On January 31, 2020, the front-page story in newspapers across India reported the first cases of COVID-19, detected in Kerala among three medical students who had returned from Wuhan in China. But since Kerala had often reported outbreaks and containment of viruses ranging from the deadly Nipah to H1N1 and anthrax in the past, the news was not taken as seriously as it perhaps should have been.
It was soon discovered that Wuhan was the epicentre of a fast spreading disease. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the Novel Coronavirus Disease outbreak as a global pandemic, urging countries to step up preparedness. As cases began to rise in India, Kerala announced a lockdown on March 23; the rest of India went into lockdown on March 25. The lockdown was supposed to give the government and medical authorities enough time to prepare surveillance measures, contact tracing, hospital preparedness, infection control and put in place a containment plan. Instead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw immense publicity potential in the emergency and engaged the public in beating thalis and lighting lamps.
As the middle class switched to work-from-home mode, millions of migrant labour were stranded on the streets without resources in the stringent lockdown. Faced with the prospect of starvation and death, and with no means of transport, they began to walk back to their villages hundreds of kilometres away. The way the country treated its working class population during those weeks and months will remain a shameful chapter in the annals of history. As if things could not get any worse, the economy began to crumble, spiralling a sequence of unemployment events that India will be dealing with for many years to come.
The complete lack of preparedness on the part of the governments may be one reason why, when the lockdowns began to be lifted, the second wave of the pandemic hit hard. It began on March 21, 2021 and the already weak medical infrastructure of the country began to collapse. Shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medical supplies led to devastating scenes outside hospitals and by late April, India became number one in the world in new and active cases. Cremation grounds and burials were so overburdened that they had to turn away bodies. As loved ones were not allowed to pay their last respects it wreaked havoc on the psyche of the people. When images of dead bodies swelling up the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh and hastily buried bodies on its sand banks began to emerge, the country had hit rock bottom.
It is only after the second wave subsided that the vaccination drive took off in India. But India continues to battle the pandemic. As on August 4, India has the second highest number of confirmed cases in the world after the United States and the third highest number of Covid-19 deaths after the US and Brazil.