Covid Catastrophe: How India Invited Trouble from UK, Twice

Sanjay Suri
·4-min read

Covid-19 is grabbing swathes of India for the second time now, and for the second time again heavily on the invitation of the Indian government. For the second time too, an invitation made particularly to an import from Britain. The flow has been distinct. Towards the end of December last year a new variant of the virus had gripped the south of Britain, Kent particularly. That strain came to be called the Kent variant. It was reported by UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock then to spread 70 per cent faster than the earlier strain. It soon spread fast across Britain, provoking a second lockdown in early January.

It spread fast across Europe and beyond as well. Moving fast, Dutch authorities banned flights from Britain from 6am local time on December 20.

What was known to Dutch authorities was known at much the same time to Indian authorities, as it was of course around the world. India too banned flights from Britain – but damagingly late. The Indian ban was ordered to take place from midnight of December 22-23. That was three days after the Dutch ban.

Through that three-day period, a number of flights arrived from Britain brought well above a thousand passengers. It was clear since December 20 at the least, and it was clear to many far earlier, that these flights would bring with them a number of people infected with the UK variant. And so they did. Cases began popping up in ones and twos, then in dozens, then in hundreds around India.

A lethally familiar pattern of spread followed. From a slow and occasional spread, the variant hit snowballing point, and there has been no stopping it. It has now partnered with an Indian mutation, though thankfully still a double mutation still does not mean it’s doubly as dangerous, or spreads twice as fast or even that it is that much more resistant to vaccines. But the UK variant is today the beating heart of the strain sweeping across India.

Complacency

India was decidedly slow off the mark. Demands for a ban on flights from India had begun to be made by December 20, and even earlier. But at a press conference at the India Science Festival on December 21, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan told reporters asking about a ban on UK flights in view of the UK variant: “At this time, I would say, don’t get hassled with imaginary situations, imaginary talks and imaginary panic. The government is fully alert. In the last one year, as you all have seen, we took all necessary measures to ensure the safety of people. If you ask me, there’s no reason to panic so much.”

Not the minister, nor anyone else is calling the present spread imaginary. Needless to say, there has been no acknowledgement from the minister that the reporters at the press conference, like so many others, were right, and that the government was getting it wrong.

The Indian government appeared to have been playing politics with the virus. The union health minister’s advisory against panic came after Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had tweeted: “New mutation of coronavirus has emerged in UK, which is a super-spreader. I urge central government to ban all flights from UK immediately.” The government did order a ban, but not with immediate effect. A lot of people in India are paying a heavy price now for that three-day delay.

Necessary measures

It’s not clear either that the government had taken all necessary measures earlier. Travellers from Britain, along with arrivals from the UAE were a major source of the spread of the virus in 2020, according to a study by the Indian Institute of Technology in Mandi.

The study was based on the travel history of patients between January and April of last year. The highest number of connections behind the spread were traced to Dubai and London, rather than any within India through that first phase, the study found. Typically the virus, imported substantially from Britain, took some time before it could take the shape of a mass spread.

India had imposed a ban on international flights relatively early in 2020 from March 23, well before many other countries had imposed a similar ban. Through the summer the Vande Bharat repatriation flights brought many people home in a remarkably well-conducted humanitarian homecoming. But many brought the virus with them. The relaxation coupled with insufficient controls took cases to a peak in September last year. That then fed into a heavy domestic spread of the virus from before that had never gone away.

Over recent weeks a relaxation from the government mixed with carelessness among people helped multiply the spread to the present alarming levels, still rising rapidly. The doors to the virus had been opened repeatedly by the government.

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