The second wave of Covid exposes the drawbacks of the Indian state

News Desk: Massed pyres and serpentine queues of shrouded bodies. Gasping, terrified men and women pleading to be accepted as patients. The broken and bereaved mourning their dead. In New Delhi today, as in any Indian metro, the roads are silent, the bazaars are shuttered. But approach any hospital and you’ll rediscover the familiar clamour of the Indian street, rising to a crescendo in the once hushed ICUs—now rent with the shouts and moans of the desperate and the dying. Of course most of us are hunkered in our homes, carpeing our diems and visiting such scenes through our screens when we’re not fielding calls and text messages from family and friends, or friends of friends, pleading for a hospital bed, an oxygen cylinder, Remdesivir, more oxygen. Expressing our sympathies on Facebook and WhatsApp.

The second wave of Covid-19 is still cresting but by now we have all been touched by its terrors, and all too many of us by its sorrows—and the dismal realisation that we are in the midst of a recurring nightmare, a tragedy foretold. We have bitter memories of the days when we were lulled by bromides of idiocy—remember the one about Indians’ superhuman immunity? Remember clanging steel utensils? Remember telling the world that India had beaten Covid-19?

That was in January, and in the four months between that moment of monumental hubris and today’s 380,000 new infections and 4,000 daily deaths lies a chronicle of missed opportunities. This despite the central government having a phalanx of empowered groups and task forces comprising top officials and experts for Covid management (see accompanying graphic). It was a time for action, for prioritising the obvious: doctors, hospital beds, Covid medicines and vaccines, oxygen, viral research and Centre-state coordination. You could say the Indian state is Covid’s biggest victim but that would be a stretch.

The fact is that the state and those who run it have failed us—in a once-in-a-lifetime Himalayan Blunder kind of way. However, it still exists, with all its branches quite intact and we must rely on it to rise to the challenge of quelling the current surge and preventing a threatened third wave of Covid-19 infections. That’s a process that should begin by taking stock of just where and how it failed.

In the following pages, we expose the sorry tale of neglect, apathy and failure of our political leadership. The institutional collapse and bureaucratic cowardice that facilitated super-spreader religious festivals and the political carnival of an eight-phase election campaign even as the second wave of a pandemic was breaking. The narcissism that enabled our leadership to ignore the warnings of expert groups. Their inability to form bipartisan alliances between the Centre and the states in the middle of a national calamity. Now that some of the loudest voices in the land have gone quiet, the government’s silence over the anguished and angry questions being raised over its management of Covid’s second wave can be deafening. Our reports offer some answers to these questions and suggestions from experts on how to find a way out of this continuing tragedy of errors. Most of all, we need action from the government—and fast.