Casual and shallow alarm-mongering as a regular accompaniment to Covid

Just for perspective, even if we take only official Indian Covid figures into account, more people died in the two months of April and May 2021 than the entire 12 months before that. That’s about 170,000 Covid deaths in two months flat. Even without accounting for the massive under-reporting, especially in UP, Gujarat and MP, this is by far the most destructive two-month period in the 73 years of independent India. Including June in this will take us well beyond 200,000 deaths, so we can categorically say that we’re living through history, “living” being the operative word.

Tragically, the lows touched by the politics and media of these times is also historic for what will be considered insanity in the future. The extent to which politics is preventing science from asserting itself around the world during Covid and how the mainstream media is stopping conversations like this not just in India, but around the world, is symptomatic of the one-eyed in charge of the blind — where no effort seems to be spared to cause further blindness, probably more out of ignorance and laziness than any wilful plan.

On May 5th, a day when there were apocalyptic visuals playing out all over the media — of crematoriums overflowing and people struggling for oxygen on the streets, with helpless anguish being the dominant emotion all around, guess what the lead news headline on NDTV on the 9 pm primetime news was? “Third Wave Imminent!” That’s right. Vishnu Shom, who anyway looks thirty seconds away at any given point from bursting into tears, broke the “news” of this “expert” view from the “government’s scientific advisor”, peddling throughly speculative data (despite all the “fears” expressed on this channel having been proved spectacularly and embarrassingly wrong for over a year). At a time of such national trauma, NDTV made the choice to peddle more panic, in completely speculative territory. If not mentally unhinged behaviour, this is a shockingly cynical and irresponsible choice to garner more eyeballs. A perfection intersection of the politics and media of today.

Three weeks later, The New York Times published this lead article that attempted to “estimate” India’s true Covid death tally through “extrapolation”. Twelve “experts” expounded their eminent views — including the redoubtable Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, whose consistent apocalyptic predictions have all turned out to be so wrong so far that putting him in the infamous company of Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson for historically significant indulgent patronage is not far-fetched at all. Basically, these erudite “experts” concluded that the death toll was anywhere in the region of of 307,000 (the official count) to 4.2 million deaths. This highly illuminating range utilised such rudimentary assumptions that it should rightfully embarrass even primary school maths geeks (and so thoroughly pointless, when they just have to look at excess deaths at the end of the month to work out the under-reporting; it would be much more accurate than this at least). To see seasoned journalists and grizzled academics sharing this on social media suggests two things at least — a) the unprecedented dumbing down of humans hasn’t just been limited to the new generation. And b) higher education and elite institutions in their current forms have actually demonstrated their utter uselessness to the human race.

Below is an attempt to show that, forget the “third wave”, even the “second wave” was not imminent in India, in the way people have been hyperventilating about. What led to the Indian debacle was a series of ill-informed and hubris-fuelled decisions. If its focussed learnings are not accepted and applied, these debacles will happen again and again, because Covid-19 is not going anywhere this year (and it never was likely to vanish entirely). We will have to live with it, but that is not as scary a prospect if some very basic principles are adhered to.

First, it is important to understand that the use of “wave” as nomenclature is misleading in certain contexts. Yes, the infection and death mapping look like bell curves that suggest a wave but for consistency across different countries, it gets confusing. Some scientists and doctors tried to explain this by describing these charts as “undulating mountains with peaks”, not “waves”. Originally, “wave” meant an entire phase of infections/ deaths and then a gap when it vanished and then came back after a while as a new wave. But now with “wave” being used so liberally, many of these scientists and writers appear to be using the same terminology even when it is not accurately applicable, for the sake of convenience to not complicate the conversation — everyone has limited energy after all.

The death toll of the first three waves of The Spanish Flu charted. Ref: Infectious Diseases Consultant

On the left is a rudimentary mapping of how the waves of the 1918–20 Spanish Flu looked like. The first of the four waves occurred during early-1918, the second fall-1918, third early-1919 and fourth early-1920. The chart alongside shows the first three waves; some people now divide the second 1918 wave into two waves, which is technically not accurate.

Daily Covid deaths in Vietnam 2020–21 Ref: (all country charts): Worldometer

Now, here are two Covid-19 examples —Vietnam and Spain, at two ends of the spectrum. Both both had periods of zero deaths — almost nine months in Vietnam and about two months in Spain.

