COVID-19 second wave: Tough but region-specific measures are needed to halt virus surge

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit India particularly hard, with daily infections surpassing the peaks of the first wave at 200,000-plus a day for the past few days. India has become the pacesetter in global infections. The saving grace is that the variants doing the rounds seem to be less lethal, though more transmissible.

Though mortality rates are lower, that can hardly be a reason for complacence. The Central and the  state governments must move more quickly than they have to contain a potentially disastrous situation. Before getting to possible actions, one point needs to be made forcefully. The default option of both authorities – across the board – and sections of the citizenry is to blame the people at large: for congregating in numbers; for failing to socially or physically distance; for failing to wear masks; and for other myriad failures.

This is an unhelpful way of looking at the situation, because many people have few options in many cases; they are weary of restrictions; and, critically, they react to signals governments give. By February, the message going out was that the country had the pandemic under control despite the long festive season, despite the winter and so on. That is what the people responded to.

The message should unambiguously have been: Hang on, we’re nowhere near out of the woods yet. Get vaccinated, but still follow the safety protocols. And the message should have been delivered not in the form of homilies, but by example.

Still, all that’s behind us. What should be the way forward? First, of course, the Union government has to get over its denial mode and look to getting the vaccination programme, first, on track, and then upgrade it massively. Given the evidence that people under 40 are being significantly affected by the new strains, the vaccination programme must be expanded to cover all adults, as soon as supply wrinkles are ironed out. That must happen on a priority, operation-warp-speed basis.

At the same time, the old safety protocols must be revived, punitively if need be. The decision to unconscionably draw out the Bengal elections was criminally reckless, but with four phases to go beginning today, followed by 22, 26 and 29 April, the restrictions put in place by the Election Commission after the Calcutta High Court’s prompting must be stringently implemented and policed.

Another round of elections has begun. The Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections began on 15 April, and the remaining phases are on 19, 26 and 29 April. Given the rapidly escalating scale of the pandemic in the state, this could be a major super-spreader event. From all accounts, even the capital, Lucknow, is struggling not just to provide care to the stricken, but also to respectfully deal with the dead. Western Uttar Pradesh, networked to the National Capital Region, itself in a state of siege, may escape the worst of the horrors. The imagination fails when one thinks of the vast rural expanses of the huge state, which will be essentially left to their own devices with not even a simulacrum of a healthcare infrastructure to fall back on.

There is the additional fear of pilgrims either returning from the Kumbh at Haridwar or transiting to other places. Uttar Pradesh is ticking. It has to ramp up vaccinations, police the elections closely, and make sure all safety protocols are maintained.

Similarly, it is likely that Bengal will have to put in place serious restrictive measures once the elections are over. Experts are predicting that infection numbers, 6,900-odd on Friday, could balloon to 20,000 by the end of the month. Regardless of all other considerations, the state government and the ECI must work together to ruthlessly implement public safety measures, whilst keeping their messaging cogent. Needless to say, those campaigning in the next three days will have to lead the charge – or will have to be made to do so.

Elsewhere, measures to contain the second wave, which is overwhelming the health infrastructure in key states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, and the National Capital, must be allowed to meet their situations contextually. What will suit Maharashtra will certainly not work for either Delhi, at one end, or, Chhattisgarh, at the other.

Certainly, while the states must be left to decide on how to tackle their particular situations, it is clear that further super-spreader events have to be banned till further notice – whether they are of the electoral or religious varieties.

Restrictions will inevitably hurt people; some more than others. But the best way to ensure safe, long-term normality is immediate-term sacrifices. Perhaps it is time for the Union government to think more seriously of implementing direct cash transfers to the most needy, as so many economists have been advising. It will alleviate distress and help create demand. Even the US seems to have ditched enduring free-market shibboleths.



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