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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Bharat, 1.3 billion people and the war against Covid

2020 was a “landmark” year for the world. Every land was marked positive – Covid positive.

The year will be remembered for China spread virus- the “ChinaVirus”, which was identified by virologists as SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as Coronavirus or Covid-19, and for Bharat’s resilience in its stupendous fight against it. 2020 was the year when Chinese virus overtook Chinese food in popularity, albeit infamous.

The death dance of this virus infected over 100Mn people and claimed 2.2Mn lives worldwide, until the day I finished writing this article. Of this, 10.7Mn people were reported to be infected in Bharat alone and 154K dead, second highest figures after the USA. However, given the population and density in Bharat, it scored a feat. While Mexico saw the highest Case-Fatality Ratio (CFR) at 8.8% followed by Italy, Bharat’s CFR stood at 1.4% according to the data released by John Hopkins University.

The onslaught of Coronavirus was nothing short of a war against humanity. A war that was fought without blood and bullets. A war that was forced upon the world quietly, with no jurisdiction. A war that left millions of families shattered with the loss of their loved ones and no chance to bid goodbye or grieve together.

Imagine not being able to hold, hug and touch those that died because the grieving could be next. It unfolded cruelty of unimaginable proportions on human lives. I wonder if the perpetrator of this covert war would ever be tried for an unpardonable crime against humanity.

The backdrop

In December 2019, when news of a strange “pneumonia like” illness in China started surfacing on digital media, Bharat was busy dealing with the Left and Islamic lobby funded and managed Anti-CAA protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA passed by the Modi Government on December 12, that gave citizenships to all persecuted religious minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who had sought refuge in Bharat. While Covid-19 had already found its place in the news, it did not draw much attention on ground, except for the government.

China reported a cluster of pneumonia-like illness to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019 where there was no known “causal agent” but peculiarly linked them with exposure to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the Wuhan city of Hubei province in China that was shut soon after. However, there was enough clamour that the virus was made in a Wuhan lab controlled by the CCP government and the seafood market could well be just a smokescreen.

The WHO published “First Disease Outbreak News” about SARS-CoV-2 on December 31st, and despite an alert email from the Taiwanese government same day, stuck with the Chinese version of no known evidence of human-to-human transmission until 14th January. On 30th January, China declared Covid-19 outbreak as Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and the WHO issued another warning that only mentioned “limited human to human transmission”, but it was too late by then.

By 15th February, twenty five other countries had reported Covid-19 infections with three deaths, the first reported from Philippines, of a Chinese man from Wuhan, where the virus had made its debut. Soon after, Philippines halted all travel to and from China.

The cataclysm

Bharat was among the first countries to issue a Covid-19 advisory as early as January 17, 2020 and started thermal screenings of passengers coming in from China on 21st January. Bharat reported its 1st Covid-19 case on 30th January, of a 20 year old female from Kerala who had returned from Wuhan on 23rd January.

In Delhi, Anti-CAA protests grew violent as Donald Trump, the then POTUS was visiting Bharat as its Chief Guest on 71st Republic Day on 26th January. The end of February saw these protests take a bloody turn that claimed as many as 55 lives, including an Indian Intelligence officer who was dragged by a radical Islamic mob and brutally tortured to death, with his body thrown in the gutter.

While Covid cases were rising across the globe, Bharat’s capital was already in chaos of a different kind. Bharat’s government and health authorities however, were on their heels already, tracking inbound flights from China and had started maintaining a repository of visitors to check on them for any symptoms. Those who reported in affirmative were immediately recommended medical care and home quarantines.

The new visas were stopped from 3rd March and on 4th, screening of all international passengers was made compulsory. By 13th March, all new and old visas, except Diplomatic and official visas to Bharat were suspended. All official programs for the festival of Holi were cancelled, and with it the advisory asking people to stay away from crowded places was an indication of ominous, dark clouds lurking over the Bharat’s sky.

Bharat, like every other democracy, always has a section that propagates a one-way absolutist freedom. So we had the runaway Tablighi Jamaat that congregated despite health advisory. The police and healthcare bodies invested resources to trace and track the attendees, whilst also facing harassment and stone pelting, trying to quarantine and treat them.

The total count of confirmed Covid cases stood at 20 in the 2nd week of March and crossed the dreaded three digits 100 mark within the 3rd week. The Prime Minister of Bharat, Narendra Modi, in a public announcement, his second in less than a week that had already seen a voluntary “Janta Curfew” on 19th March, emphasized on the little known but life threatening Covid-19 that was now a WHO declared pandemic.