Daily Covid deaths in Spain 2020–21

So, you can rightfully say that Vietnam has had two waves as has Spain, though in the latter’s case, the second wave has gone on for ten months (while its first, more lethal, wave lasted just three months). Both scales are hugely different, of course; Spain has had 1710 deaths per million, while Vietnam has had just 0.5 deaths per million.

The typical pattern for any pandemic is an initial phase when infections and deaths occur, which then fall. Usually, the steeper the curve is, the steeper it falls as well (like the first phase in Spain). The scale of lockdowns during Covid-19 has been far more than ever before, and this has “flattened” the wave/curve but also prolonged the durations of each phase. Due to these measures, the deaths typically subside for a while but occur as lockdowns ease (which is why the primary, if not sole, purpose of lockdown is to get the medical response ready, before reopening).

Daily Covid deaths in USA 2020–21

Then, as things open up, and quasi-normal behaviour gradually resumes, the numbers spike again. Sometimes this falls again soon and there is a period of calm for a while, if not for good.

Daily Covid deaths in Brazil 2020–21

At other times, perhaps due to mishandling or some kind of bad luck, the spikes keep happening regularly, back-to-back, for long periods. As has happened in the USA or Brazil or Iran or Indonesia and many other countries — you can’t really look at their charts and differentiate the spikes into different waves.

Daily Covid deaths in Iran 2020–21

Of course, that doesn’t stop some people from doing it, but they’re really just subjective takes with little consistency.

Daily Covid deaths in Indonesia 2020–21

The “imminent second wave” that was being referred to in Europe in the summer of 2020 was really a reference to flu season (roughly November to March) where deaths spike enormously in the winter every year anyway. That is exactly what happened — as pretty much every single European country faced this spike, mostly from November 2020. It was actually a fairly predictable rise and most of the countries were ready for it in varying degrees (despite the hyperventilating in the mainstream press). In fact, all countries in the world that had a reasonable infection base previously, faced significant spikes when their temperatures dropped, including the South American countries (being in the southern hemisphere, their summer is our winter and vice versa). That same trend showed up in Asia too (Iran and South Korea, for example) and all of North America as well. That there are still people who argue that there is no correlation between dropping temperatures and Coronavirus makes for a modern-day cognition wonder.

India, however, was another matter altogether, providing the most startling exception of 2021. Things were actually going very well here. Except for the state of Maharashtra (which requires a closer examination for the lessons it contains), things had not gone out of control in India. No thanks to the gross overreaction of the dramatic nationwide lockdown announced in March 2020 with just four hours notice, causing nationwide distress of unprecedented proportions to daily wage and migrant workers. The widespread economic distress, based on a megalomaniacal whimsy, has been, by a distance, far more of a calamity, with many more casualties than Covid-19 in the final analysis. The Covid trajectory actually was relatively moderate in India in 2020, as was the case with all warm weather countries.

Daily Covid deaths in India 2020–21

At the beginning of 2021, the downward trend was continuing in India. There was, in fact, a case to strive for economic normality even more. But not outside the realm of caution. Even though Covid-19 was palpably subsiding, and thankfully not shown any upward trend during falling temperatures as it did in most regions in the world, it was still very much there. The seven day moving average at no stage fell below 90 deaths a day. Even if this seems minor, for perspective — India touched this daily death toll in early-May 2020 after six weeks of complete lockdown. To do away with Covid protocols at this stage entirely was still a no-no. This is where the differentiation between “wave” and “spike” can come in practically handy, in a rudimentary way. The wave was not over; a spike could come at any point. Thing is, given the scale of what has followed, it is now perfectly understandable to call this a new wave altogether, but a few spikes would not have justified that.

When 2021 began, the Indian government, keen to take credit for the end of Covid-19 as some key state elections had come up (West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam), also needed to ramp up their election campaigning. So, from mid-January, a hyper-normality began to be aggressively communicated from the ruling party, so that no one would question throwing Covid caution to the winds in the context of electioneering. The net result was that local and state electioneering began in earnest everywhere, with BJP’s formidable machinery leading the way. The first local spikes from this were palpable in Nagpur and Chhattisgarh in February. Meanwhile, Punjab numbers had also spiked, which was largely due to the farmer’s protests in Delhi due to many infected people returning to Punjab (a sad reality for a just cause). Then in the middle of March, to show-off a newly constructed stadium in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (deemed to be the largest in the world currently) and renamed furtively on the eve of the match after the Prime Minister, fifty percent of its capacity was allowed in two back-to-back matches — leading to almost 120,000 people happily congregating over two events in a space of three days.

