Causes and Effects: Covid-19 Second Wave in India

Note: I am starting a ‘Causes and Effects’ series and this is the first instalment. As the name suggests, in this series, I am going to write about the causes and effects of various contemporary issues. It is not necessary that upcoming installments will be one after the other, so please subscribe to get my posts directly to your mail, it’s free! (if you are on wordpress reader, you may not be able to see the subscription widget, so click here to get to my site and subscribe). If you have any suggestions for topics, feel free to write it in the comments section, or contact me here.

It has been more than a year since the first Covid case was detected in India. Today, we are in the middle of the second wave which is far worse than the first. What has gotten us here? What could have been done to stop it? How has it impacted the rich, the poor, the communities, and women? Let’s try and find it out in this blog.

It all started when a 20 year old female presented to the Emergency Department in General Hospital, Thrissur, Kerala, with a one-day history of dry cough and sore throat in January last year. She had returned from Wuhan a few days ago, and became the first person in India to catch the corona virus. But, there was still some time till the cases rapidly ramped up. We had a total of only 536 cases when the national lockdown was imposed in March. The daily confirmed cases were increasing day-by-day and it took off from June, reaching to a peak of around 97,000 cases per day in September. Then the graph went down for a while to rise up again, stronger than ever. As I write this piece, India has recorded 234,000 fresh cases and 1,314 deaths in the last 24 hours.

With the advantage of hindsight, we can say that India’s fight with the pandemic was poorly managed right from the beginning. We were too late in implementing foreign travel restrictions, and were busy trolling the leader of the opposition for his early warnings on the pandemic. Next, we imposed a draconian and world’s most stringent national lockdown, which forced thousands of migrant laborers to go back to their native places on their feet. When asked about the data of how many laborers died during this phase, the government responded by saying that they don’t have any idea. An RTI application to the railway ministry found out that around 100 of them died only in the Shramik Special Trains run by the Government for the laborers. It has also been one year of the lockdown and we still don’t have a single government report covering its various aspects. A reason for this could be that NO ministry was consulted for such a big decision! Jugal Purohit and Arjun Parmar, two BBC reporters, filed 240 RTI applications and concluded that “… there is no evidence of key experts or government departments being consulted prior to the lockdown being implemented.” This is no surprise considering the brutal Demonetization that happened four years back which was quite similar: no one being consulted and equally ferocious. The sad part is how both of those got normalized so easily. Apart from that, government introduced the three controversial farm laws and bulldozed it through the parliament amidst a furore within the farmers on the road, and opposition in the parliament.

These events were followed by a decline in Covid-19 cases, a matter of surprise even for the experts. Reports over the media tried to speculate the reasons for the decline. This is the only period, I think, that we got distracted and lost the ability to fight the virus. The media distracted us with the SSR case for their TRP, politicians distracted us through different narratives to win the Bihar elections, and we lost our track thinking that the pandemic would now end in a few months despite watching other countries facing the second or third wave even after getting zero cases at one stage. The last point, also called “wishful thinking”, was a main factor for the rise of the second wave. In this difficult period, people wanted to believe that this is over, and declining figures confirmed their bias. I could see this all around me: those who were very cautious in the beginning were becoming too lazy (or tired) to take any precautions at all. As Tim Harford writes in a column, “If the truth is painful enough, we are all capable of clutching at comforting falsehoods.”

So where do we find ourselves today?

Sensex, the stock market index of the most popular Stock Exchange in India – Bombay Stock Exchange – went from 40,000 points in February 2020 to as low as 25,000 points next month, as the pandemic started to spread in the country. Central Banks all around the world started to print money like anything. The idea was to drive down the interest rates so that everyone could borrow cheaply, and spend more and the economy keeps running. A lot of this money found its way into the stock markets of the world, including India’s. The result was, after a sudden drop, Sensex went on to cross record levels. Why am I talking about stock markets here? The point is, India added 55 new billionaires last year when the economy as a whole contracted! As Vivek Kaul points out:

“The poor don’t buy stocks, the rich do. The rally in the stock market has benefitted them tremendously, making them richer… If one looks at the list of the richest Indian billionaires, most of their wealth is in the stock market. And with stock markets rallying big time in 2020-21, their wealth has gone up.”

 

At the same time, Indian middle class went below poverty line and shrank by 32 million! Also, more than 80% of Indians have their savings in FDs and other small saving schemes which are hurt badly by the interest rates going down. So clearly, “the rich got richer and poor got poorer.”

Another effect is job losses on a large scale. Even the unemployement numbers don’t tell us the gravity of the situation (read the brilliant piece by Vivek Kaul showing reality beyond unemployment numbers here). Women are facing more issues and are bearing the brunt of India’s unemployment problem, thus pushing away the dream of gender equality. It’s funny how economics connects two seemingly unlike things.

But, the good part is that we have the vaccines as the only useful weapon at a time when our health system is falling apart. However, there could have been a lot more scope of making better vaccine strategy (vaccinating earlier as Serum Institute was already sitting on millions of vaccine doses in December itself, opening to private players early, and opening up for foreign vaccines, to name a few). Now that we have opened up for foreign vaccines, we can boost vaccination, if we are given foreign cooperation and government removes price ceilings for private vaccination. Its implications will be HUGE. As Ajay Shah writes in a column, “At the present run rate of 3 million doses a day, we will get to 1 billion people vaccinated in about 600 days. If we are able to achieve half of the UK/US rates (i.e. to 0.5 doses per 100 people per day), this will come down to 190 days.”

All in all, we need three things to fight this virus: individual, governmental, and foreign cooperation. For that, all of us need to be patient, and governments need to be open-minded. Absence of any of these things will not bring about any change in the dreadful sight of crematoriums in India. And covering them with tin walls won’t do much either.

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