May 02, 2021

Covid-19 Second Wave: An Unprecedented Crisis Inflicted by Govt Hubris, Mishandling

INDIA is reeling under a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with thousands of people being thrown from pillar to post for hospital beds and supply of medical oxygen and life-saving medicines. The country’s daily infection tally and death toll have surpassed previous highs and are touching new peaks. SOS calls from patients, relatives and even hospitals for the supply of oxygen and essential medicines have fallen on deaf ears. As the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo remained busy campaigning to fulfill their maddening desire of winning elections, thousands of people succumbed to the virus in the absence of adequate healthcare facilities and medical oxygen. Complacency after the first wave and mismanagement by the government made the second wave so deadly. States after states are reporting a higher number of cases and the healthcare infrastructure has virtually collapsed.

The national capital is the worst affected in the second wave. The positivity rate hovered around 30 per cent in the last 10 days of April, meaning almost every third person undergoing the test is infected. The daily mortality number has crossed 300 on most days with the overall toll crossing 15,000. At the same time, the city’s testing facilities also took a hit resulting in a lesser number of RT-PCR tests (below 50,000 a day) and report getting delayed by more than 48 hours. Delhi was testing more than a lakh people daily till April 15 and the absence of quarantine facilities has added to the virtual collapse of the test-trace-isolate-treat regime. The shortage of oxygen faced by hospitals in Delhi also contributed to avoidable deaths of critical care patients in Sir Ganga Ram and Jaipur Golden Hospitals. The crematoriums were struggling to cope with the load and relatives were made to wait for more than 20 hours. The Delhi government has extended a weeklong curfew by another week till May 3 to cope with the situation.

There was no semblance of responsible governance either from the Aam Aadmi Party dispensation or the central government has already usurped the powers of the former through the GNCTD (Amendment) Act 2021. There are at least four things that the Delhi government must ensure at this time of crisis. The buffer stock of oxygen for the city’s hospitals has to be replenished on a war footing. Secondly, the near absence of oxygen-supported beds and quarantine facilities are adding to the pressure of the hospitals as they couldn’t concentrate on the patients who need critical care. Thirdly, testing facilities have to be normalised as it is being a crucial component of tracing and isolation. Fourthly, the Delhi government must start independent negotiations with the two vaccine suppliers to keep pace with the timeline of May 1, for vaccinating those in the 18-45 age group. The government has started cash transfers for Covid-19-positive construction workers but this has to be widened to other sections of informal sector workers as their livelihood is affected due to the curfew. Needless to add that the growing demand for oxygen and certain medicines have added to the tendencies of black marketing which the government has to put a stop to. (Rajeev Kunwar and Aniyan P V)

Punjab, too, has witnessed a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases recently. SAS Nagar, Ludhiana, Bathinda, Patiala and Jalandhar are the worst-affected districts. About 30 people died in two hospitals in Patiala and Amritsar due to lack of oxygen, even though the state government claimed there was no shortage. The demand for oxygen currently stands at 250 MT per day and is expected to go up to 300 MT in the coming days on account of surging cases. Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh has requested the centre for an increase in the state’s oxygen quota urgently. The state now has around 50,000 active cases. The health department has released a list of Level 2 and Level 3 beds available district-wise in government and private hospitals. There are 3,937 Level 2 and 673 Level 3 beds in government hospitals, whereas there are 3,843 Level 2 and 1,446 Level 3 beds available in private facilities. The availability of hospital beds and oxygen far outstrips supply. The situation may go out of hands soon unless urgent steps are taken to contain the crisis.(R L Moudgil)

Like many other states, the Covid-19 pandemic situation is aggravating with each passing day in Haryana. According to a health bulletin of April 26, the state reported 11,504 cases and 76 deaths in the last 24 hours. Total deaths till now have reached 3,842. There are 79,466 active cases. The total positive cases to date have reached 4,35,823. Six districts -- Gurugram, Faridabad, Hisar, Sonepat, Karnal, and Panchkula – are the worst hit. Though these figures themselves are alarming, the real situation could be worse. Patients having fever and cough are present in most of the households which shows that the Covid infection is quite prevalent now. It is not coming on record because the testing is very less in the state. Even the health minister admitted that people are not getting tested in spite of Covid-19 is a cause of increasing infection. The situation can be understood from what the medical superintendent of PGIMS Rohtak said: “Nearly 500 health workers serving here, including doctors, nurses, paramedics, bearers, sweepers, and ministerial staff, are down with Covid.”