The super-spreader event is the biggest danger during any pandemic — this is a time-honoured and utterly obvious truism. Super spreader events are also usually responsible for mutations of a virus. To open the doors to that before Covid had entirely vanished (before the “wave” was over) was not merely playing with fire, it was setting a time bomb. But the nuclear bomb in that context happened in March, when the Indian government sacked the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Trivendra Singh Rawat (and bizarrely replaced him with a namesake Tirath Singh Rawat —almost like the infamous similar-symbol stunt during voting time, popularised by this BJP, to confuse the voter), for insisting on a socially distanced Maha Kumbh mela to be held at Haridwar, and paved the way for this event to be held in April without such norms, where 7 million people attended the event.

Credit: PTI file photo

This is, without exception, the biggest and greatest super spreader event in any pandemic ever in human history. At long last, something India is an indisputable all-time world champion at. All of this appears to have unleashed a double mutant virus that, as an exception to the less virulent coronaviruses in warmer climes, actually seemed more dangerous than anywhere in the world thus far, as evidenced by the many younger casualties it began to claim.

Those who keep blaming regular people for dropping their guard should understand that people in every region behave relatively similarly. People are not cattle and Covid fatigue is real. Besides, in India, social distancing is wishful thinking in most quarters. There have been similar litanies in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well, complaints about some groups of people partying or not wearing masks, but none of them faced the scale of spike that India did in April. Also, consider the cross-section of people who reportedly dominated the Maha Kumbh — apparently from the Hindi belt states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh most prominently. And the three “Hindu consciousness states” of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka (which also saw local electioneering). Almost every one of these states reported an explosion of Covid in April — some under-reported but Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka just could not hide the volume of deaths. Delhi, a nodal point for the Maha Kumbh, simply collapsed. Nepal, from where many attended, didn’t just explode with Covid; it had its biggest medical emergency in decades.

Add the election campaigning to this, and the spikes in Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu fall into place as well — even though they didn’t go as wildly out of control as the regions mentioned above did. This is what did India in during the “second wave”. Not people dropping their guard, but its government criminally disregarding the welfare of people who voted it in for the sake of electoral and cultural gains. There is not a single leader in the world today, not Trump, not Bolsonaro, not Orbán, not Duterte — absolutely nobody, who showed this level of uncouth unconcern for his people as Modi did in 2021. He is absolutely alone in human history, at the very bottom, when it comes to leading during pandemics.

This is why it is safe to say that this kind of a “second wave” was not imminent in India. What would have certainly occurred as different parts of the country opened up — when local trains started operating normally in Mumbai or Chandni Chowk in Delhi opened up fully, for example — are spikes. Covid cases/ deaths would have risen for a short while (though many would have called them “waves’). Exactly how it has panned out in Pakistan and Bangladesh, for example.

Daily Covid deaths in Pakistan 2020–21
Daily Covid deaths in Bangladesh 2020–21

Before looking at the charts of Pakistan and Bangladesh, please keep in mind that the scales are completely different from India’s. And that Pakistan has suffered 93 deaths per million, Bangladesh 76 deaths per million and India 243 deaths per million. India was on about 115 deaths per million before April 2021 (primarily because of Maharashtra’s unexplainably high outlier death toll) and it would have spiked somewhat, but without collapsing the entire health system or causing apocalyptic moments that many will not forget their whole lives.

Policy and local culture have obviously affected Covid casualties in different places. An interesting example is the comparison between neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia. The latter was in the news a while ago for enforcing stricter Covid norms for praying in mosques. This is not to say that this was the only factor in Malaysia suffering 91 deaths per million while Indonesia’s tally is double that at 184 deaths per million, but it probably played a part.

