The lessons of the past can hold answers to the crisis we are facing now with the second wave of Covid-19 infections raging across the country. But, for this, our leaders have to be willing and able to learn from history.
One particular incident, in my opinion, is illustrative of how lack of judgment and planning can prove costly in terms of health and lives. On September 28, 1918, the Liberty Loan Parade was organised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to boost morale and economic support for the soldiers of World War I. Many at that time opposed the event. And rightly so, since the Spanish flu pandemic was on in full force, and they felt a crowded event could lead to a spurt in infections.
Ignoring all objections, the Philadelphia public health director, Wilmer Krusen, allowed the event to go ahead. He felt that since over 200,000 people had already gathered, this parade would be an apt display of patriotism. As a result, what many feared came to pass. In the next few days, 47,000 people were infected and 12,000 died. The Spanish flu, in the middle of its second wave, took a huge toll on those between the ages of 25-35 years. Around 195,000 people died of the flu in October of that year in the United States.
This has similarities with what is happening in India today. Last September, when the pandemic seemed to be losing steam, our leaders were the first to take credit for this. The months which followed brought some hope. Vaccines were in the offing and many hoped for a quick economic recovery. Some states started promoting tourism, while others put their energies into planning for mega events such as the Kumbh. Six states were poll-bound and our netas lost no time in beginning their campaigns in right earnest, holding huge election rallies with most Covid-19 protocols thrown to the winds. The warnings of doctors and scientists that this cavalier attitude carried huge risks were ignored.
And so the malevolent genie of the second Covid-19 wave was unleashed, and this time in a more virulent and frightening form. In the first round, it was the elderly who were most at risk, now even young children are getting infected. An already stretched health system is collapsing — there are not enough ventilators, oxygen supplies, hospital beds and essential medicines. Hospitals are packed to capacity and even patients who are in a serious condition are not able to access proper medical care in time.
Now we watch in horror at images of long queues at cremation sites. At the Harishchandra Ghat in Kashi, fearing that the long wait would make them susceptible to the virus, relatives of the dead were reported to be paying exorbitant sums of money to cremate their loved ones. In Surat, an overload of cremations led to the chimneys of a furnace melting. The long queue for funerals in Lucknow went viral on social media. To prevent such images from finding their way into the media, the municipal corporation covered the crematorium premises with tin sheets. The wait in the Capital for cremations was anything between five to eight hours. And this is the situation across much of north and west India.
We have to hold the political class accountable for this sorry state of affairs. They were so busy with election rallies and religious events that they willfully or otherwise neglected the possibility that a second and more dangerous wave could engulf the country. The lull in the pandemic late last year provided the right opportunity to improve our health infrastructure and increase the number of testing laboratories. If the government was strapped for resources, it could have invited greater private sector participation with proper regulations in place.
The Spanish flu underwent three waves. This is something we should keep in mind when tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. What should have been done between September 2020 and February in terms of putting in place the appropriate medical and welfare structures to tackle the challenges the second wave is creating should at least be done now.
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi on Saturday did the right thing in asking for the Kumbh to be kept symbolic. This was crucial given that Uttarakhand recorded a huge increase in cases during the Kumbh. Most Hindu religious leaders have complied with the PM’s request. However, the fact remains that the Kumbh should not have been held in the first place. In contrast, the Election Commission has decided to go ahead with the polls in West Bengal under a predetermined schedule even though infection rates have increased. This is a warning that if decisive steps are not taken right now, we will be repeating the mistake made by Wilmer Krusen all those years ago.