The oxygen crisis too has become acute in the state. There are reports of patients’ death due to non-availability of oxygen in hospitals from Hisar, Rewari and Gurugram. But the chief minister and the health minister are in denial. After the first wave of Covid-19 last year, the state government did not do anything to strengthen the health infrastructure and facilities. Rather it did the opposite. Instead of increasing the medical and paramedical staff in hospitals, CHCs, PHCs, and sub-centers, it kept on removing contract workers from the health institutions in the name of uniform recruitment in the state by a single agency. The retrenched workers have been agitating continuously for saving their jobs and getting salaries. Now also, the workers in many hospitals and health centers are agitating for salaries which are pending for many months. In the last year, not even a single additional hospital has been equipped or an oxygen plant established in the state. The state government’s priority has been to defame the Samyukt Kisan Morcha agitation against the centre’s farm laws.

As the state faces a severe crisis, the government must take a series of measures. The health infrastructure needs to be strengthened on a war footing. All private hospitals and nursing homes need to be administered by the government. It must increase testing and vaccination centres and the availability of oxygen and ventilators. Simultaneously free availability of ration and financial aid to the poor, including migrant workers should be made. (Virendra Singh Malik)

Maharashtra is the worst-hit state in the pandemic, recording the highest numbers of infections and deaths. As the situation started improving at the beginning of the year, the state administration was lulled into complacency, boasting that it was supplying surplus oxygen to some other states in distress. The complacency was based on illusive data. For example, the Covid figures on a random date like January 18, 2021, showed like this: Positive cases 19,92,683. New cases in the state the previous day were 1,924. Deaths recorded till date were 50,473. Within a month, disturbing news was emanating from the districts of Amravati and Yavatmal in Vidarbha region. A sudden surge of Covid-19 was gripping the districts. More worrying was the suspicion that a locally mutated variant was causing these infections. The positivity rate of the tests had risen from 15 per cent to a whopping 25 per cent within a short period. It was reported that “the authorities have also found more contagious mutations of the Covid-19 virus during genome sequencing of Covid-19-infected samples from these two districts.”

Was the Maharashtra government found napping? It would appear so, given the rather sluggish response by the administration, especially in the background of the experience it had garnered during the first wave of the pandemic. The number of infected people has risen, within two months, exponentially to almost 4.3 million people. The number reached in about 12 months in the first wave more than doubled within one-sixth time period. The death toll has reached 64,760. More worrying is the fact that about 7,00,000 are still in the hospital. How many of them would be gasping for oxygen, one shudders to think!

It was with lightning speed that the infection began engulfing the entire state, with five cities, where industrial and mercantile activities are highly concentrated, feeling the main brunt as of today. They are also reporting a high number of deaths. For over a week now Maharashtra has been recording over 60,000 caseloads every day. The pandemic claimed 832 lives last Sunday- April 25. By the beginning of April, the number of infected people was hovering around 40,000. As the pandemic raged with frightening proportions, the state government was seen struggling to put its act together. The state had suffered economically a great deal as a consequence of the shabbily (un)planned and whimsically announced the first lockdown by the prime minister. That terrible experience, which not only broke the back of the economy but famished a large number of people in the state and weighed heavily on the state administration. This was reflected in its hesitation in dealing with the situation. Taking a cautious approach, in the beginning, the chief minister was forced to announce a semi-lockdown from April 21, greatly impairing production and economic activity. The suffering of the suddenly forced unemployed, during the last lockdown, was too glaring to ignore and therefore the state government was obliged to announce some welfare measures. It announced a financial aid of Rs 1,500, for a period up to April 30th, to construction workers, hawkers, domestic maids etc. However, a large number of them will not benefit from this scheme since a large number of the workers in these sections have not been able to register their names in the respective welfare boards.

