In early March, India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan declared the country was “in the endgame” of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr. Harsh Vardhan also lauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership as an “example to the world in international co-operation”. From January onwards, India had begun shipping doses to foreign countries as part of its much-vaunted “vaccine diplomacy”.
At the end of February, India’s election authorities announced key elections in five states where 186 million people were eligible to vote for 824 seats. Beginning 27 March, the polls would stretch over a month, and in the case of the state of West Bengal, be held in eight phases. Campaigning had begun in full swing, with no safety protocols and social distancing. In mid-March, the cricket board allowed more than 130,000 fans, mostly unmasked, to watch two international cricket games between India and England at the Narendra Modi stadium in Gujarat.
India was in the grips of a devastating second wave of the virus and cities were facing fresh lockdowns. By mid-April, the country was averaging more than 100,000 cases a day. On Sunday, India recorded more than 270,000 cases and over 1,600 deaths, both new single-day records. If the runway infection was not checked, India could be recording more than 2,300 deaths every day by first week of June.
Meanwhile, almost in a parallel universe, away from the death and despair, the world’s richest cricket tournament was being played behind the closed doors, every evening, and tens of thousands of people were following their leaders to election rallies and attending the festival Kumbha Mela.
India’s second wave was fuelled by people letting their guard down, attending weddings and social gatherings, and by mixed messaging from the government, allowing political rallies and religious gatherings. With infections declining, fewer people were taking the jabs, slowing down the vaccination drive, which had aimed to inoculate 250 million people by the end of July.
Experts now say that crowing about India’s exceptional in “beating” the epidemic – younger population, native immunity, a largely rural population – and declaring victory on the virus turned out to be cruelly premature. “As is typical in India, official arrogance, hyper-nationalism, populism and an ample dose of bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis.
Experts say this rapid increase shows that the second wave is spreading much faster across the country. Dr A Fathahudeen, who is part of Kerala state’s COVID taskforce, said the rise was not entirely unexpected given that India let its guard down when daily infections in January fell to fewer than 20,000 from a peak of over 90,000 in September.
Many Indian cities are reporting a chronic shortage of hospital beds. It’s also evident in the desperate cries for help on social media platform.