Opinion and Editorial

Second wave a humbling moment for Indian leaders

A Sreenivasa Reddy
Filed on April 28, 2021
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.


How did we get to where we got? Everyone is pointing fingers at the government for its inability to strategise and prepare for the return of the virus.

Bewilderment, shock, despair, helplessness. No words to express the trauma and the tragedy unfolding in India in the most devastating way possible. The second coming of the coronavirus has paralysed the country and numbed its people. The ruling elites were caught off guard by the lethal outbreak. They swaggered not long ago that they won the war against the virus. Now they have no place to hide their faces. Embarrassment is too little a word to describe the enormity of their plight as they stood exposed before the world community.

How did we get to where we got? Everyone is pointing fingers at the government for its inability to strategise and prepare for the return of the virus. Is it fair to blame the government alone for the mess? Is not every citizen who thought Indians are uniquely wired to withstand the deadly virus responsible for it?

Before the latest breakout, we had many discussions in the newsroom at the end of which we declared India has somehow cracked the virus after the rapidly falling daily cases and fatalities. At that time India had no vaccination programme to boast of and social distancing and masking were nearly non-existent. The falling cases, we believed, could only be attributed to herd immunity attained due to a prolonged exposure to the virus. There were a few serological studies which backed this assumption. One of them said over 50 per cent of Indians acquired immunity through natural exposure to the virus. Even a government-sponsored study too said over a quarter of the population had developed anti-bodies against the pathogen. A lot of Indians bought into this theory and dropped their guard. The government too fell for this myth hook, line and sinker and started preparing for revving up engines of economy which had slowed down considerably due to lockdowns at the peak of the virus. But this gullibility turned out to be costly and deadly.

The worst is not over yet. There will be a steady rise in cases and deaths until it reaches its peak somewhere in the middle or end of May. According to Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics, University of Michigan, the daily new cases will reach up to 500k to 800k at the peak. The daily fatalities can rise up to 5,000 a day. In an interview with Karan Thapar of thewire.in, she said May will witness peaks in fresh cases and deaths and it could be the cruellest month yet in pandemic. She argued the authorities should have got alerted when there was an uptick in cases in February and cracked down on political and religious gatherings. Failure to see it coming was a costly and avoidable mistake.

Even as alarm bells were ringing on the virus front, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah were hunkered down in West Bengal turning up Didi Didi rhetoric in their desperate bid to seize one of last outposts of opposition defiance. This was avoidable as the survival of the central government was not dependent on the outcome of this election.

The BJP government is at the receiving end of flak for misreading the situation. Complacency and hubris are the key words in the critics’ arsenal. Premature declarations of victory have only fostered a misplaced sense of accomplishment. No plan B was put in place in case the situation that seemed ebbing returns back. This has also fed into what is dubbed as hubris which, according to Wikipedia, describes a quality of extreme or excessive pride or dangerous overconfidence, often in combination with arrogance. This quality has somehow got associated with the BJP government and its prima donnas — PM Modi and his home minister Amit Shah. The duo, according to public perception and anecdotal accounts in Indian media, are the ultimate decision makers. The present situation is a shot in the arm for critics who are raring to hit back at the perceived hubris of the two all-powerful players.

The ruling party has been busy promoting strongman politics for several years now. This muscular world view does not relish the idea of any weakness. The arrogant way the health minister responded to former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s suggestions on the virus response even after the latest breakout shows what is wrong with the present dispensation. The double mutant virus should be a humbling experience and it should also be moment for a new beginning.

Another issue the critics have flagged is vaccination should have been ramped up in February and March before the latest breakout.

But vaccines at the moment are in short supply the world over. India is currently administering around three million doses a day on average. It will remain that way for at least a month or two before more supplies come in. Attaining herd immunity through rapid vaccination is just impossible. India needs to administer nearly two billion doses to vaccinate 70-75 per cent of population — an estimated requirement for herd immunity. This will take several months to happen. Vaccines are not an immediate solution. Rapid preventive measures alone can save lives and prevent the spread of the virus. Currently only two per cent of the population is fully vaccinated and imagine how much time it would take to bring that to 75 per cent.

But is it fair to play politics now? True there have been colossal failings on the part of the government. But it’s no time for recrimination and political bloodletting. The opposition-ruled states too betrayed the same misplaced overconfidence. The Delhi provincial government led by Arvind Kejiriwal is also guilty of premature proclamations of victory. So, it is more of a collective failure of elite who were only too eager to come back to the pre-pandemic life. So, it is time to close ranks and fight the war-like situation bravely and resolutely.

The fight has to go on until we vanquish this zoonotic pandemic. But how long will this last? It could be four years or even more if epidemiologists this paper spoke to recently are to be believed. One good news. Even as India is batting the shortage of oxygen, the Nasa rover on Mars managed to produce breathable O2, giving hopes of regenerating life on an alien planet.


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