Opinion

The second wave’s devastating blow

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on May 12, 2021

Covid sledgehammer The second wave as taken a terrible toll   -  REUTERS

2021 is turning out to be worse than the last year. The true death figures could be terrifyingly high

Does anyone remember the collective sigh of relief we all heaved when 2020 came to a quieter-than-expected end? It wasn’t a moment for uncorking the champagne but the general consensus was that the new year could hardly be as awful as the last. Doom-mongers had to lie low that night because the sheer weight of public opinion was solidly against them.

Here we are five months later, all firmly locked down, not stepping far beyond our own front gates. Did someone say vaccine hesitancy? As the death toll rises inexorably, all talk of vaccine hesitancy has evaporated, replaced by the counting of the weeks to the second jab.

The consensus amongst the experts is that the second wave will rage through May and, hopefully, run out of steam by mid-June. The experts concur that the true death figures will be far beyond all the official calculations and possibly far beyond our own worst fears.

This devastating second wave has obviously put paid to the bullish forecasts by the government, OECD and IMF that India’s economy would rebound this year back to expand by a record 12.6 per cent or thereabouts in 2021-22 after contracting last year. Credit ratings agencies are already paring their India growth projections. While the first wave brought huge hardships, now much of the country is again under lockdown with malls and restaurants shut once more. The workers who stayed back in their villages and refused to return to their city jobs now are looking like the smart guys who got their calculations right.

While the economy is a serious casualty of this pandemic, what’s truly been the cost so far in lives from Covid? The official statistics tell us around 246,000 people have perished from Covid-19 and 75,849 of these have been in Maharashtra, India’s worst-hit State. But leading experts agree it’s clear this is a gross underestimate. Ashish K Jha, Dean, Brown University, reckons conservatively there could now be around 750,000 people dying a month from Covid. By that estimate, he calculates we could have 1.5 million deaths by June-end.

Murad Banaji, senior lecturer, mathematics, Middlesex University, paints an equally grim picture and says the true death figures could be anywhere from around two times to an extraordinary eight times the official figures. If that isn’t bad enough, he points out that the number of cases itself is being grossly under-reported and that adds to the difficulty of accurate forecasting. He believes over a million people could already have died. As a counterweight, a study by Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Sciences projected Covid-19 could kill around 404,000 people by June 11.

Numbers: Fact or fiction?

It’s also tough to work out the real numbers because the extent of under-reporting varies from State to State. A few States, like Bihar, simply may not have the capacity to formulate accurate statistics, especially in rural areas where health infrastructure is poor to virtually non-existent.

But we can get a sense of how bad things are when we look at some concrete numbers from the real world. Railway Board Chairman Suneet Sharma said on Monday 1,952 railway employees had died of Covid-19 and 1,000 patients were checking in daily to railway hospitals around India. Indian Railways has 1.3 million employees. Other reports tell of Covid-19 ripping through Aligarh Muslim University and also killing schoolteachers who had to supervise the Uttar Pradesh Panchayati Raj elections. Even if we treat anecdotal stories with a degree of scepticism, what’s certain is the pandemic is rampaging through rural India. (Sadly, just last year, academics were seriously mulling whether studies should be undertaken on why rural India appeared impervious to the infections.)

The experts concur that Kerala and Maharashtra are the two States that paint a picture that’s close to reality. Kerala acknowledges the ferocity of the current wave took it by surprise but insists, for now, it can cope. The State has kept fatalities to a remarkable 5,814 so far. Even if we double or triple that it’s a tightly controlled and quite remarkable figure. By contrast, many experts treat Uttar Pradesh’s figures as fiction with no relation to reality. But even Kerala now says the number of active cases could rise from 4.1 lakh to 6 lakh in a few weeks. It’s been sending spare oxygen to other States but now warns it can’t continue this.

Overall, India still shows a test positivity rate of 22 per cent, meaning one-in-five people tested are positive. This figure also shows the actual infection figures are several times what’s published.

The global-level danger with such a gigantic number of cases is that as the number of cases increase, the number of variants also increase. It’s now reckoned the “Indian” B 1.617.2 variant is much more transmissible than the UK strain and also the original Wuhan strain.

Most seriously, there’s also the risk new strains might be resistant to vaccines. And vaccines are the only way forward. After the first wave, Kerala found it was still a very long way from a point where herd immunity could kick in. How do we get enough vaccines to cover a population of over 1.3 billion people — remember the US is now looking at vaccinating kids. The States have already begun making inquiries globally about what vaccines are available. Odisha and Maharashtra have been quick off the mark on this score.

When will we be able to return to normal and when will the economy stabilise? That’s anyone’s guess. The steel industry has been doing well, mainly due to global demand. But JSW, India’s largest steelmaker, has stopped production for now because it has to supply medical-grade oxygen to hospitals. FMCG products are, of course, moving. But service industries and retailers are facing extremely hard times. This year’s local-level lockdowns haven’t been as devastating as the national lockdown last year. But in Delhi, for instance, the lockdown’s been in effect for 24 days and the numbers are moving downwards only very slowly. It’s also becoming clear Covid-19 takes several weeks to run through a household infecting one person after another.

The severe vaccine shortages in India are blighting our prospects of containing this Covid catastrophe in the near-to-medium term. While it seems the government was slow off the mark to place orders, hindsight is always 20-20. Possibly, the situation will improve by July-August but it’s starting to look like it might take even longer. In the meantime, we can only stay in our bubbles, keep our masks firmly on, and fervently endeavour not to become another statistic in this desperate battle.

Published on May 11, 2021

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