Has India lost its war against Covid-19?

By: Behzad Taimur      Published: 09:36 PM, 25 Apr, 2021
Has India lost its war against Covid-19?
India is facing an acute shortage of oxygen amid an unprecedented increase in the number of daily coronavirus infections in the country.–File photo

In the past week, India came under global spotlight for setting at least four world records. These were that, beginning on April 21st, India began to log more than three lacs new Covid-19 cases daily, each an unprecedented record for highest number of new cases ever logged anywhere in the world and each beating India’s own world record set the preceding day. On April 24, India logged more than 349,000 new cases, which took its total recorded Covid cases to a whopping 16.96 million and its active cases to beyond 2.68 million.

Naturally, this meant that India’s already poor healthcare system began to creak and shudder, threatening an impending collapse. In a situation such as this, the world has continued to look on aghast, as Indian hospitals have begun to overflow with patients, ICUs have reached 100% capacity, available oxygen beds have diminished into nonexistence in vast areas of the country and chronic shortages of critical medical supplies, including antiviral drugs like Remdesivir as well as medical oxygen, have taken hold. The focus in Pakistan, and many other countries, has remained on shortages of medical oxygen but really, India’s Covid dilemma is far bigger and far more complex than such narrow, high-visibility aspects of the same. 

Also Read: New Delhi extends coronavirus lockdown as India cases hit new record

So then, is it over? No, not at all. India is losing battle after battle, every day – it is beleaguered and bloodied – every day the scale of its and its citizens’ misery grows – But neither is the war on Covid-19 over nor has India lost. 

Why do I say this? Let us look at some numbers. On the whole, India may have recorded 16.96 million cases, but its death count is around 192,000. Yes, that is a very big figure but then also note that it makes for just 1% of the total cases. At 1% dead, India is actually at less than half of collective global death rate of 2.12%. This means it is still doing far better than most countries in the world. Conversely, India has been logging more than one lakh recoveries every single day since April 15 and more than two lac recoveries daily since April 23. In other words, India has also logged 1.65 million recoveries since April 15th. 

Such figures are a testament to the quality of India’s healthcare system. It is severely under-resourced but whatever is there – is not of bad quality. That is everything in a pandemic situation. No country in the world has a healthcare system to cater to 100% of its population with the same degree of attention and excellence. Health has hardly ever been a priority to most countries. Therefore, what is, and has forever been, more important is how well whatever system there is – can perform.

At once, India has also been testing in gargantuan numbers, logging 1.75 million tests a day on average. Any review of infectious diseases control playbooks of any make will tell you that mass testing (and following isolation of detected cases) is the most sure way forward. On this count, India is doing well. Similarly, this Saturday, India crossed 140 million Covid vaccine doses administered to its citizens (all for free, by the way!). Achieved in a rather short period of 99 days, this is faster than both the US and China, the only two countries in the world that have inoculated more people than India. The 140 million inoculations come to around 10% of India’s huge 1.4 billion population. Though, a small fraction of these are two-dose or ‘full’ inoculations. Yet, what is important here is that India is continuing to administer more than two million doses per day for several weeks now and the 10% with a single dose in their bodies will be receiving their second dose over the next three weeks.

What this means is that with millions recovering and developing natural immunity; with wide-scale testing; and, with mass immunizations, it is only a matter of time before the Covid epidemic in India will begin to reduce in intensity. The 10% population that will be fully vaccinated within the next three weeks, with millions more partially vaccinated being added daily, the epidemic will soon begin an accelerating nosedive. This is not my opinion. This is not Mr. Narendra Modi’s propaganda. This is just plain science. We know already that after a country achieves 10% fully vaccinated population, it begins to reap benefits. India is almost there. It needs just three more weeks to hit critical mass. Will Covid go away in three weeks? Of course not. However, the doomsday scenario of today definitely will.

Now, the story of India’s oxygen supply woes. It is not, and has never been, that India could not produce enough oxygen. In fact, India has the capacity to produce more than 7,100 metric tons of oxygen, both medical and industrial, on a daily basis. This is more than enough to meet the actual demand of just over 6,785 tons. The real issue with India has been the concentration of its oxygen production capacity in just seven states. Oxygen is a hazardous, flammable substance that needs to be trucked in specialized containers at just 40 km/h (to make sure untoward accidents do not happen) – sometimes over 1,000 KM. So the problem has been delivery. This is mostly because of pathetic planning and supply chain management at New Delhi level. Even this issue is now being resolved through institution of a so-called “Oxygen Express” train that railroads oxygen trucks around the country; through utilization of Indian Air Force’s substantive airlift capability to deliver oxygen; through set up of dozens of new oxygen production plants; through import of more oxygen-carrying trucks; and, through import of some 50,000 metric tons of liquid oxygen. 

Thus, while global media is driven by its need to click-bait viewers, the situation on the ground is changing rapidly in India. It would not be too long now before the oxygen supply issues are more fully resolved. 

Next, one should also look toward what happened to the shortage of critical drugs, such as Remdesivir, that developed in the country earlier in April. Indian pharmaceutical companies had scaled down production of Remdesivir beginning in December, when Indian Covid epidemic was valley-ing into a few thousand cases total. The pharmaceutical companies failed to scale production back up in conjunction with rising Covid cases, creating the shortage. An intervention by the government knocked the companies back to their senses and the Remdesivir shortage ended before it could invite global spotlight such as the oxygen challenge managed to earn. 

At last, then, the same is happening presently with India’s vaccination program. The Indian government has allowed import and local manufacture of Russia’s Sputnik-V as well as several other vaccines. It has allowed state governments to procure their own vaccines from private parties. Finally, it has injected $610 million into India’s Serium Institute of India and Bharat BioTech, two leading Covid vaccine producers in the country, to ramp up their production. In short, Indian vaccination efforts are likely to accelerate going forward – in turn, accelerating India’s extraction from its current cul de sac. 

On that note, I will end here and will leave you with two thoughts. One, we must resist Schadenfreudean temptations to tut-tut at others, even if they are our archrivals. Ultimately, all humans are humans and it should not take more than the simple call of our conscience to recognize others as such and to be moved by empathy, of which each of us has substantive amounts in our hearts. Two, we must focus on identifying the failings of Indian governments that led to their current predicament and on making sure we do not have the same obtain here in Pakistan. Ultimately, over time, India has built the industrial capacity to meet its challenges off of its own two feet. Sadly, the same cannot be said about Pakistan.