Himanta Biswa Sarma. Photo: PTI
Assam has officially entered the second wave of its COVID-19 outbreak, as the total number positive cases in the previous week (April 10-16) stood at 3,387 and daily new cases had shot to 1,000 and beyond. In the epidemic’s first wave last year, the state experienced this magnitude of total daily cases only from around June 30, after having registered the first case on March 31.
The Press Information Bureau’s April 16 bulletin this year indicates that Assam has been successful in containing the virus on multiple fronts. Consider the following statistics: with 2,22,367 cases in all, the state ranks 17, third lowest; the recovery rate of 97% is the highest in the country, 10% above the national average; Assam has the lowest percentage of active cases (2.2%); and most importantly the state’s case fatality rate is 0.5%, only below Kerala (0.4%).
For a state like Assam, these are impressive statistics. The WHO recognised this much in a feature story in which the international organisation praised the state’s frontline workers for their efforts. But at the same time, many news outlets credited the success entirely to Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state health minister, so much so that he was made a hero of Assam’s COVID-19 fight.
However, the state response took a big turn for the worse earlier this year, when the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) elections were held. Sarma sidelined his duty as health minister and wished to win the BTC for the Bharatiya Janata Party. In fact, election campaigns by all parties in this period made a complete mockery of the COVID-19 protocols. A few months later, the state assembly election date was announced, and once again the parties threw caution to the wind and organised big meetings and rallies. Sarma in fact went from being the “hero” to the epitome of complacency when he said said in an interview: “In Assam, there is no corona now and you don’t need to wear a mask.”
The state’s initial dynamism and administrative efficiency had been abandoned for electoral gain, and in complete neglect of the second wave knocking on Assam’s door.
Why must the state revamp its strategy now? Although Assam did manage to control its first wave last year well, it failed to capitalise. Fights are not won until victory is complete.
First, the state should have gone for a mass vaccination drive with greater enthusiasm once, the Indian government approved the Covishield and Covaxin shots for distribution in the country were rolled out in the country. But the state government failed to do so. As of April 15, Assam had administered only 51 doses of vaccine per thousand citizens, much below the national average of 92.4 and second lowest in the country. Ensuring better vaccination coverage could have meant a more prepared population ahead of the second wave.
Second: experts, public health specialists and epidemiologists around the country have reported that the second wave is spreading much faster and that the reproductive ratio is higher. Also, unlike the first wave, it is spreading more among younger people, including children aged one to five.
Note that the recently published fifth instalment of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) indicated that Assam’s children are at great risk of malnutrition and anaemia. According the data, among those children under the age of 5 years surveyed, 35.3% were stunted, 21.7% were suffering from wasting and 32.8% were underweight – all among the worst in the country.
In addition, more than two-thirds (68.4%) of children aged 6-59 months were anaemic, 32.7% higher than in NFHS-4 (2015-2016). These malnourished and anaemic children have lower immunity compared to healthy children, making the former more vulnerable to existing as well as newer strains of SARS-CoV-2. Studies have also found that anaemia can be associated with severe COVID-19 infections, which in turn increase the risk of death.
Third: the NFHS-5 findings also indicate that Assam’s children are struggling with hunger. Only 8% of all children aged 6-23 months in Assam are consuming a minimum acceptable diet, down from 8.9% in 2015-2016. When children don’t have a balanced and healthy diet, even a minimally viable one, their ability to survive a severe infection of COVID-19 becomes very limited.
Taken together, the state of Assam, with its higher proportion of malnourished and anaemic children, must take the second wave of its COVID-19 epidemic very seriously. Although the government can’t undo the harm it has caused to its people in the last four months, by neglecting the biggest health crisis, it must go into ‘mission mode’ immediately and ensure better vaccination coverage, better testing and that COVID-19 protocols are followed properly. This is the only way the state can repeat its success against the first wave and protecting its people, especially its children.
Madhurjya Deka has a postgraduate degree in applied economics from the Centre for Development Studies (JNU), Thiruvananthapuram, and currently works as a research analyst in CTIER Pune. The views expressed here are the author’s own.