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Dear PM, COVID Surge is Worse Than 2020, End ‘Policy Paralysis’

Thousands have died – not by a virus, but by oxygen shortage. Lives that could be saved. Because of policy paralysis

Updated
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5 min read

Video Producer: Shohini Bose
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
Camera: Shivkumar Maurya

Yeh Jo India Hai Na... No one here deserved this…

Families cremating their dear ones on the footpath, bodies piling up, people dying – because an oxygen cylinder, or an ICU bed, or a doctor was not available.

People dying because we did not bother to unlock India’s full capacity to produce vaccines. Why have we come to this point? Unfortunately, its not just the virus.

It is also policy paralysis – the failure to act, or the refusal to act, or acting far too late. That is how we have dealt with key aspects of the COVID crisis. Which is why as of 21 April, we have almost 2 lakh dead, over 20 lakh active cases and almost 3 lakh new cases every day.
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Policy paralysis was the stick used to beat the UPA-2 govt with but this time, the cost of policy paralysis is – many, many lives.

Why the Vaccine Shortage? Policy Paralysis...

Let’s talk about vaccines – the sarkar’s slogan was – “jab tak dawai nahi, tab tak dhilai nahi.” The government knew that vaccines were the key. But what was done raise production? Almost nothing.

While countries like the US and UK gave advance funding to vaccine makers, India’s biggest vaccine producers – Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech got no government support.

Serum Institute invested Rs 2,000 crore of its own money and got Rs 2,200 crore from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to increase capacity, Bharat Biotech relied on internal resources. Why did Bill & Melinda Gates have the wisdom to support India’s biggest vaccine-maker, and not our own government?

By August 2020, the US government had invested Rs 44,700 crore across several vaccine companies, including Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson – even while they were developing and testing vaccines. That is what governments do – they think ahead.

Why did we let all these months go by? Why did we wait till 19 April 2021 to advance Rs 4,500 crore to our vaccine-makers? The answer is – policy paralysis.

Why Are Death Toll, New Cases Reaching New Highs? Policy Paralysis...

Another fact – India’s current vaccine production capacity is not enough to meet even half our monthly need of 150 to 200 million doses, our government has always known this. But, to make up for the shortfall, did we book vaccines from other producers? No.

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By August 2020, USA had pre-booked 400 million vaccine doses from four different pharma companies, the European Union had pre-booked 800 million doses by November 2020. Do you know when India placed its first vaccine order, and that too, only for 16 million doses? In January 2021. For a country of 1.3 Billion people, why so little, so late? The answer is – policy paralysis.

Only now – with the second surge raging and deaths and active cases at all time highs – has our government asked foreign vaccine-makers to bring their vaccines into India. But those companies are now overbooked. Will they be able to supply to India immediately? No. Not before thousands more have died. Lives that could have been saved.

Shortage of Oxygen Killing More People Than the Virus. Why? Policy Paralysis...

Several state governments are asking the Centre for oxygen. In the second COVID surge, many have been killed – not by the virus, but by oxygen shortage. Lives that could have been saved.

News website Scroll reports that in October 2020, already many months late – the Modi government floated tenders for 162 oxygen-producing units to be set up at 150 district hospitals across India. The cost – just Rs 201 crore, fully financed by the PMCARES fund. Today, six months later, do you know how many of these162 oxygen units have been installed? Only 33. In UP, out of 14 units, do you know how many have been installed. Zero.

Is there a shortage of oxygen at these 150 district hospitals today? Yes, there is. Because of which, people are dying. Do we know why? Yes. Policy paralysis. The cost of these 162 oxygen units – all of them – was just Rs 200 crore, a tiny amount for the government. But, there just wasn’t enough interest in getting the job done.

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Why No Red Flag On Indian-Origin Double Mutant Coronavirus Strain? Policy Paralysis...

Have you heard of B.1.167? It’s the Indian-origin double mutant strain of the  coronavirus. Many experts believe it’s the main cause of the second COVID surge. The main cause of thousands of deaths we are seeing now. But do you know this strain of the virus was detected on 5 October 2020?

Immediately, red flags should have gone up, thousands of samples of this strain should have been put through gene sequencing to understand it better – how to treat it better, maybe even modify India’s vaccines to counter this deadly strain.

But again, we moved too slowly. A The Indian Express report says we did nothing in October, November and December 2020.

Only in January 2021, a COVID Genomics Consortium – a network of 10 labs was created to speed up genome sequencing in India – with a budget of Rs 115 crore. But its April now, and these labs have achieved very little. Do you know why? Because the Central government did not give Rs 115 crores to the Department of Biotechnology! They were told to find the money on their own. And the department was able to allocate the first amount of Rs 80 crore, only on 31 March 2021 – six priceless months after this deadly strain was actually detected!

As we all know, by 31 March the second surge had already gone out of hand – lakhs of cases, thousands of deaths, lives that we failed to save. Why? Policy paralysis.

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Why Were Kumbh, Election Rallies Allowed? Policy Paralysis...

There are other questions too – why was a go-ahead given to religious gatherings, like the Kumbh Mela? Didn’t the government know it would be impossible to impose COVID norms there? They knew, lekin aastha aur gaurav ke saamne health kya cheez thi?  After first allowing a mega super-spreader event, it was hurriedly wrapped up. But, we know the damage had already been done.

Then again, why was permission given for massive election rallies during the ongoing assembly elections, followed by back-tracking now? Again, by holding these daily super-spreader political rallies for weeks, the damage has already been done!

Are We Staring at Another Migrant Crisis? Why? Policy Paralysis...

And finally, lockdown. Last year’s lockdown policy was seriously flawed – imposed without warning, stopping all trains and buses, forcing lakhs of workers to walk home in the middle of the pandemic. It caused immense pain. And yet, the government congratulated itself repeatedly for imposing one of the strictest lockdowns in the world.

So, now prepare to be more confused, as the PM issued a plea on 20 April against lockdown. So, lockdown, no lockdown, partial lockdown – what is the government’s policy to counter the second surge? We actually don’t know.

Meanwhile, migrant workers are again rushing home. The economy will take a hit again, even as thousands die.

All we know is that, Yeh Jo India Hai Na… it’s thousands of families whose dear ones have died, the lakhs who are struggling for ICU beds, oxygen and vaccines, across the country – they all deserve better.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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