Two years on: India had major successes and big failures in Covid response. Right lessons must be learnt

Two years on: India had major successes and big failures in Covid response. Right lessons must be learnt

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The Disaster Management Act, which was invoked by GoI for the first time ever two years ago to spearhead the Covid response, will not be used beginning April. Subsequently, states will have more autonomy to shape public health responses. It’s a milestone as GoI is now convinced the level of threat has diminished. The numbers capture just a part of the story. Cumulatively, there were 43 million infections and around 5.2 lakh deaths. Both are likely underestimated as proxy data thrown up by sero surveys and the civil registration system suggest.

Covid’s outbreak was a massive stress test on India’s governance architecture. It was found wanting at crucial moments in the first 15 months. With the benefit of hindsight, the intensity and duration of the first nationwide lockdown was excessive. Governments were unaware of the scale of short-term economic shock. A sudden shutdown led to both human suffering and severe economic dislocation. And a premature declaration of victory left India unprepared for the savage Delta wave between April and June 2021.

The success story has been India’s vaccination drive, which has now crossed 1.82 billion doses. By February 8, about 73% of the population aged 15 and above had been administered two doses. It cost Rs 27,945 crore, less than 1% of total expenditure in the 2021-22 Union Budget. Vaccines’ efficacy at a low cost suggests that we would have done well to pre-order larger quantities in 2020 as Serum Institute had the capacity to supply these. The National Institute of Virology showcased India’s scientific depth by developing an inactivated vaccine. However, India lagged in carrying out follow-up research on mix-and-match doses as well as boosters. We were over-reliant on studies carried out overseas.

India faced the pandemic on the heels of a slowdown in economic momentum. This factor and the uncertain trajectory of the pandemic justified a fiscally cautious stance at first. However, fiscal policy could have been more nimble later to support contact-intensive sectors that are yet to recover. Two years on, the takeaways are that (a) data collection has to improve and also be shared, (b) epidemiological science and research need upgrades, (c) economic disruption must be as little as possible, and (d) India needs a sound public health architecture.