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It will take a while to fully understand why India was devoured by the coronavirus so quickly and so catastrophically. One thing is certain, however: India’s problem is now the world’s problem.
India closed too abruptly when the virus hit and was then too quick to reopen. In March 2020, the country was locked down with a four-hour notice, although there have not yet been many cases. Millions of people, including many migrant workers, have been stranded without food or shelter. Faced with the economic disaster, the government reopened the country In front The pandemic has really arrived.
What is happening in India now is pretty similar to what the United States experienced in its coronavirus waves. The Indian states, where deaths rose again in March and April, simply closed their eyes and hoped they would go away. After all, India’s first virus wave has declined for unclear reasons.
To make matters worse, the Indian states have very limited resources of their own – a lockdown costs money, especially if you want to avoid causing enormous pain to the poor – and the central government has not offered to pay the bill. (In America, the Trump administration was much more generous in comparison last year.)
Unsurprisingly, state governments decided to drag their feet until it was impossible to avoid action. In the meantime, the disease spread across the country and new mutations appeared. With the national government unwilling to take on the problem, no one really followed how the new variants behaved. Too little, too late is the story of the current outbreak.
The government is starting to stir now, but it still doesn’t seem ready to pursue a national strategy.
However, it is evident that India is a new Now centrally coordinated lockdown, possibly targeted in areas where there are already enough infections (infections are still concentrated in less than a quarter of the country’s counties), and incremental as needed to cover them.
One reason the response is still slow is the fear of what would happen to the economy, and the poor in particular, with the lockdowns returning. The central government could speed this up by promising life-sustaining cash transfers to anyone who has a government-issued identity in locked places. This should be accompanied by restrictions on movement between districts. The time is now.
The same goes for vaccination. The central government believes that vaccination is open to everyone (if they find a shot), but either individuals or states must pay for it. The result will be that those who can afford it will be vaccinated and some states will do the rest, but people elsewhere will be on their own. Making free vaccination available to all, and providing enough administrative muscle and human resources to accomplish this, will calm the country in its panic and potentially protect the world.
Other governments have also been slow to respond to the looming disaster in India. The Biden government announced that it would not send vaccine vaccine aid to India until late April, more than a week after the daily case load exceeded 300,000. The problem is now so great that what can be done from the outside is relatively small. Of course, that shouldn’t stop the United States and Europe from sending vaccines, oxygen and money to India, or lifting export bans on ingredients used to make vaccines. A life saved is a life saved.
But the world must look beyond India and avoid another time mistake. We can’t afford to repeat the first wave experience when we didn’t know how fast a virus can spread. Nor should the nations be made to feel uncomfortable with the progress of vaccination campaigns in the United States and Europe.
The variant B.1.617, first presented in India, is now spreading far beyond the country. In India, some people who have been vaccinated appear to be infected. It would be foolish to assume that “better” vaccines available in the West will necessarily save us. Business leaders and scientists need to figure out what should be done to combat variants, including booster shots, new vaccines, masks, and a slowdown in reopening.
Most critical, however, is the possibility of expecting the virus to spread in Africa, where a barely started vaccination campaign is now threatened by the situation in India, which has stopped exporting vaccines that many countries rely on.
This would lead to disaster in countries where oxygen supplies and hospital beds are extremely limited. The United States and Europe must stand ready to act quickly if necessary. This means shipping and manufacturing vaccines as soon as possible, and perhaps more urgently. This means investing in global monitoring and testing and being ready to ship oxygen and equipment and financially support people in lockdown.
If we get ready now, we may have a chance to avoid a repetition of India’s nightmare.
Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo are economics professors and directors of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You are the winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics 2019 and the authors of “Good Economy for Difficult Times”.
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