Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in Parliament recently that no government should be given credit for fighting Covid, only the nation deserves praise. He is partially right.
If Covid has come under control in India, with daily deaths now in double digits, it is not because the government was able to control the pandemic. It is at best a mix of herd immunity and good luck. The government doesn’t get credit for either. It wasn’t national resolve, given how people did not wear masks in large swathes of India, how they did not follow social distancing.
First, let us look at the spread of the virus. According to the third and latest nationwide sero-survey by the Indian Council for Medical Research, 21 per cent or over 1 in every five adult Indians had post-Covid antibodies. For children, the figure is 25 per cent, and for urban slums, 31 per cent.
Herd immunity: The real Covid policy
This data alone shows how badly the government failed to contain Covid. Neither the government, nor the great people of this great nation were able to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. If 21.4 per cent of 130 crore people got Covid, it means almost 28 crore people were infected.
Twenty eight crore people got Covid and the debate is whether it’s the government that gets the credit or the nation for saving us from the disaster. The truth is that we did not avert any disaster. We embraced one.
We know that this national average hides the fact that big cities, the economic engines of India, like Delhi and Mumbai were very badly hit, and are likely to have achieved herd immunity with over 50-60 per cent infection rates, according to sero-surveys detecting antibodies. These are probably among the highest infection rates in the world.
In other words, India’s real Covid policy (contrary to what the government claimed) was herd immunity, also known as Bhagwan Bharose, leaving it to the faith in God. Countries like Britain and Sweden that pro-actively tried to achieve herd immunity failed miserably. In India, with only 1.55 lakh deaths in a country of 130 crore people, herd immunity seems to have been the way.
The high rates of undetected infection in India did not cause the scale of hospitalisations and deaths that they have in the United States and parts of Europe. That’s because of some obvious reasons, such as India’s young population. We learnt very early on that Covid is deadly for the elderly and for those with co-morbidities. Even so, the disease could have caused a lot more hospitalisations and deaths than it actually did.
That’s where unknown factors come in. Scientists will be researching these unknown factors for years to come. It may be a very long time before we know how and why the virus affected different populations differently. At no point, not even at the peak of infection in September, did Covid in India become as bad as it did in countries like the UK or US.
We do know that the virus mutates, and we can’t give credit to the government of India for making sure the Indian mutations were tracked and studied in a timely manner. As the virus moved from Europe to India, Mumbai to Delhi, West to East, urban to rural, it is possible that it mutated into a less deadly form. Just as there are new strains in the UK and South Africa that are deadlier, it is possible the South Asian strain(s) was/were less deadly.
There must be differences either in the virus or in the host humans in South Asia for it to have behaved differently. South Asian countries, including India, were not as smart, fast or advanced as countries like Vietnam or Singapore to be able to contain the virus with rigorous testing-tracing-isolating. Even Kerala that succeeded in doing this initially lost the battle.
Then there are the theories of BCG vaccine, immunological dark matter and T-cell immunity because of the widespread prevalence of common cold and flu, or a healthy presence of a protein named AAT in Asians. Until scientists can figure out what happened, we can call it a stroke of luck.
India woke up late
None of this means government effort or national resolve have anything to do with bringing Covid under control in India. Narendra Modi may have been able to manage the political narrative around it and get public approval, but history will judge the Indian government differently. History will judge how India woke up late to the onslaught of a pandemic, was slow in scaling up testing and PPE kits, failed miserably in medical capacity overnight, ran quarantine centres so bad that people ran away from there — and we’ve only begun complaining.
The response of the Indian governments, both at the Centre and the states, was so bad that across party lines, leaders were busy fudging Covid data, both of cases and deaths, and governments were doing everything they could to prevent people from getting tested even when they had symptoms. Everyone was complicit in this: from Arvind Kejriwal to Vijay Rupani, from Mamata Banerjee’s government to Modi’s. The only honourable exception was Kerala.
The worst of all was the migrant labour crisis, the prime example of a poorly planned, poorly implemented lockdown. The migrant labour crisis actually spread Covid to villages. Narendra Modi should only count on good luck, both his and India’s that this did not result in a 1918 Spanish Flu-like situation in which millions had lost their lives.
That is what it boils down to, Covid in India: Luck, 1.55 lakh Indians weren’t lucky enough to survive it, and nobody sheds a tear for them because human life has no value. If the rest of us survived, it is not because of the government but despite it.
Shivam Vij is a contributing editor at ThePrint. Views are personal.