It called for stringent measures to contain people to people contact, and so Bharat entered its first 21 day nation-wide lockdown on March 25, 2020.

Spain, Italy, and New Zealand had already entered a nation-wide lockdown and others were on way. This was an unprecedented but what seemed a preventive measure, globally. With large scale and compounding outbreak of a droplet borne viral infection that was known to be spreading through human to human contact, preventing activities that enhanced this possibility was the best possible preventive measure that made a case on merit.

For a populous country like ours, to keep the vulnerable citizens out of harm’s way, lockdown seemed the immediate and best preventive step, albeit very costly. The country chose survival over the costs. People with pre-existing health conditions like heart and respiratory ailments, and diabetes were listed among the most vulnerable by experts. Worse, there was no specific medication available to treat this virus and the healthcare community worldwide was struggling to cure the patients.

Manufacturing, barring essential items, came to a grind. The IT and ITES industry, however, swiftly metamorphosed to work-from-home and almost functioned seamlessly in the lockdown. All industrial, travel and related activities came to a halt. The lively and ever bustling highways, roads and streets wore an eerie, deserted look, except for the spring that seemed mightier than the virus.

The Aarogya Setu App

On April 2, 2020, Bharat launched one-of-a-kind contact tracing and self-assessment Aarogya Setu app that proved a game-changer in digital tracking of Covid-19 pandemic. It became the fastest downloaded app, beating Pokémon Go. The health data voluntarily shared by users helped communities and authorities in mapping of potential hotspots and take preventive measures accordingly. Even as people were indoors, they could track Covid situation in their neighborhood and stay protected.

The National Health Authority tracking the data was able to easily get in touch with potential Covid patients who took self-assessment tests, based on symptoms listed and offer them medical aid. The government made the app use mandatory for all interstate travel, to track, trace and contain the spread. It was one of the finest examples of Bharat using technology to supervise and manage a national health crisis.

Bharat’s law and order machinery, including most state administration, police and paramilitary forces stepped forward to see the country through this foreign crisis like heroes. They not only ensured a strict lockdown but also rescued hundreds and thousands of citizens that needed help.

Whether it was delivering medicines and food or ferrying people who had no means to commute, as the entire travel system was suspended, they did everything beyond the call of duty. The frontline healthcare staff, that the PM popularly addressed as “Corona warriors” stepped up like soldiers in a warzone. They risked their lives to save their patients, worked non-stop, uncomplaining and in several hospitals even without pay. Bharat lost more than 700 doctors and 106 security forces personnel in war with China’s virus.

The medical aid and Vande Bharat rescue

With a large population to look after, and ensuring there is no dearth of healthcare supplies for the staff as well as Covid patients, Bharat not only managed fairly well as compared to most of the developed countries, it rose up to the occasion and help those that were crumbling under its lack thereof.

On a special request from President Trump, Bharat exported 50Mn tablets of Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), an anti-malarial drug, to the United States that was being successfully used by Bharatiya doctors to treat Covid patients.

In addition to this, Bharat sent humanitarian aid of Paracetamol and HCQ tablets to all of its neighboring countries. Bharat also freed N-95 masks from restricted export items on request of several countries that were dealing with its shortage.

Bharat exported life-saving drugs to over 55 countries that were worst hit by pandemic. All this and more was happening under the watchful leadership of Prime Minister Modi. “Vande Bharat” rescue missions were launched to bring back stranded citizens, students, immigrant workers, scientists and doctors.

The first rescue mission was taken on February 1, 2020 from Wuhan, China. In the following weeks, Bharat rescued around 50 lakh or 5 mn of its people from across the globe, including over 100K foreign nationals for a safe passage. The Indian Air Force flew in a group of Covid positive scientists who were stranded abroad, after a 20 hour long mission.

The Indian Navy brought home our citizens from Iran, Maldives, and Sri Lanka among other places. Airports, stadiums, hotels and unoccupied residential complexes turned into massive quarantine facilities to ensure those returning don’t carry the virus home.

The usual critics

As dismal pictures of overwhelmed and stressed out healthcare systems were coming in from Italy, US, and the UK in the international media, Bharat with its 1.3Bn people and not as many dead bodies, came under the lens of journalists and intellectuals alike. Even though the pandemic was claiming lives without discounting political and religious ideologies, Bharat, the second most populous country, with its crowded cities and rural towns, was already being written off in the western media.

