They will be remembered as India’s lost months: the stretch between September and February when Covid-19 cases in the country defied global trends, falling sharply throughout the coldest months of the year until they reached four-figure daily totals.
It was inexplicable. Was it the Indian climate? A protection conferred by childhood immunisations? Some speculated India may have naturally reached herd immunity. It was a tantalising idea that took hold in India’s highest circles of policymaking, media and science – even a government-commissioned study suggested herd immunity may indeed have been achieved. It would prove one of the most fatal miscalculations of the Covid-19 pandemic so far.
Now, with daily cases crossing 360,000, and recorded deaths beyond 3,200 per day, many see the lull between Covid-19 waves as a cruel illusion. “The elections, religious festivals and everything else opened up completely,” says Sujatha Rao, a former secretary of the Indian ministry of health and family welfare. “That was a very bad mistake and we have paid a very dear price, a heavy price for that oversight.”
An outbreak the size of India’s second wave, apparently fuelled by Covid-19 variants that appear to be more infectious than earlier strains, would have overwhelmed most public health systems – let alone one of the most chronically underfunded in the world, serving a vast, spread-out population.
But public health experts, including some involved in advising the government, say the scale of India’s current outbreak was also partly manmade, the result of a feeling of exceptionalism that emanated from the top of the Indian government and rippled across society, leading to countless administrative and personal decisions that, within a few months, would prove disastrous.
“There was a misreading of the situation in January that we had attained herd immunity and were unlikely to see a second wave,” says K Srinath Reddy, the president of the Public Health Foundation of India. “India went into full-blown celebratory mode. And we know the virus travels with people, and celebrates with crowds.”
Alongside warnings that people should maintain precautions, governments at all levels relaxed restrictions, allowed massive social events to resume and pressed ahead with raucous electioneering, confident the continued circulation of Covid-19 in states such as Kerala or Maharashtra were the dying embers of the virus, not evidence of the sparks that would ignite a second firestorm.
“There was a lot of mixed messaging coming through which made people very complacent,” Shahid Jameel, a virologist at Ashoka University, told a forum there on Tuesday. Some politicians and scientists boasted of low infection and death rates that gave Indians the impression “that somehow we are special”, Jameel added. “We are not special.”
Supermodels and herd immunity
Given India’s youthful population, Covid-19 death rates were expected to be smaller than elsewhere. But official numbers during the first wave were exceptionally low. In Karnataka, a state with a similar population to France, seroprevalence studies have suggested nearly half of people were infected by August. Yet the state’s Covid-19 death toll was about 12,000 last year, compared with the more than 60,000 people who died from the virus in France over the same period.
Studies are already beginning to understand the extent to which official Indian records of that time were unreliable. Ramanan Laxminarayan, the founder and director of the Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in Washington DC, told the Ashoka University panel that a forthcoming study of Indian mortality rates suggested the country had not escaped the first wave so unscathed.
“[The study shows] Indians are not exceptional at all,” he said. “In fact a lot of our mortality is in that 40-70 age group, where our mortality rates are higher than for other countries.”
The belief that India may have shaken off Covid-19 for good was bolstered by some scientists. Members of a committee established by the government to create a “supermodel” of Indian cases published a study in September claiming their model showed India may have already reached herd immunity. Others made a similar argument in newspaper columns.
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