Pandemic puts India in ‘precarious position’

Poonthura fishing village near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, where community transmission of Covid-19 pandemic is reported.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan publicly acknowledged on Friday that community transmission of coronavirus has begun in certain coastal regions of the state. In essence, Pinarayi ‘declassified’ what must be a ‘top secret’ at the all-India level. The chief minister has chosen to be upfront on a sensitive issue, when his peer group is playing safe and is in denial mode. 

But how can a pandemic be fought when the rulers are in denial mode? The fact of the matter is that community transmission began quite some time ago in our country and has begun appearing lately in Kerala, too. Pinarayi has been personally conducting the daily briefings on the march of the pandemic in his parish to educate the public opinion. 

Indeed, how do you fight a pandemic unless the public is aware of the gravity of the crisis? In Kerala, community transmission is limited at present to the fishing villages where social distancing norms are difficult to enforce, as fishermen also happen to be ‘migrant workers’ who go wherever there is good catch available. So, ’triple lockdown’ has become necessary in select coastal areas to prevent the fishermen from travelling to neighbouring states where the pandemic is raging. 

Hasn’t the time come for PM Modi to announce that community transmission has begun? Of course, it is unpleasant news. But the number of infected people crossed the 1 million mark in India on Thursday. 

At this rate, how can one take lightly the prognosis by the hugely prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore that the number of infected cases will exceed 3.5 million by 1st September and could rise as high as 12 million (over 3 million ‘active’ cases and half a million fatalities) by 1st November?    

The IISc study by a group of noted scientists says that by the New Year on 1st January 2021, India would have possibly reached close to 30 million infected cases (over 6 million ‘active’ cases and 1 million fatalities). The pandemic is not expected to ‘peak’ before March next year. 

This is an apocalyptic scenario. The international community anticipates a massive crisis spiralling out of control and is closely watching India, which accounts for one-sixth of humanity. The Newshour programme yesterday on BBC Radio World Service gave top billing to the pandemic ravaging India. The highlights of the discussion were as follows: 

  • The rate at which the infection is going up in India is ‘worrisome’. 
  • There are many more infections that are to be counted beyond the official figures. 
  • Vast cities like Mumbai and Delhi are the worst hit but the pandemic is spreading to other cities and towns too and lockdown is being reimposed in some areas.
  • The situation is ‘absolutely bad’ in Delhi where alongside the pandemic-related issues, there is also the collateral effect on people’s lives. The migrant labourers who are trying to get back to their homes are hard up, as once again the government has stopped the transportation, the trains as well as the bus services. 
  • The number of migrant workers has only increased in Delhi. Most of them want to go back to their homes. The unemployment rate has drastically increased and many industries are refusing to take back their employees. 
  • The grim reality in Delhi is that massive unemployment is leading to hunger, and this is posing a graver challenge than the Covid-19 situation. The government has announced ‘huge schemes and everything, but on the ground those schemes are yet to reach.’ If the help doesn’t reach the people within the month, ‘it will become very difficult to handle the situation.’
  • Overall, there is a sharp increase of cases all over the country and the epidemiologists and scientists are of the opinion that the  government needs to take a strong stand and admit there is community transmission so that steps are taken to see that the epidemic can be brought under control. 
  • Given the number of cases, community transmission is surely happening. The active states are concentrated in a few states and although there is a steady increase of cases all over the country, the ‘alarming increase’ is happening at present in a few states and there too, confined to a few districts. Perhaps, the government does not want to ‘scare the public’ by admitting there is community transmission and this could be one of the reasons behind this denial mode. 
  • The fatality rate has not been high compared to other countries. But this is changing, as more tests are being conducted and more cases come to light and there is also an incidence of acute cases. Plus, the hospitals are ‘getting flooded’ and are increasingly unable to handle the severe cases. Therefore, the fatality rates are going up. 
  • Proportionately, the number of infected cases is relatively low as of now, as compared to the United States and Brazil. But the reality is that India is facing ‘a very precarious situation’. Since the infection cases are going up ‘at a very alarming rate’, the situation can ‘go out of control at any point’ from now onward. 
  • One problem is that people are not taking ‘social distancing’ seriously in the far-flung regions of India. Therefore, it is small comfort that India is doing relatively better than the US or Brazil as of now. The truth is that India is in ‘a very precarious position’ and needs to be ‘very, very careful to make sure that the situation does not explode.’ Things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better in India.  

If this account is anywhere near the truth, our leadership is behaving like an oligarchy twiddling their thumbs, revelling in videoconferences and Twitter exchanges — and politicking — at a time like this. Who are they kidding? The world community must be aware that the Indian people are grappling with an existential crisis and for a foreseeable future, Indian economy will be in doldrums, and its capacity to perform on the ‘global commons’ is severely restricted. 

To my mind, the leadership needs to put all other government business aside and begin to work on controlling the pandemic and saving human lives. All the resources available with the Central Govt must be deployed to this end. India’s credibility as a democratic country is at stake here. The IISc study becomes a benchmark to judge the performance of the government. Searchlights are going to be held by the world community in the weeks and months ahead as the fatality rate starts shooting up and people die like flies.