Last Thursday, India became the second country after the United States to reach the 9 million Covid-19 mark. This is not an achievement, although policy makers may take solace in the fact that it took 22 days for the deadly infection to travel from 8 million to 9 million. The earlier travel time for a million had at one time touched 11, 12 and 13 days.
It is hardly worth reiterating that we have by no means crossed the danger mark. As the experience of Europe clearly demonstrated, it merely takes the people a small relaxation of vigil for the pandemic to resume its rampage. This was also the case with Delhi, India’s national Capital, where the pre-Diwali festivities led to all the gains of the monsoon season being wiped out. It is unknown if the foul air of the city resulting from the burning of stubble in neighbouring States played a part in the Covid-19 spike, but certainly the air people inhaled didn’t help.
However, it is difficult to make generalisations about mass gatherings — usually religious festivals — acting as super-spreaders. The Onam festival in Kerala certainly pushed up the numbers of those infected in a State that once claimed to lead the way in pandemic management. Yet, curiously, the secular festival of democracy in Bihar which experienced mass political rallies and zero social distancing, didn’t have any visible impact on the spread of the coronavirus.
In West Bengal, the great fear was that the week-long festivities centred on Durga Puja would create a health crisis. The fear was legitimate since the ruling party in the State often conveyed the impression that celebrations took precedence over all other considerations. However, the High Court stepped in with draconian restrictions that the people — with the exception of a small group of the reckless — by and large adhered to. This week the High Court once again stepped in by imposing restrictions on the Chhath Puja, popular among the large Bihari community in the State.
The intrusive role of the judiciary has often attracted criticism on the grounds that the judges are encroaching on the business of the executive. This is not the place to assess judicial activism, even at a time of pandemic. What is more important is that, despite the widespread fear of Covid-19, there is a growing mood of exasperation in people at the restrictions that have been in place since March this year.
Part of this impatience stems from boredom, especially among the young. However, more of it can be attributed to the growing belief that Covid-19 is not guaranteed to be a killer disease. No doubt the aged and those with respiratory ailments are most at risk but others seem to get away reasonably lightly.
Then there is the concern with the serious economic consequences of the disruption of normal life. Apart from the slowdown and job losses, there is a legitimate belief that the greater the delay in getting back to normal life, the more will be the economic sufferings. In such situations, there is inevitably a temptation to bank disproportionately on Government handouts. But there are limits on how much a Government can mitigate sufferings of every individual. However, to be fair, as the Bihar election demonstrated, the exacting demands on the Government haven’t become overwhelming. Yet, sooner or later the economic devastation will have political consequences.
No wonder all eyes, all over the world, are on the pharmaceutical companies engaged in finding a vaccine that will ward off the virus. Almost every progress, whether in Oxford or somewhere in Russia, is being closely monitored. So far the results of the tests have been very encouraging and there is an expectation that people will start receiving the miracle jabs by January 2021.
Although Indian companies have negotiated agreements with multinational pharmaceutical giants for the supply of the vaccine, it is still uncertain when adequate supplies will be available in the country. It is certain that the relief over the availability of the vaccine will be coupled with fissures over who gets to the top of the queue. This is an important matter since non-availability of a vaccine that is bound to be in short supply — at least temporarily — will create political complications for any Government, not to mention rampant allegations of nepotism and even profiteering. It is therefore imperative that along with logistical preparations — said to be already underway — there exists a defined category of who should receive the vaccine on a priority basis. Many countries such as the United Kingdom have already created a hierarchy of recipients based on objective criterion. India would do well to emulate this procedure.
Having braved the pandemic for nearly a year, the last problem the country must overcome is the fair distribution of a cure whose demand is certain to far exceed supply.