« Back to articlePrint this article

India Sitting on COVID Time Bomb

August 12, 2021 07:32 IST

Whether the third wave will ravage us depends on the pace of vaccinations, careful and calibrated opening up of establishments, and a strategy to contain the spread in specific states or pockets, points out Ramesh Menon.

IMAGE: Healthcare workers walk to far-flung and rain-affected areas in Uttarkashi, Uttarkhand, to administer COVID-19 vaccines, August 10, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

India is sitting over a COVID-19 time bomb it does not understand.

Will the third wave of COVID-19 once again paralyse the country putting pressure on its health services as we witnessed with horror in the second wave?

Why have so many states suddenly witnessing a surge of cases?

What about the economy, jobs, shops, stock market, and the opening of educational institutions?

Too many questions. No answers.

No one knows when the pandemic will end. Not even astrologers who are interestingly very silent!

For herd immunity to happen, it will take a couple of years.

IMAGE: Vaccination by roadside in Guwahati, August 5, 2021. Photograph: Lal Singh/ANI Photo

The fear of the third wave is real with India's vaccination programme stuttering with a shortage of doses.

According to the Co-WIN dashboard, National Commission on Population, only around 11 percent of the Indian population has been fully vaccinated while 28 percent have been partially vaccinated.

In the United States, 49% are fully vaccinated as it had planned it well in advance shopping for enough doses.

In the United Kingdom, it is around 55 percent. Again, advance planning was done.

India relied too much on producing its own vaccine and did not shop for vaccines when the world was doing it.

Present indications show that at the present rate of vaccination, we may not finish vaccinating our population even in the middle of next year.

IMAGE: Workers pack dismantled beds as COVID care centres wind up in New Delhi following a decrease in cases at the CWG village in New Delhi, July 6, 2021. Photograph: Rahul Singh/ANI

We have to prepare for an uncertain future.

The third wave, predicted by the Indian Council of Medical Research sometime in August, may not be the last.

Nothing today is as important as beefing up the country's health infrastructure. Let us not lose the lesson from the first and second wave.

The Human Development Report 2020 says India has eight hospital beds for 10,000 people. In comparison, China has 40 beds. We have a long way to go.

There is so much policy chatter about the economy as if it can grow when death is ravaging the countryside and businesses all over are struggling to survive the roller-coaster effects of the pandemic.

Health has to be India's new priority.

There has to be a fair and equitable system of healthcare evenly spread out.

Dr Gagandeep Kang, the highly respected microbiologist and virologist, says that the third wave impact will depend on how well we follow Covid norms. Dr Kang warns that no vaccine is 100 percent effective and cannot protect you for life.

Variants will occur and spread fast and ultimately it will just become a seasonal virus in the future, she says.

IMAGE: Vaccination in Thiruvananthapuram, July 22, 2021. Photograph: Gopa Kumar/ANI Photo

With its COVID-19 death rates low, Kerala has shown what a robust healthcare system can do to save lives. It did not come up overnight. It was built over decades.

Kerala has a death rate of only 0.3 percent from Covid infections, the lowest in India.

Dr Kang was right when she said that India needs to look at how Kerala has built its healthcare system over the years and how it could be replicated in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and others.

But there has to be a political will for that.

We also need to remove our coloured politicised lens when looking at something like a pandemic as it affects all and does not distinguish between classes and political ideologies you nurse.

In a disaster of this kind, there is no place for politics of discriminating one state from the other just because the political dispensation is different. Even the courts have said that.

IMAGE: A market, in Kolkata, August 1, 2021. Photograph: Utpal Sarkar/ANI Photo

Dr Randeep Guleria, director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, says that everything depends on vaccinations as it protects us against major strains and will not be able to do much damage.

Dr Srinath Reddy, chairman, Public Health Foundation of India, says that if India succeeds in reaching its target of 100 percent vaccination of adults by December this year, and simultaneously enforces Covid-appropriate behaviour, future waves could be prevented.

However, this sounds like a Utopian dream.

Look at tourist spots buzzing with desperate travellers behaving as if there was no tomorrow.

Do not forget scenes outside liquor shops where social distancing seemed a joke.

Look at the desperation of political leaders who want to open religious pilgrimages despite the Supreme Court's direction to be careful.

Crowded religious functions continue with ministers not even wearing a mask.

After the Kumbh defied Covid norms, the infection rate In Uttarakhand reportedly went up by 1,800 percent! Think of other places which got infected with the returnees.

At the moment it is not even enforced at crowded unmanageable vaccination centres where people desperately gather hoping to get a shot.

IMAGE: Visitors visit the National Zoological Park in New Delhi after it opened for the public after an ease in COVID-19 induced restrictions, August 1, 2021. Photograph: Prem Singh/ANI Photo

Instead of going to battle against the pandemic, the government focussed on data fudging, living in denial, and hoped the pandemic would die a natural death.

Right from February 2020, the government chose not to listen to some of its best health experts who kept warning about how India would be grappling with lakhs of cases if it did not course correct.

Even the Indian Medical Association complained that the government was not listening to its suggestions and was making decisions ignoring ground realities.

Numerous reports and health experts have sounded the warning that the third wave may affect children who are not yet vaccinated.

They have called for tweaking the system in hospitals as children cannot be left alone even for a moment. They will need constant attention and care.

Hospitals will have to make arrangements for a relative to be at their side all through the treatment.

Dr Sanjay Rai, principal investigator, Vaccine Safety and Efficacy Trial at AIIMS, Delhi, warns that the human race will have to live with the virus for a long time to come.

Being fast movers, variants can override vaccines says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is reason to worry. The virus will keep mutating.

Variants can also resist antibodies. That is why the need to have booster shots is now being increasingly talked about.

With great planning, India on April 5 this year, vaccinated 43,00,966 of its citizens. A month later on May 9, the rate plummeted by 84 percent. Surprised? Need not be. India seemingly wanted to create a world record.

IMAGE: A BrihanMumbai healthcare worker administers a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to a senior citizen in the presence of Mumbai Mayor Kishori Pednekar, left, during a door-to-door vaccination drive for sick and bedridden people at Currey Road in central Mumbai, August 10, 2021. Photograph: PTI Photo

India ignored the lessons it should learn from the first wave and paid dearly for it in the second wave where every second family you knew had a sorry tale to relate.

Let us learn from the second wave how important it is to urgently revamp healthcare systems both in rural and urban India, increase its oxygen storage capacity, pay health workers well and on time, strictly enforce Covid prevention norms and vaccinate as many as possible quickly and effectively.

In the longer run, we need more medical colleges that are world class to manage hospitals that need to be built on a war footing.

The World Health Organisation recommends that there should be a doctor-population ratio of 1:1,000. In India, it is around 1:1,456.

Obviously, there is a serious shortage of doctors. Many just go abroad after their medical education wanting to pursue research or work in better conditions.

India is on test. The third wave will tell us if we learned any lessons in the last 17 months.

Ramesh Menon -- author, award-winning journalist, editor of The Leaflet, educator, and documentary film-maker -- is the author of Modi Demystified: The Making of a Prime Minister.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/