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Editorial: COVID-19 Second Wave Bringing New Challenges for India

Chennai, 12 May 2021:

The spiraling crisis from resurgence of COVID-19 cases in India has dented support for the ruling BJP but voter support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party will remain strong over the coming quarters and through this humanitarian crisis, says Fitch Solutions.

The sudden and steep surge in the number of coronavirus cases – the highest-ever 4,12,262 new infections and a record 3,980 daily death toll in a day – has swamped the health system, which seemed to have collapsed.

While containment measures will weigh on India’s ongoing economic recovery, the localised nature of restrictions means that the actual impact is likely to be much less severe relative to April-June 2020 when a strict nationwide lockdown was imposed, Fitch Solutions said.

It forecasted real GDP to grow 9.5 per cent in 2021-22 (April 2021 to March 2022). Risks to this forecast are to the downside, as the surge in new daily COVID-19 caseloads will most likely see an extension and expansion of lockdowns, it said adding that the resurgence of COVID-19 cases exposed cracks in the Indian healthcare system.

This second wave in India has been widely attributed to the B.1.1.7 variant – first identified in the UK – which had ramped up cases in Punjab. Another possible culprit is a homegrown variant, B.1.617, with two worrying mutations that originated in Maharashtra, the worst affected state.

“In addition to this, in India, a year of COVID-19 fatigue gave way to an ill-advised euphoria over herd immunity as cases began to dip in January 2021. “Inadequate government measures and people not adhering to public health guidelines, such as wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing, are also the main reasons for India’s upward tick in infections,” it said.

It added that a number of political, social and religious events and elections for local bodies in multiple states and preparation for Assembly elections in others also created an opportunity for the virus to move fast.

Fitch Solutions said that in March this year, a few weeks before the new surge, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, who is also a physician, asserted that India was in the “endgame” of the COVID-19 pandemic, justifying the government’s decision to export medical resources to other countries.

With 8.5 hospital beds per 10,000 population and eight physicians per 10,000, the country’s healthcare sector is not equipped for such a crisis. Hospitals across the country have filled to capacity and in addition to oxygen running out, intensive care units are operating at full capacity and nearly all in the country ventilators are in use.

“Despite surging infections, an overburdened healthcare system, and non-stop burial and crematorium activity, the Modi administration remains resistant to imposing a stringent sweeping nationwide lockdown the likes of Q1FY21 (April 2020-March 2021).

“This was due to considerations around the economic damage another such lockdown would cause,” it said. The onus of the pandemic containment has hence been shifted to the state governments, Fitch added.

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