This is where Maharashtra’s high outlier death toll need a closer examination at some point. Why has no neighbouring region, within India or outside it, matched its death toll? Why is Maharashtra unequivocally the worst hit warm weather region/ state in the world? It has been ironic to see some hailing the Mumbai authorities for averting the oxygen crisis seen elsewhere, playing their own political games (it has been worrying to see the judiciary participating in this blatantly for a while now), without revealing the huge difference in resources made available from the central government and also conveniently sidestepping the inconvenient fact that Mumbai quite simply did not face the same Covid challenge in this second phase in April 2021 as Delhi and parts of Karnataka, Gujarat and UP did. They forget that Pune, under the same government, continues being India’s worst-hit city and that Maharashtra’s death toll has consistently been the highest in India, and despite the crisis we’ve just seen, continues to be (as Covid spreads in rural areas now). Or why small-town Maharashtra is getting utterly ravaged by Covid now. This cannot merely be because this is the only state that is not hiding its death figures, as the state government insisted. There is great irony in that claim as well, given the staggering scale of corruption that has gone on in the state (that has been reported in the media as well, along with videos shared on social media), in terms of blatant state collection. Myopic and heavy-handed policies that have coerced and scared people (this is literally the only Indian state where authorities have forced people out of houses into quarantine in the early Covid days, with the self-righteous zeal of a crusade), the way some people perhaps held back because of that fear until it was too late, highly compressed timings of essential services causing crowds within those limited hours (when those timings needed/need to be spread out more), the spectre of false positives without the possibility of a re-test (thus pushing all kinds of people into Covid wards, many of whom would not come out of them), treating lockdown as a first option rather than last resort — all of these need to be examined for the damage they might have done.

But Maharashtra as an exception apart, it is a pity that the general nomenclature is so amenable to ambiguity and obfuscation. If spikes were not taken for waves, moments would not be mistaken for cycles. If deaths were spoken of much more than cases, many of the oxygen casualties could have been avoided (as the focus would have been on saving lives in the earlier days, not on preventing infection at any cost, given the insurmountable scale of the latter in India). Despite the highly inadequate form in which vaccination is being carried out in India currently, those numbers added to the number of people infected in the recent past means the tally of Covid-endangered people in the population is receding rapidly every day — a certain form of herd immunity is almost certainly around the corner. In fact, it is absolutely unscientific, on the basis of the above facts, to assume things will get worse (if there are no super-spreader events).

Also, it is one thing when authorities strive for caution from a policy perspective, quite another when it becomes an opportunity for the mainstream media to start alarm-mongering using that pretext — like the “third wave” affecting more children. There is absolutely zero evidence currently of more children being affected than before — roughly the same number of infections but even otherwise, infected numbers mean little anyway, as typically, children have mild symptoms which vanish thereafter; there have very emphatically not been casualties among children now, as it was before.

If we insist on calling every spike a “wave”, then sure, not just the third wave, even the tenth wave is imminent. But if the policy-makers keep in mind that this Covid cycle is not getting over anytime soon (given the size of this country) and strain for economic normality to whatever extent possible while rigorously avoiding super-spreader events of any hue, there is no reason why things cannot come under control very soon, occasional but manageable spikes in different spaces notwithstanding.

We can take some inspiration from the UK (as we so ridiculously did at the beginning of the pandemic, while adopting the universal lockdown , ironically borrowed from communist China— the second-stupidest act committed by this government after the Maha Kumbh). During what was being called their “second wave”, in the thick of flu season, on January 27th 2021, there were 1726 Covid deaths through the UK in 24 hours (for perspective, that’s about eight times worse than it ever has been in India, give the respective population sizes) — it was beyond scary. But within seven weeks, by March 15th, it had fallen to 64 deaths a day, with the trajectory continuing. On May 2nd, 5000 Liverpool residents became the first people in Britain in more than a year to attend an open air music concert. They were tested before and after the event, as was the air quality. Maybe it was just a steep curve falling as rapidly as it rose, or the impact of efficient localised lockdowns (as opposed to universal lockdown), but it is not hard to imagine why a super-spreader event of even a tenth of the Maha Kumbh’s size would cause a massive spike, not just in the UK but in Europe.

No masks, no social distancing; May 2nd, 2021, Liverpool. Ref: Getty Images

A calibrated approach is now being cautiously followed. On June 2nd, Lord’s, London saw Test match cricket resuming with at 25% capacity allowed and the second Test at Birmingham will allow 70% stadium capacity to be filled. For the closing stages of the UEFA Euro tournament at Wembley, London, a full capacity is expected, if all stays the same.

We will get there too. But there is merit in proceeding there with cautious optimism rather than irrational alarm. Railing on against the impending reopening of lockdowns (in the belief that it will endanger them), as some have been doing lately on social media, is the exact opposite of what is required.