Court was moved to apologize for what was happening despite its interventions. “We are very sorry. We failed collectively. We owe an apology to all the people. Last night 20 died (for want of oxygen) in the Goa Medical College and Hospital” said Justice Sonak. 

But barely two months later, the health minister officially recorded in the state assembly that “at no point in time did the oxygen supplies at GMC run out of stock, and thus no death has been reported to have (been) caused due to the non-supply of oxygen.” 

This doublespeak on my literal doorstep in India’s smallest state has played out with unimaginable destructiveness all across the country. 

That is why, according to New Delhi, there have been slightly less than 430,000 deaths registered due to Covid-19 since the pandemic began, but the latest national survey from YouGuv-Mint-CPR Millennial says the number of casualties is closer to an astonishing 14 million. 

Due to the fact that official statistics are being grossly manipulated in plain sight, these surveyors chose the innovative technique of directly asking over 10,000 city-dwellers in 203 towns and cities about their pandemic experience, and whether they had lost a friend or family member due to Covid-19. 

The results are staggering, and disgraceful. They depict the statistical landscape of abject state failure. 17% of the respondents told YouGuv-Mint-CPR Millennial that a family member died due to Covid 19, and 60% suffered the loss of a friend. 46% reported someone connected to them had perished due to the lack of oxygen or the right medicines, and full 60% said that they -- or a relative, or neighbour -- faced problems getting access to a hospital bed or oxygen cylinder.

Will things be better this time around? We are on the verge of finding out, but what we already know from the experiences of many other countries is that there are only two factors that can stem the losses: Vaccines and good masks along with social distancing.

What happens with these successive waves of infection is that they sweep very fast -- up to now the Delta variant has been most infectious -- through the sections of the population that have not yet been fully vaccinated. That is over a billion Indians, because, currently only just over 7% of the country has had both doses.

Even if the government manages to double its pace of vaccination, it still leaves over 41% of the population vulnerable. There is no vaccine approved for anyone under 18 in India, and none is on the cards either. 

This means that alongside the threat of the “third wave” is the certitude that hundreds of millions of children and teenagers won’t go to school and resume anything like normal life for at least another year, perhaps two.

It is certainly difficult to face such unremittingly bad news, as we stagger through one of the most godawful years in the memory of collective humanity. 

Unfortunately, there is no silver lining. 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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