According to the Union health ministry, no COVID-19 case has been reported in 146 districts in the country for more than a week. At 1.44, the country’s case fatality ratio is well below the global figure of 2.15. A year after India recorded its first COVID-19 case — a medicine student in Kerala who had returned from China tested positive on January 30 — these are reassuring indicators that the contagion is on its last legs in a country where it has claimed more than 1.5 lakh lives. India’s success in tackling the health crisis is impressive given that the virus continues to rage in several parts of the developed world. This achievement shouldn’t, however, make the country’s policymakers lose sight of the vulnerabilities — social, economic and educational — exposed and amplified by the pandemic.
Four days after the Kerala resident tested positive, two more COVID-19 cases were registered in the state. However, no other case was reported for more than a month. Though the novel coronavirus had begun to take its toll in other parts of the world, the fact that India had emerged unscathed from the SARS epidemic of 2003 and had staved off the Nipah and Zika viruses offered hope that an outbreak could be avoided. But with a new set of infections overwhelming the country in March, the government had to impose a lockdown — one of the strictest in the world. The rest of the year was a stern test for the country’s policymakers, its medical and scientific establishments and health professionals in the frontlines of the battle against an unpredictable contagion that had no antidote. They responded creditably — testing and monitoring the surging infection amongst people of diverse socio-economic and cultural profiles, ramping up health facilities and production of protective equipment for healthcare professionals and, most significantly, expanding the frontiers of knowledge about a pathogen that posed new questions almost every day. Though the lockdown began to be gradually eased from June 2020, it was evident that the return to normalcy hinged on the rollout of an anti-COVID vaccine — another unprecedented challenge, for vaccine development is known to take years. The start of the inoculation drive on January 16 is another high point in the country’s tryst with the virus.
Pandemics are, however, cruel not just because of the toll they take on peoples’ health but also because of the social and economic disruptions they cause. That the defining image of the lockdown was that of migrant workers, abandoned by employers and the state, walking hundreds of kilometres on highways, is a telling commentary on the fragility of the country’s social security systems. A number of reports and surveys have highlighted how the digital pivot to education during the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities of class, caste and gender. The past 10 months have been instructive on numerous counts but one lesson calls for immediate attention — India would have done a better job of balancing the imperatives to protect lives and livelihoods and mitigating disruption if it had a stronger social security system.