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Chaos reigns as India battles Covid-19 confusion

Public indifference and mixed signals from the government are hampering the country's response to the pandemic

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: March 04, 2021 05:00 PM GMT

Updated: March 05, 2021 10:12 AM GMT

Chaos reigns as India battles Covid-19 confusion

A health worker inoculates a Hindu holy man with a Covid-19 vaccine at the BAPS Yogiji Maharaj Hospital in Ahmedabad on March 4. (Photo: AFP)

India's battle against Covid-19 has been confused, if not chaotic. No one is sure when India will complete vaccination against the pandemic or if all Indian adults will ever get it.

As the spread of Covid-19 cases is still a concern, officials present vaccination as the only right step to eradicate the contagion. But not all are sure and the general public acts as if not bothered by these discussions.

In any case, Prime Minister Narendra Modi got himself vaccinated on March 1. He announced it in a tweet, with an appeal to all “who are eligible” to take it and “make India Covid-19 free.” But such missives can be best described as rhetoric.

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What began on March 1 is the marathon second phase. From Jan. 16, the government had launched a massive rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations, especially for health workers. The ambitious second round aims to provide health security to those above the age of 60. Will it help the situation?

According to government data, the Covid-19 tally in India surpassed 11.1 million on March 1 with 15,510 new infections. Active cases were 168,627, registering an increase for the fifth consecutive day.

Data shows that despite efforts and claims, the pandemic has not stopped spreading. But why so?

One ready answer is people's indifference to the virus, notwithstanding government campaigns in all possible media channels, including social media. The general public refuses to fear coronavirus as something life-threatening.

The death toll had risen to 157,157, with 106 new fatalities, in the 24 hours between Feb. 28 and March 1. An average of 17,000 new cases have been reported since March started.

"We are getting trapped in an endless cycle," says Ramakanta Shanyal in the eastern state of West Bengal. He says the main reason could be "people's negligence about social distancing."

"In many second-tier towns and smaller hamlets, people do not even recognize the existence of a pandemic. Life is as usual and callous for them. Even the mandatory face mask has vanished. Whom should we blame for spreading the infection?"

Echoing this view, Assam-based educationist Tuhina Sen says: “Most religious centers and places of worship are turning into potential hotspots. Tourism is returning to normal, particularly as harsh winter months are fading away. Various leisure activities, eating outside and weddings are almost back in full swing.”

The chaotic handling of things comes to light as most states and the Central Board of School Education have forced students from grades nine to 12 to be present in schools to take examinations.

"When high school students come for exams, the social distance is only a distant dream. Everyone seems clueless and confused," laments a father of two school-going children in New Delhi.

However, some states canceled exams and allowed students to take online exams from their homes. Following complaints, some schools in New Delhi also allowed online exams for certain subjects.

These mixed signals are an expression that the authorities themselves are confused about protocols and norms to follow.

The federal government also allowed the opening of cinemas from Feb. 1, with guidelines on social distancing, face masks, sanitization and thermal screening at the entry points. But rush-hour cinema goers seldom follow these guidelines.

Besides, India is passing through a massive election season. Campaigns for April-May state elections have started in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

"If you see electioneering, mass campaigning and rallies; there is no fear of the pandemic. Mega public rallies are being organized in every state,” says political commentator Vidyarthi Kumar.

Prime Minister Modi himself will perhaps be addressing a mega rally on March 7 in West Bengal. "So, where are the standard operating procedures and Covid protocols?" Kumar wonders.

On the whole, the complexities of the battle against Covid have many shades. Some remain skeptical about the efficacy of the vaccines. Others think social distancing and face masks are not good enough to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

Opposition Congress MP Manish Tewari said recently: "The government has politically misused the Covid-19 pandemic in its entirety. The controversy over the vaccine is its latest manifestation. Who is going to get himself vaccinated with a vaccine that has question marks over its reliability?"

Tewari was referring to criticism that one of the two vaccines used in India has not completed mandatory trials. Confusion also remains about the price of the vaccines at private hospitals and their free dosages in government hospitals.

The government has allowed private hospitals to charge 250 rupees (US$3.40) per dosage. But how will one decide where to go for vaccination — government hospitals or private clinics?

However, in eastern Bihar state, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, after he got the first shot of the vaccine on March 1, announced that it would be free in Bihar’s private and government hospitals.

Enthusiastic federal Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, a physician-turned-politician, tweeted stressing India’s vaccine-producing capacity.

"Numerous other vaccines are in different stages of development in the country. From being the pharmacy of the world, we are now emerging as the #COVID19Vaccine manufacturing hub of the world."

India has supplied the vaccine to various countries including its Asian neighbors. While India “gifted” the vaccine to Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Oman and Afghanistan, several countries like Brazil and South Africa procured it on a commercial basis.

"We will continue to take forward the global vaccine supply initiative and cover more countries in a phased manner," said Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Anurag Srivastava.

But when will India end its confusion?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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