From Foreign Affairs Magazine declaring Covid as a “catastrophe for India”, BBC flagging Bharat as a “coronavirus disaster”, reputed medical journal Lancet accusing Bharatiya scientists of “straying away from scientific evidence”, and Boston Review calling Bharat’s coronavirus response as a “humanitarian disaster”, Bharat was everyone’s favorite target for worst failure, but it chose to keep its eyes on the goal like a hawk and give a naysayers a royal ignore.

All through the summers in Bharat, when daily case count was rising by 15000-20000, Bharat’s critics were unable to consume and accept that our Covid statistics were inexplicably beating their predictive data model. The body count wasn’t mounting sufficiently in the land of cow worshippers.

Bharatiyas are regressive, patriarchal, Brahaminical, unwashed, and illiterate who know nothing about viruses and yet they weren’t dying enough. Some are still scratching their heads and deciphering our immune system while others believe our dead disappeared from right under an unfriendly media glare.

The experts questioned official figures and wrote columns on how Bharat wasn’t reporting enough, because it wasn’t testing enough. Testing a billion people is something only Harvard could have done a pilot on, just like there are economists who have mitigated our poverty by coming up with formulae in their champagne meets.

Testing everyone wasn’t a feasible option for Bharat. Hence it was insisted by authorities that only people with symptoms or those in immediate contact with a symptomatic be tested. I’ll leave it to your analysis if the idea was to overwhelm the entire healthcare machinery under panic and chaos.

The labour migration

While most of the nation’s agencies and resources were working in top gear, tackling the pandemic, some were busy scripting “101 ways to make Modi look like a failure”. And the first project they launched was manufacturing fake news, of state transport buses from Uttar Pradesh and other neighboring states that were waiting to take migrant labor from Delhi to their native towns.

The capital saw a flood of anxious migrant workers throng the bus stations. Right in middle of a pandemic, with no masks or social distancing, thousands and thousands of laborers started leaving Delhi. Those who couldn’t get on buses started their long journey on foot.

But the Uttar Pradesh government under Yogi Adityanath, who had proved his mettle with Kumbh 2019 at Prayag, that saw almost 49 crore people in and out of the city over a month, was just well placed to swing into action and contain the chaos. And it certainly did.

Shramik Special trains and buses were arranged along with food and medicines to transport countless workers safely to their homes. Not only this, the Yogi government used this opportunity to collect migrant workers data, matching their skill-sets and industry to ensure the state creates local work opportunities for them and save the misery of being away from home towns.

The UP Chief Minister stunned everybody by turning adversity into an opportunity for future. Not just this, the quintessential middle class of Bharat opened its purses to feed the poor and homeless in every nook and corner of the country.

The lockdown and its aftermath

The Chinese debutant virus travelled the globe to show us surreal images of human existence at a standstill and the crippled normal life as we knew it. It proved equally disastrous for the economies worldwide. The demand and supply saw major disruptions that rendered millions jobless in a matter of days.

Although the essentials services were operating to keep life going, other businesses were severely hit by a series of lockdowns. As per the data provided by ourworldindata.org, 38 economies reflected significant economic slowdown. While Peru recorded a slowdown of – (minus) 30% in its GDP, Spain and the UK both recorded a slowdown of more than – (minus) 20% while Taiwan and South Korea showed the lowest fall of – (minus) 0.6% and – (minus) 3% respectively as compared to the same (April-June) quarter in 2019.

Bharat, that overtook France and the UK as the 5th largest economy in 2019, was no exception. The worst Covid-hit entities were small enterprises and daily wage earners like hawkers, vendors, auto drivers, construction workers, sundry small shop owners and low skilled employees.

According to the data released by National Statistical Office (NSO), the GDP in Q1 of 2020-21 showed a contraction of 23.9 % as compared to 5.2 % growth in Q1 2019-20. Due to suspension of most economic activity amidst the pandemic and a series of lockdowns as a containment measure, sectors like construction, manufacturing, and hospitality were the worst hit.

The national lockdowns that continued until May left huge fiscal losses for all sections of businesses. However, in the later months the decision to complete or partial lockdown was left with states. The fastest growing economy of the world was on a downhill and was rated down by Moody’s.

The peak and recovery

Bharat reported its peak with 97,894 cases on 16th September and close to a thousand deaths. It crossed the 1 crore mark on December 19, 2020 with 25,153 cases in a day. However, the daily case count was consistently falling since the peak, and 95,50,700 of 1 crore cases were reported to have recovered.