Another failure on the part of the state government is its inability to revamp the greatly dilapidated public health system. Being beholden to neoliberal fundamentalism, it has failed to invest in the last budget in the health sector. Of course, it is suffocated by the central government cynically withholding about Rs 30,000 crore, which it owes as state’s share of the GST collection. In the event of the first wave of the pandemic the state health minister, Doctor Rajesh Tope had promised that 17,000 vacant posts in the health department would be filled forthwith. The promise has evaporated in thin air. Even after the tragic experience of the previous year, the state government neglected in improving the public health infrastructure for which the common people are now paying with their lives. As if all these were not enough, the union government criminally and deliberately deprived the people of Maharashtra by withholding the supply of life-saving vaccine. (Uday Narkar)

The queue of bodies in crematoriums and graveyards in many cities in Madhya Pradesh has exposed the tall claim of development of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government. The coronavirus situation across the state is dire. The situation in the state capital Bhopal reflects the state of affairs: As compared to a total of 632 deaths due to Covid-19 in 2020, the city recorded more than 400 deaths in the first fortnight of April this year – 66 on April 11; 66 on April 12; 84 on April 13; and 86 on April 14. Media reports suggest that more people have died in the state due to a shortage of medical oxygen. As the crisis worsens, BJP leaders are sensing an opportunity and engaging in corruption. The healthcare infrastructure has collapsed and the state is not at all prepared to deal with the situation, leaving people on their own. Instead of increasing the health budget, the state reduced it and even did not spend the allocated amount. (Jaswinder Singh)

The Coronavirus situation in Uttar Pradesh is grim. Officially, the state has reported more than 10 lakh cases and 10,773 deaths till April 23. But the real situation is far worse – evident from cries and desperation of patients and relatives for bed, oxygen, and essential medicines and visuals of continuously burning pyres in crematoriums. For example, official data showed 21 people died of the Coronavirus in Lucknow on April 22. The truth is 102 bodies were cremated till 8 pm on that day at Lucknow’s Bhaisakund cremation ground alone. There are four more crematoriums and four graveyards. The rate of an oxygen cylinder has gone up to Rs 4,000 from Rs 5,000. The middle class too is struggling to find a bed or oxygen supply and the poor cannot even dream of getting treatment, such is the condition. Most households in the state capital Lucknow have members running temperature, but there is hardly any testing. The Yogi Adityanath government is in denial. The chief minister has even threatened to take action under the National Security Act and seize the property of those raising the issue of oxygen shortage. (Madhu Garg)

As a deadly second wave rages through the country, Bihar is bearing the brunt too. And just like their masters at the centre, the state administration is totally unprepared to meet the challenges as the health infrastructure has collapsed right from the state capital to the district level. Every day, the Covid-19 positivity rate is reaching new heights breaking all previous records. The death toll too is increasing. And the virus is spreading to new areas each passing day. Fewer beds, erratic supply of oxygen, and black marketing of essential medicines have made the common people and even the middle class helpless. The media is reporting tales of horror from private clinics – people paying exorbitant fees and not getting required treatment. A large number of patients are being rushed to state capital Patna in the hope of better treatment, but alas that is not the case to be. In such a desperate situation, the medical superintendent of Nalanda Medical College and Hospital in Patna, in a letter to the chief secretary, expressed his desire to resign as he could not see the patients dying due to shortage of oxygen cylinders, ventilators and other necessary equipment.

The impending disaster forced the state government to call an all-party meeting, but it was just an eyewash. At the meeting, the CPI(M) demanded universal vaccination free of cost, free treatment off Covid-19 patients, financial aid of Rs 7,500 per family and 35 kg ration for those outside the income tax bracket. The party also demanded augment of health infrastructure and protection to frontline workers. The situation has worsened since. Reports from Darbhanga, Samastipur, Chapra, Begusarai, Saharsha, Purnea, Muzaffarpur and West Champaran suggest that people are dying at the doorstep of district and referral hospitals without getting any treatment.

The pandemic has torn apart the veil of good governance of chief minister, Nitish Kumar who is now totally dependent on the whims and fancies of the ‘big brother’ BJP. The BJP has, in turn, started blaming Kumar’s JD(U) for all-around failure. With the return of migrant workers from other parts of the country and the collapse of good governance, Bihar is staring at an unprecedented catastrophe.