Lessons from one year of COVID-19

Kalyani Shankar

Anniversaries are a mark of looking back and also looking to the future. The world had remembered one year of COVID-19 outbreaks on January 21, when the first case of Novel Coronavirus was reported in Wuhan.  As it spread to other countries, the world woke up, and the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic.

The Novel Coronavirus was indeed novel, and scientists and doctors cannot find the real reason for its spread till today. Now millions of people are getting vaccinated amidst myths and truth about the efficacy of the vaccines.

The Covid story in India began last January with a student who had returned from Wuhan. The low profile Union Health Minister Dr. Harshvardhan took many measures to arrest the spread of the virus. The Modi government also imposed a strict nationwide lockdown on March 25.

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The lockdown was not without economic cost to the country.  The government banned domestic and international travel. It also ordered shutting up shops, cinema halls, schools, colleges, and all offices and all factories and construction activities. Millions of jobs were lost, and the GDP shrunk, resulting in a massive economic collapse. 

The government started easing the lockdown in June and announced many booster doses for reviving the economy. The country has recorded the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world after the United States. India has reported 10.7 million infections and 154,147 deaths. India started its immunization programme on January 16. Though the vaccination drive began much later than in other countries, its vaccination rate has been higher.

India is one of the world’s most effective vaccine and drug makers. Many countries have already approached India for vaccine supply. According to Union Health Minister Harshvardhan, nearly two million doses of Covishield vaccine manufactured in India flew to Brazil and another two million doses to Morocco last week. Half a dozen neighboring countries, including Nepal and Myanmar, also were supplied with vaccines.

As it happens to any pandemic of this kind, some things did not go right. It was mostly due to administrative decisions or the lack of effective communication. For instance, the lockdown could have been handled better.  The migrant labor was another big mess up. The important lesson learned was to prepare the country for dealing with the future pandemic.

Secondly, the government immediately took measures.   The government used telephone messages to reach 117crore people to urge them to adhere to the regulations like keeping social distance and wearing masks. The message spread very fast, even in rural areas.

The third is mobilizing support from every corner. Politically, Prime Minister Modi rightly took all the chief ministers into confidence, held more than half a dozen meetings, and addressed the nation as many times.  The Prime Minister and chief ministers worked together, keeping aside their political differences. After all, it is the states, which implement the regulations and their support is very necessary.

The fourth is strengthening the medical staff, converting most hospitals to treat Covid patients, and spending more on the health sector. Harshvardhan says, “The most important lesson we learned is that you have to be vigilant all the time and innovative. The government also simultaneously activated the scientists and medical researchers. In later months almost a million tests a day was being done.”

Fifthly, the rural versus urban divide was seen, with the rural areas doing much better. Even slum dwellers had followed the regulations. Planning and execution and contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine were critical to the handling.

Sixthly, The pandemic has brought focus on science and health care. Subjects like public health, scientific research, public-private participation, hygiene, etc., have become important. Telemedicine also has become a new way of getting to the doctors.

It is good that this year’s budget has allocated more funds for the health ministry. For the first time, the Finance Commission had a separate chapter for health so that in the next couple of years, the health sector could be strengthened.

Seventhly, even Assembly and local body elections were held during the pandemic, and the country passed through festive seasons.

Overall, India hasn’t fared as poorly as many had feared at the start of the outbreak, and the lessons learned will go a long way for the future. Many doctors say that we have to live with it as we live with other viruses like Ebola. Avoiding a future pandemic, developing an effective vaccine and medications as well as reliable data— are some of the precautions for India and even the world.

Kalyani Shankar is a senior journalist and analyst based in New Delhi. 

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