In December 2020, Bharat reported only 3.14% active cases of total infections with the recovery rate among the highest, at more than 95%. Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka made for the top five Covid hot spots. On January 31, 2021, the recovery rate in Bharat stood at 96.6%, highest since the start of pandemic, with daily new cases and deaths on a continued downward slide.

The reboot

To reboot Bharat’s economy that suffered from the pandemic, Union Finance Minister Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman announced a whopping economic stimulus of 20 lakh crore INR or 280BN USD in May that was about 10% of Bharat’s GDP, under the AatmNirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India) Scheme that covered Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), poor including migrant labour, upgrading farming and food processing infrastructure, and structural reforms in critical sectors that included minerals, defense production, airspace management, infrastructure, power distribution, and space and atomic energy.

In November, another package of ₹1.19 lakh crore, including schemes to boost re-employment in the organized sector were released by the minister. While the long term impacts of the pandemic are yet to be ascertained, the manufacturing industry is trying to get back to its pre-Covid efficiency.

The automobile industry, even with a strong demand, has cut down on its production due to shortage of import of semiconductors because of the disrupted global supply chains while electronics is seeing a rising demand and supply.

With easing of interstate travel, local retail economies and tourism related businesses, including SMEs, are set for a quick recovery. In January, Bharat’s Foreign Reserves touched a lifetime high of USD 586.082 Bn and its GST collections stood at 1.19 lakh crore INR, highest since the introduction of new tax regime.

The Bharatiya vaccines

PM Modi had announced in December that vaccines would be available in a few weeks’ time. The Phase I and II Human trials had begun in July 2020 and Phase 3 trials had 26000 participants over 25 centres across Bharat. With two major Bharatiya vaccine manufacturing companies, the Serum Institute of India (SII) Pune, and Bharat Biotech that developed Covishield and Covaxin respectively, Bharat launched its biggest ever vaccination drive on January 16, 2021. Over 2 lakh people were vaccinated on Day 1, the highest anywhere in the world and by end of January, the number of beneficiaries was 37.5 lakh.

While Covishield was developed Astra Zeneca and Oxford University, Covaxin was made in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology (NIV). This is almost an year after Bharat reported its first Covid case. Bharat , that was being written off by “experts” worldwide answered them with its silent resolve and resounding success.

Around 30crore i.e. 300Mn are expected to be vaccinated by July 2021. The priority population to be vaccinated includes frontline healthcare workers, essential duty personnel, vulnerable citizens that include people over 60 years of age and people with health conditions.

At 3.61 Bn doses, Bharat is set to produce most number of Covid-19 vaccines after the US. The Bharatiya vaccines are not only saving lives of Bharatiyas but people across the globe. Brazil, that rejected China’s vaccine from pharmaceutical company SINOVAC, requested Bharat to supply 2Mn doses that PM Modi readily accepted.

Bharat also commenced the supply vaccines to its neighbour allies on a priority basis that included Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, and Sri Lanka and the 1st shipment left on January 19. By the time I concluded writing, the world has seen vaccine carrying Bharat’s planes being greeted by scores of countries and Bharat being lauded by the otherwise biased global watch bodies.

As per a recent announcement by Bharat Biotech, a nasal vaccine has been given approval for Phase I and II trials. If successful, this could be a massive game-changer in Bharat’s fight against Covid-19 and for its pharmaceutical industry.

While CRISIL had announced Bharat may see its worst recession since independence, the latest IMF reports suggest Bharat is poised to grow at 11.5% in 2021 and will reclaim its position of world’s fastest growing economy, beating China.

A country that is beaming with resolve of its 1.3Bn people, a country has made it to now, surviving through several bloody invasions, the dotcom busts and Lehman disasters, has refused to succumb and surrender to a preposterously forced calamity called Covid. It has rejected to slow down and give up its journey of building a stronger, powerful and self-reliant Bharat. The road may seem longer and tougher but there’s no stopping an ambitious nation with a determined leader.

Bharat’s vaccines are globally taming the virus from China. The spirit of Bharat is not to conquer with a disease but with a cure. And we will.

Sarve bhavantu sukinah, savrve santu niramayah –  May all be happy, may all be free from disease.



-by Meghna Gupta (Meghna specializes in market strategy and content creation. She has had a decade long corporate career in market research at reputed consulting firms. She holds a degree in Life Sciences and an MBA in Marketing and Finance. You may connect with her at [email protected])

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