India may be facing a mini-emergency it could do without. More significantly, authorities at all levels saw it evolving and yet shied away from taking the right measures at the correct time.
About half a dozen states, led by the capital Delhi, are witnessing a renewed spurt in Covid-19.
The main reason was because the disciplines of wearing masks and ensuring distancing were not adhered to or enforced strictly during the five-day Diwali festivities. Neither did it happen during the fun activities and annual shopping before that for the fear of displeasing the faithful.
This prompted the Supreme Court on Tuesday to pull up Delhi and Gujarat and tell them to report to it steps taken to tackle the situation. The court also told Maharashtra and Assam to give details of their plans.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans to hold a virtual meeting with chief ministers of Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Kerala, and Chhattisgarh to review their preparedness for the rising number of cases.
National Capital Region of Delhi, with a population of less than 20 million, reported daily cases at 6,746 with 121 deaths, the highest among all states out of 511. Reflecting the panic and confusion, on Tuesday it ordered shut some crowded markets, only to reverse the order hours later. Over the weekend it raised the penalty for not wearing masks to 2,000 rupees ($27) from 500 rupees.
So where did the administration go wrong? The month-long festivities began on October 17 during which most Indians also do their annual shopping. Delhi, as other states, was wary of putting any restrictions or penalties on shoppers crowding markets or not wearing masks.
Delhi went one step further and relaxed the maximum number of people permitted to attend a wedding event to 200 from 50. All this happened as winter temperature dipped and pollution surged past the “very poor” to “severe” category on some days, helping the virus spread.
On the Diwali evening, the Delhi chief minister took all his ministers to a large temple to pray for the state. It was followed by a program of dances as the masks of many ministers slipped down to barely cover their chins.
For the first time in months, states are beginning to re-impose curfews and restrictions.
Motorists from Delhi are now subject to random tests by neighboring U.P and Haryana states. Maharashtra On Tuesday said travelers from Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Goa must carry negative test results for entry.
Saurabh Bharadwaj, a spokesman of the party governing Delhi, said rival parties were using restrictions during festivals to score political points, making it tough to enforce strict steps. Political observers say competitive populism could expose large numbers of people to the infection.
Likewise, Maharashtra was put under public pressure by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to open places of worship before Diwali. The government held back openings to prevent crowding of such places until after the festivals.
Political and medical experts privately say India should have announced a national policy to skip public functions or stop people stepping out or crowding during Diwali.
The western state of Gujarat imposed a curfew from the evening of Friday, November 20, to early on Monday. Locals say earlier revelers could burst firecrackers and move freely, many without masks.
The state imposed a curfew from 8pm until 6am in the four biggest towns of Ahmedabad, Vadodra, Surat and Rajkot as the number of daily cases crossed 1500. The state has postponed re-opening of schools and colleges that were due to reopen from Monday.
Madhya Pradesh state reported 1,500 daily cases, the highest in 40 days. The state has imposed a night curfew in five districts of capital Bhopal, Gwalior, Ratlam and Vidisha from Saturday.
The western state of Rajasthan too imposed a night curfew in eight of its worst-affected 33 districts of capital Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Kota, Ajmer, Alwar, and Bhilwara. It also imposed a 500 rupees penalty for not wearing a mask. The state recorded more than 3000 cases on Saturday, its highest ever.
To be sure, India has been progressing well in overcoming the spread of the virus over the past two months, despite having 9.1 million cases, the most behind 12.6 million in the United States.
With 133,738 fatalities it stands behind 262,701 in the US and 169,197 in Brazil. With 101,373 fatalities, Mexico is fourth with more-than-five-figure fatalities.
India has tested 132 million individuals, the most after the 180 million by the US and 160 million by China. Daily cases have remained fewer than 50,000 since November 8. From 582,000 as of October 31, the number of active cases fell to below 440,000 on November 22, before resurging to 434,486.
Medical experts fear the number could rise further if emergency measures are not enforced.