Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha on the first day of Parliament’s monsoon session, September 14, 2020. Photo: LSTV/PTI
New Delhi: India experienced one of its worst human tragedies in April and May last year, as the delta variant wave of the novel coronavirus spread through the population. Death, injury and illness visited almost every other house in the country, and prompted expressions of concern and grief from around the world.
At the height of the tragedy, people took to social media platforms to arrange for hospital beds, medical oxygen and crucial medicines for each other’s friends and relatives. The Indian government’s hand was not to be seen.
But despite the scale of the crisis and subsequent revelations of underpreparedness, the government has continued to stay in denial of its failures. Chief among them is the big difference between the number of deaths due to COVID-19 in the official record and estimates prepared by multiple independent experts as well as the WHO.
Recently, the Indian government sought to have the WHO’s report on these deaths delayed by 10 years. The report’s publication was delayed, but the WHO is expected to release it this week.
Ahead of its publication, here are five major issues the government has refused to admit in its COVID-19 response, which together define the big picture of India’s experience of the pandemic.
1. Community transmission – Community transmission is said to be underway when a pathogen that causes an infectious disease is spreading among people with no recent travel history, and in the local population. In this phase, it is no longer possible to isolate the source of new infections.
During the second wave (of the delta variant), India registered more than 3 lakh new cases per day for 25 days in April and May 2021. However, a weekly update issued by the WHO in the last week of May 2021 said India had a “cluster of cases”, and not community transmission. The WHO’s update was based on information passed along by the Indian government.
On the other hand, during the omicron variant’s wave in early 2022, a weekly bulletin from India’s genome-sequencing consortium said the novel coronavirus was in community transmission. The Indian government was promptly miffed and the consortium didn’t issue its bulletins for the next three months.
Even during the first wave, in early to mid-2021, government scientists dropped hints that there was community transmission in India, but the government never officially accepted the possibility.
2. Deaths due to lack of oxygen – Thousands upon thousands of people literally gasped for breath owing to a lack of medical oxygen during the second wave. The poor and the rich alike lined up desperately in snaking queues to get a cylinder for a loved one or to refill one. Some were lucky but others died for want of this gas.
Larger hospitals issued SOS statements about their rapidly depleting oxygen supplies and pleaded with governments and oxygen producers for stopgap relief. Some hospitals also reported deaths of COVID-19 patients in their wards as a result.
India’s situation was so precarious that other countries exported oxygen cylinders to the country, with local governments arranging for special trains to transport them. The Supreme Court also conducted daily hearings to monitor the quantities of medical oxygen the government was delivering to hospitals.
But in spite of all these unforgettable scenes, the Union government told Parliament in July 2021 that no one had died due to lack of oxygen.
3. Excess COVID-19 deaths – The single most common issue on which the government has issued denials, via the Press Information Bureau, has been this one (at least five).
There are a number of scientific estimates now to indicate that India had 3-5 million deaths due to COVID-19. According to the soon-to-be-released WHO report, 4 million people died due to COVID-19 in India until December 2021. A study published in The Lancet pegged it to be 4.07 million.
Yet, when the Indian government responded to a report of its issue with the WHO’s estimate, it led with denial – especially of the validity of the WHO’s methodology. Experts, including Murad Banaji, have said however that the government’s explanation holds no water.
Various state governments have also admitted to the Supreme Court of India that they accepted compensation claims in a greater number than the number of COVID-19 deaths they officially recorded. But the government remains in denial, asserting that only 0.5 million people have died of the disease in the country so far.
4. Insufficient genome-sequencing – Genome-sequencing is key to understanding the rise of new variants of the novel coronavirus. It is also an important tool with which scientists can know how a variant is behaving in a given population.
India has submitted the 10th most number of genomic samples (specifically, the data from them) to the international GISAID database. However, this is based on sequencing fewer than 1% of all positive samples within the country. This is bad.
The fact that INSACOG, the genome-sequencing consortium, didn’t issue a weekly bulletin for three months even during the third wave, and beyond, suggested something amiss in the country’s genome-sequencing infrastructure. The Wire Science had already reported in November 2021 that after the second wave, INSACOG’s genome-sequencing rate dropped.
Yet, and as in the case of excess COVID-19 deaths, India’s top health officials have maintained that India is doing very well on the genome-sequencing front.
5. Gains of the first lockdown – At 8 pm on March 23, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown starting from 12 am on March 24. That is, only four hours later, social, welfare, economic, industrial and logistical activities in the entire country shut down.
Among other consequences, tens of thousands of migrant labourers were forced to walk home – hundreds of kilometres in many cases – on foot. Many of them died of heat exposure or starvation on the way. At the same time, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country kept increasing, until a peak in mid-September – fully three months after the lockdown began to ease.
The steep cost of the lockdown prompted many experts to question the lockdown’s gains. While the case load increased, care-seekers couldn’t be treated for other illnesses, couldn’t have surgeries, chemotherapy, kidney dialysis, etc. The informal sector tanked, hunger increased and our grip on other epidemics weakened.
However, the Indian government has made lofty, but unverified, claims about how many lives the lockdown saved. Its 2021 Economic Survey claimed with pride that the lockdown was a big success. In Parliament this year, Prime Minister Modi said the lockdown was a necessary measure that was in line with the WHO’s suggestions.
The WHO’s “stay at home” advice to people was so governments could focus on mitigating the virus’s spread. But the body has never favoured blanket bans on people’s movement – which the lockdown was.