The deluge of infections have led to a severe health crisis in the country with PM Modi saying recently that the second wave has hit India “like a storm”.
What has been particularly worrying during the ongoing Covid surge is the rapid pace at which India is adding new infections.
It has taken just 17 days for the daily case count to rise from 1 lakh on April 4 to over 3 lakh on Wednesday. During this period, cases have surged at 6.76% daily, more than four times faster than a similar growth in daily numbers in the US — the only other country that has recorded more than 1 lakh cases in a day.
But how did things get so bad?
After the first peak in September, cases dipped for 30 straight weeks before they started rising again in mid-February.
Experts and authorities believe that the overwhelming surge happened because people let their guard down and were lulled into believing that the worst of the pandemic was behind them.
They add that India also failed to seize the opportunity to augment its healthcare infrastructure and vaccinate aggressively.
“We were so close to success,” Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan who has been tracking India’s pandemic, told AP.
Virologist Shahid Jameel said that people let their guard down too early and opened up.
“We really didn’t prepare in the time we got. As a result, the healthcare system is severely short-staffed right now … the infrastructure is crumbling.”
Nikolai Petrovsky, a professor at an Australian university, said that people started to think they have escaped the pandemic, especially when it didn’t hit the country as hard as everyone was expecting during the first wave.
“Now, of course, we are seeing a much more significant problem emerging, and you know, it could prove disastrous. You can’t even vaccinate 1.2 billion overnight, it’s just not possible even with all the best resources,” he said.
Professor Rijo M John from the Kerala-based Rajagiri College of social sciences said that the political leaders also share the blame due to their “irresponsible statements”.
“Once the cases from the first wave began dropping and reached a low, there had been an overwhelming feeling among the general public that the worst was behind and they were out of danger. It was partly fuelled by irresponsible statements from several political leaders, many from the ruling government itself, leading people to inadvertently believe that India had defeated Covid. Perhaps, this may have lead them to engage in laxer behaviour,” he said.
Critics have also pointed to the government deciding not to pause religious festivals or elections despite the initial spike in infections, which may have exacerbated the surge.
“Authorities across India, without exception, put public health priorities on the back burner,” said K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.
Meanwhile, Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan refused to speculate why authorities could have been better prepared, saying: “Today is not the time to go into why did we miss, or did we miss, did we prepare?”
Some experts said it is likely that the surge is also fueled by the presence of more infectious variants, which weren’t there during the first wave.
Late last year, scientists had detected a new variant, called B.1.617, with two mutations – the E484Q and L452R. This double mutant strain was first detected in Maharashtra.
“We cannot rule out the role of more infectious variants (homegrown and known imported variants) in different parts of the country. In most samples in Punjab, the UK variant is isolated, while the available evidence indicates the ‘double mutant’ strain is mostly prevalent in the state of Maharashtra. While it is known that the UK variant is more contagious, evidence regarding the Indian strain is yet to emerge,” professor Giridhar Babu of Public Health Foundation of India said.
Now, India has also detected a “triple mutated” variant of the virus, which has been found in samples collected from Maharashtra, Delhi, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh.
In fact, the Covid-19 virus that is doing the rounds in Bengal is increasingly being found to be an indigenous triple-mutation (B.1.618).
“Bengal strain”, as a scientist has dubbed it, might be more infective, and — something that experts find particularly worrying — may be capable of escaping a person’s immune surveillance, even if that person was earlier exposed to a virus without this mutation, and even if vaccinated.
There has, however, been no research yet to either corroborate or dismiss the fears over the new variants.
But will cases continue to climb?
It’s hard to say but experts believe that India will hit its peak between May 11-15.
Scientists working on a mathematical model to work out the course of the pandemic say there is a possibility of a peak between May 11-15 with 33-35 lakh total ‘active’ infections.
This means the number of ‘active’ cases in India will keep increasing roughly for another three weeks before a decline.
If the current model shows the trend correctly, the mid-May peak would be three time higher than the first peak of over 10 lakh ‘active’ cases witnessed on September 17 last year.
The current model shows that Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Telangana may see a peak of ‘new’ cases during April 25-30; Odisha, Karnataka and West Bengal during May 1-5 while Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh during May 6-10. It shows Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh might already have reached its peak phase now while Bihar will see it around April 25.
India is faced with the massive challenge of trying to prevent its health care system from further collapse until enough people can be vaccinated to significantly reduce the flow of patients.
The flood of new infections has already overwhelmed the healthcare system, with various hospitals as well as states reporting shortage of oxygen, ICU beds, ventilators and key drugs.
The good news is that India is a major vaccine producer, but even after halting large exports of vaccines in March to divert them to domestic use, there are still questions of whether manufactures can produce enough fast enough.
“Vaccination is one way to slow down the spread – but this really depends on the speed and availability of the shots,” said Reddy of the Public Health Foundation.
India has so far administered jabs to over 13.23 crore of its population, which includes over 1.9 crore people who have been fully vaccinated.
(With inputs from PTI, AP)