Director of Salus Products manufacturer displays an N95 facemask for children at a factory near Changodar, India, July 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Sam Panthaky

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan publicly acknowledged on Friday that community transmission had begun in certain coastal regions of that Indian state. In essence, Vijayan “declassified” what must be a top-secret at the all-India level. The chief minister has chosen to be upfront on a sensitive issue when his peer group is playing safe and is in denial. 

But how can a pandemic be fought when the rulers are in denial? The fact is that community transmission began quite some time ago in India and has begun appearing lately in Kerala, too. Vijayan has been conducting the daily local briefings on the pandemic. 

Indeed, how do you fight a pandemic unless the public is aware of the gravity of the crisis? In Kerala, community transmission is limited at present to the fishing villages where social distancing norms are hard to enforce because fishermen are also migrant workers who go wherever there is a good catch.

So “triple lockdown” has become necessary in selected coastal areas to prevent the fishermen from traveling to neighboring states where the pandemic is raging. 

Hasn’t the time come for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce that community transmission has begun? Of course, it is unpleasant news. But the number of infected people crossed the million mark in India on Thursday. 

At this rate, how can one take lightly the prognosis by the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore that the number of infected cases will exceed 3.5 million by September 1 and could rise as high as 12 million (more than 3 million active cases and half a million fatalities) by November 1?    

The IISc study by a group of noted scientists says that by January 1, 2021, India may have close to 30 million cases (more that 6 million active cases and 1 million fatalities). The pandemic is not expected to peak before March next year. 

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has broken the official silence about Covid-19 community transmission. Picture: AFP via The Times of India/T. K. Deepaprasad

This is an apocalyptic scenario. The international community anticipates a massive crisis spiraling out of control and is closely watching India, which accounts for one-sixth of humanity. The Newshour program on BBC Radio World Service last week gave top billing to the pandemic ravaging India. The highlights of the discussion were as follows: 

  • The rate at which infections are going up in India is worrisome.
  • There are many more infections beyond the official figures. 
  • Vast cities such as Mumbai and Delhi are the worst hit but the pandemic is spreading to other cities and towns too and lockdown is being reimposed in some areas.
  • The situation is “absolutely bad” in Delhi, where alongside the pandemic-related issues, there is the collateral effect on people’s lives. Migrant laborers who are trying to get back to their homes are hard up, as once again the government has stopped transportation, trains as well as buses. 
  • The unemployment rate has drastically increased and many industries are refusing to take back employees. 
  • The grim reality in Delhi is that massive unemployment is leading to hunger, and this is posing a graver challenge than Covid-19 itself. The government has announced huge schemes but if the help doesn’t reach the people within the month, it will become very difficult to handle the situation.
  • Overall, there is a sharp increase in infections all over the country and epidemiologists and scientists say the  government needs to take a strong stand and admit there is community transmission so that steps are taken to bring the epidemic under control. 
  • Given the number of cases, community transmission is surely happening. The active cases are concentrated in a few states and although there is a steady increase of cases all over the country, the alarming increase is happening in a few states and confined to a few districts. Perhaps the government does not want to scare the public by admitting there is community transmission, and this could be one of the reasons behind its denial. 
  • The fatality rate has not been high compared with other countries. But this is changing, as more tests are being conducted and more cases come to light. The hospitals are getting flooded and are increasingly unable to handle the severe cases. Therefore, the fatality rates are going up. 
  • Proportionately, the number of infections is relatively low, as compared with the United States and Brazil. But the reality is that India is facing a very precarious situation. Since infection cases are going up at a very alarming rate, the situation could get out of control at any point from now onward. 
  • One problem is that people are not taking social distancing seriously in the far-flung regions. It is small comfort that India is doing relatively better than the US or Brazil. India needs to be very careful to make sure that the situation does not explode. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better in India.  
Migrants board a bus as they travel home during the ongoing Covid-19 nationwide lockdown in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, on May 17, 2020. Photo: NurPhoto

If this account is anywhere near the truth, India’s leadership is behaving like an oligarchy by twiddling its thumbs, reveling in videoconferences and Twitter exchanges. Whom are they kidding?

The world community must be aware that the Indian people are grappling with an existential crisis. For the foreseeable future the economy will be in doldrums and the country’s capacity to perform on the “global commons” will be severely restricted. 

The leadership needs to put all other government business aside and begin to work on controlling the pandemic and saving lives. All the resources available to the central government must be deployed to this end. India’s credibility as a democratic country is at stake.

The IISc study has become a benchmark to judge the performance of the Indian government. Searchlights are going to be held by the world community in the weeks and months ahead as the fatality rates start shooting up. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

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