The Economic Survey 2020-21 (Vol.1) extols India’s approach to containing the first wave of COVID-19 as “humane, evidence-based and informed by Nobel-Prize winning research”. It goes on to predict that “the prospect of India facing a strong second wave is receding with the start of the vaccination this year”. Whether the no-notice, ill-prepared lockdown was “sagacious and humane” or “brutal and inept” is certainly a matter of academic and policy debate. But what is beyond debate is that the Economic Survey’s evidence-based foresight of “receding prospect of a second wave” is downright wrong.
The irrefutable fact is that India faces a strong, rapidly rising second wave. The state is yet to put in place informed, well-coordinated and decentralised policy measures that can effectively halt the surge with a minimal loss of lives and livelihoods.
How did we lose track and regress towards a crisis? I identify at least three intertwined sources of hubris that converted a foreseeable and manageable problem into a dreadful, devastating crisis. To start with, from television pundits to chest-thumping politicians, everyone took pride in flattening the curve. The immediate fallout was a laxity in COVID-appropriate behaviour in general and mask wearing in particular. By the end of January this year, almost everything was back to the previous normal. This led a fair measure of the population to believe that while vaccination may be necessary later, it is not now, leading to vaccine hesitancy.
The second reason was the euphoria of vaccine nationalism. We were informed that not only India has the capability to vaccinate all its citizens, but also a larger part of the world. Some referred to this vaccine capability as emblematic of India’s “rising soft power”. Today we are faced with a double whammy of vaccine shortages in some states and having to import multiple vaccines. Many also overlooked the fact that vaccination may not offer a complete protection against an infection in the immediate future. To do so, a critical threshold of vaccination might be required. Also, studies indicate an increased susceptibility to infection after vaccination caused possibly by a lowered immunity and unsafe behaviour. These call for a continuous use of masks. However, the centrality of mask wearing was neither conveyed clearly and widely, nor was mask-wearing strictly imposed.
The third source of hubris came from overestimating the ability of the state. To be sure, the pandemic proved the centrality of the state, which managed the entire process of lockdown without much participation of, or collaboration with civil society. The state, however, has serious limitations in outreach. This assumes significance especially against emerging evidence of the possibility of aerosol transmission of the virus. If this evidence is true and aerosol transmission has already been happening in India, it has serious implications for the state’s capacity to contain the spread. Because this implies that the virus will also spread indoors besides in crowded places and gatherings. This lends urgency to a mass campaign on protective mask-wearing, including indoors. While the state can kick-start a campaign, its ability to ensure its rapid success is severely limited. Herein, the active participation of civil society becomes crucial.
What should be done at this stage is well-known. But effective execution not only requires a decentralised approach and better coordination, but, most importantly, shedding hubris. Can the state rise to the challenge?
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 26, 2021, under the title “Where We Went Wrong.” The writer is RBI chair professor at Council for Social Development, Hyderabad.