The lethal second wave of COVID arrived in March-end this year and, by the time the virus relented, India had seen an unprecedented number of deaths and widespread devastation. The summer of 2021 brought unforgettable visuals of dead bodies floating in the holy Ganga, COVID patients breathing their last in hospital beds which ran out of oxygen, thousands of children orphaned after both parents had succumbed to the dreaded virus and many more instances of a vast public tragedy.
Through it all, the Centre as well as the state government machinery proved grossly inadequate to provide healthcare or succour to the lakhs of affected families.
Now, with the Monsoon Session of Parliament having begun earlier this week, the Centre has been busy defending its track record in handling the second wave of COVID. It has fielded questions over the vast number of deaths going unreported, shortage of critical medicines during the crucial summer months of 2021, shortage of oxygen at one point killing more people than the pandemic itself, vaccine shortage, vaccine inequity and many other grave charges.
Till now, the replies of the newly appointed Health Minister and his deputy to such a panoply of questions have been dismissive at best. Harshvardhan, a medical doctor and Health Minister during the crisis months of March till June this year, was sacked by the Prime Minister earlier this month.
Debate over death numbers
Mansukh Mandaviya, the new Health Minister, replied to a question in the Rajya Sabha about COIVD-related deaths by providing a data table with state-wise figures from April through June of 2020 and 2021. He pointed out that the death figures were those reported by the states themselves.
According to this data set, nearly 2.36 lakh Indians lost their lives to COVID between April and June in 2021. And, taken together with the deaths reported by various states in the same three months of 2020, the number of total deaths climbs to just about 2.52 lakh. This number is in contrast with estimates by different international agencies and some domestic experts, who have cast doubts over the robustness of this data.
In the latest such estimate, prepared by the Washington-based Centre for Global Development, the three authors said: “There is considerable uncertainty within and across estimates. They range from about 1 million to 6 million overall, with central estimates varying between 3.4 to 4.9 million. And the timing on the estimates between the two waves also varies across estimates.”
So, while the Centre is saying just over 2.5 lakh Indians were lost to COVID since 2020, Arvind Subramanian and two other authors of the CGD have estimated the number of deaths being 15-20 times more.
Gasping for oxygen
The world watched in horror as thousands of Indians gasped for breath due to an oxygen supply crunch during the second wave, but the government placidly said in the Upper House that lack of oxygen did not cause any deaths.
The newly appointed Minister of State for Health (MoS) Bharati Pravin Pawar told Congress MP KC Venugopal that health is a state subject. “Detailed guidelines for reporting of deaths have been issued by the Union Health Ministry to all states/UTs. Accordingly, all states/UTs report cases and deaths to the Union Health Ministry on a regular basis. However, no deaths due to lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by states/UTs,” she said.
In the same reply, the MoS said there was an “unprecedented surge in demand for medical oxygen during the second wave – the demand in the country peaked to nearly 9,000 MT as compared to 3,095 MT during the first wave”. The Central and state governments together ensured that liquid medical oxygen production was enhanced from 5,700 MT in August 2020 to 9,690 MT in May 2021, she further said.
India began vaccination of targeted groups from January 16 this year and opened up the shots to all adults from May 1. But, contrary to government claims, not only is there a rampant shortage of doses, there is also vast geographical inequity in vaccination.
In reply to Assam Congress leader Ripun Bora, minister Pawar cited state-wise figures of first and second doses of the vaccine with the percentage of 18+ population jabbed in each state. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are at the bottom of this vaccine pecking order, having given the first shot to the least number of their respective adult population: one in five, or just about 21% each.
As for the fully vaccinated 18+ population, again these two states are languishing at the bottom with barely 4% jabbed with both doses. Ladakh, Sikkim and Tripura – tiny states population wise – top the fully vaccinated list with more than 20% eligible population each.
Dearth of Covaxin
India started vaccination with two candidates – Serum Institute’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin. Amid furious charges by the Opposition over the Centre’s inability to order adequate vaccine doses, the slow pace of vaccination and crippling shortage of the shots, the Centre already did an about turn over vaccine procurement and pricing last month.
So, once again, the Centre is the sole procurer of shots and distributes to state governments; after trying to get everyone to pay for the shots, it is back to offering vaccines for free. Amid all this vaccine saga, the Centre has now provided data on how many doses of each vaccine were provided to which state.
The interesting part is this: As per the MoS, 15 states/UTs have not been supplied with a single dose of Covaxin till date. This list includes five states from the North East, Himachal Pradesh and Goa. Nearly 32.5 crore doses in all had been supplied to states till July 15.
The Centre explained in Parliament that 94 crore Indian are in the age group of 18+ and in a two-dose regime, 188 crore doses are needed for jabbing the entire eligible population. MoS Pawar said that this estimate may change if, in future, single dose vaccines are approved and used.
To a question on whether current vaccine manufacturing capacity is adequate for vaccinating all eligible Indians, she said: “It is estimated that around 1.87 billion doses will be available between January 2021 to December 2021. In addition, a few vaccines under development may also receive approval and may be available for use to vaccinate the eligible population.”
In another reply, she said the current average monthly capacity of production of Covishield is 11 crore doses and for Covaxin it is 2.5 crore doses. But the math does not work. Because, from January to July 16 this year (nearly six-and-a-half months) only 36.01 crore doses of Covishield and 5.45 crore doses of Covaxin have been supplied by the two manufacturers. At this rate, the assertion that there will be enough doses for all 94 crore people by December 2021 seems hollow.