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India faces reckoning as pandemic spirals out of control

The nation of 1.3 billion is going to be more economically unequal, socially unstable and geopolitically challenged after Covid-19

India faces reckoning as pandemic spirals out of control

Protesters wearing protective suits and masks display placards while laying on the street near the Election Commission office in Kolkata on April 7 during a demonstration demanding the halt of the ongoing state legislative election and campaign rallies amid the rising number of Covid-19 cases. (Photo: AFP)

In the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, India has missed the forest for the trees. And a second wave has caught the nation napping.

On March 24, 2020, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed India under a complete Covid-19 lockdown, the South Asian nation had only 390 cases and nine deaths.

But businesses are now open across most of the nation even as cases hit a record daily high with 103,558 new infections on April 4. On April 6, India registered more than 107,000 cases in the space of 24 hours.

As India nears 13 million cases since the pandemic began, its death toll had climbed to 166,892 as of April 8. Active cases number more than 910,000.

Last year it took 76 days for the single-day rise to reach a peak of 97,894 on Sept. 17, but this time the daily increase skyrocketed and took a mere 25 days (March 10 to April 4) to reach the milestone of 100,000 infections.

Eight states — Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat — account for 81 percent of the new cases, according to health officials.

Mumbai, the nation's financial center, reported 10,030 new cases on April 6, its second-highest number so far.

The spurt in infections is attributed to India's inability to implement mandatory Covid-19 health protocols, including social distancing, in its thickly packed population of 1.3 billion, most of whom eke out a living in the informal economy, which is enormous and accounts for 80 percent of the country’s 461 million workers, or 369 million.

Once the lockdown and health restrictions were eased, people were forced to act normally with the ubiquitous masks on their faces to make ends meet.

Asking millions in the slums of Indian towns and cities to maintain social distancing norms became a cruel joke. Overcrowding of around 9.1 million migrant workers from various parts of the country resulted in social distancing not being followed, putting the lives of these workers at risk.

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Since drinking water is conspicuous by its absence among a large section of the toiling masses, it was utopian to expect them to wash hands repeatedly with soap and water.

People began to conduct large public gatherings like weddings, movie houses and gyms were opened, and political parties organized mammoth rallies in poll-bound states. 

The country’s top leadership and opposition leaders were seen shuttling between poll-bound states to garner support from their respective parties, addressing crowds of thousands and ignoring Covid protocols.

The surge in cases came during polling in four states — Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala — and Pondicherry, a federally ruled territory.

Though the central government doled out financial sops to tide over the hard times, the jubilant mood was limited to Dalal Street, where India’s stock market is located in Mumbai. It did nothing to revitalize the sagging economy.

Workers in the informal sector were left in the lurch as the benefits of bailout packages did not percolate down, forcing them to return to their workstations at export-driven clusters, manufacturing hubs, precious gem units, agrarian markets, the real estate sector and on pavements when lockdown and health restrictions were eased.

Those in the informal sector eat and live at their place of work and, unlike the formal sector, there is no one to keep a tab on their wages, living conditions, working hours and social security nets.

As its public health expenditure is among the lowest in the world, India lacked the wherewithal to curb the spread of the virus effectively at grassroots level.

In the latest government budget, the expenditure on health care is a mere 1.6 percent of GDP. Due to the low quality and erratic nature of services, public health facilities are underused.

India started its vaccination drive on Jan. 16, prioritizing health workers. The second phase covered senior citizens. And in the third stage starting April 6, people under the age of 45 are being vaccinated.

Despite all the fanfare, the number of people vaccinated was a mere 90 million as of April 7, which is minuscule by Indian demographic standards and unbecoming for the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world.

Though Prime Minister Modi displayed confidence in Covid-19 vaccination by accepting a shot publicly, citizens were not convinced and were skeptical about the drugs.

On the regulatory framework, India’s decision to fall back on colonial legislation, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, to improve public safety in the case of an outbreak did not yield the desired results.

The imperial legislation stressed preventing the transmission by bestowing wide powers in the hands of state governments, penalizing offenders at the same time.

The act bans general meetings, restricts assembly, shuts down schools and colleges and asks companies to implement work from home as a norm.

In another legal move, the federal government delegated the power of the Interior Ministry to the Health Ministry under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

This delegation empowered the Health Ministry to regulate the sale of masks, sanitizers and gloves, which were made essential goods under the Essential Commodity Act, 1955, to prevent black marketing and hoarding.

Thus, India lacked a consolidated and realistic legal framework which made the health concerns and financial stability of its citizens a priority.

To compound the situation, a new “double mutant” variant of the coronavirus was discovered by the Health Ministry. The ministry later said the variant had not been found in enough numbers to account for the recent rise in cases in the country.

Federal Health Minister Harsh Vardhan also accepted that India failed to follow Covid-19 health protocols. Typical of a politician, he blamed the people’s laxity to follow measures such as wearing masks to combat the pandemic.

By all indications, India is going to be more economically unequal, socially unstable and geopolitically challenged in post-pandemic days.

The International Monetary Fund has predicted hard days for India and the Philippines among all economies. Both these Asian nations saw their GDP shrink by about 10 percent last year.

In the coming days, daily wage earners in the unorganized sector will pay a heavy price, but those in the organized sector will not be in a happy position either.

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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