Waiting to Exhale

The growing sense of alarm needs an assuring voice of leadership and a well-judged response rooted in science

One death is one death too many. One family waiting for a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder for their loved one doesn’t need a PPT on case fatality ratio or the plan to ramp up vaccine supply. Last week, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan finally admitted there was an “alarming rise” in Covid cases and assured states of addressing vaccine shortage. This after his invective-laden letter where he accused them of acting in bad faith. With the entire establishment caught off-guard by the resurgent virus, there is a disquieting silence from the political leadership in explaining the gravity of the situation, the steps being taken, how the learnings from the first wave will help in battling the second — and the public’s role in this fight. With his formidable political capital, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the locus of most of the key government messaging. Last year, in a series of televised appearances, a harsh lockdown was prefaced with his words on the need for “do gaz ki doori, mask zaroori” and messages of a united national resolve against the disease. This time around, he has held meetings with officials and state governments but there has been no explicit communication from him on the second surge, instead a series of spirited election rallies where the crowds are large, the risks many. For a government aware that this public health emergency has to be fought at the level of the community, not in the ICU, with sabka saath and sabka vishwas, the current diffidence is perplexing. It doesn’t help, especially, when the sense of crisis, amplified, as it should be, by social media — many are using Twitter and Facebook to seek help with stories of fear and despair — only deepens the sense of alarm.

In the gathering dark cloud, there’s many a silver lining. The second-surge virus seems to be more infectious but there are valuable lessons: The benefits of homecare and use of oximeters are part of common COVID-care language in many homes now; research has shown the efficacy of oxygen therapy and steroids to stave off the ventilator; like much of last year, the case fatality rate remains below the global average. And yet the rapid transmission rate of the virus is straining all facilities. This may call for calibrated, very localised lockdowns so that the economic well-being of migrants and their employers remains protected.

Most importantly, the two vaccines are here, powerful new weapons in the arsenal. The government has relaxed its approval procedure to get more on their way, a step that should have been taken much earlier when the curve was falling. With the Centre and some states not on the same page on vaccine availability, tensions have aggravated. Made worse by the dubious role of some politicians in hijacking scarce medicine stocks to promote themselves. In a polarised discourse marked by name-calling, where everybody — and their uncle — is an I-told-you-so expert, the ambulance siren only adds to the panic. What is needed, therefore, is a strong voice of reason, rooted in science, that underlines calm, care and concern. It is needed now.

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