The United Nations Resident Coordinator in India, Renata Dessallien, has said that the second wave of Covid-19 infection in the country and the rapid spread of the virus took the country by surprise. Ms Dessallien has warned that taking lessons from this, health preparedness will have to be strengthened to deal with the possible third wave.
Q) India is witnessing an unprecedented COVID crisis. Since April, we have seen a sharp spike in cases, the healthcare system has been overwhelmed, the infection has also spread to rural areas. As the UN Resident Coordinator in India, how do you see the current situation?
First of all, let me express my profound condolences and my empathy with everyone who has lost a loved one or has suffered in some manner from this second COVID wave.
As you said, it has been a particularly devastating second wave – very vicious and quite different from the first wave. The first wave built up slowly. We had something like 6-7 months before it peaked. That gave a lot of time for preparations. In addition, I think everyone was pumped up with adrenaline the first time around because a global pandemic like that was still new. We hadn’t experienced it before and we all were hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. Thirdly, the first time around, the communicability of the virus was much less than the second wave. The second wave hit us extremely fast. Within a few weeks, the numbers had just shot up and we had very little time. So even though many preparations had been made the first time, nevertheless it took us all by surprise – not the fact that that there was a second wave, but its intensity and communicability.
India is doing better now. As you know, this is a huge country. In terms of population, we are three times the size of the European Union and so even though the aggregate numbers tell us a story, it’s not very instructive to just look at the aggregates. India consists of 28 states and union territories and the wave has been very different in different parts of the country. Most of the country has been hit by the second wave, but it travelled within the country at a different pace. So it’s much more instructive to look underneath the aggregates at the multiple waves that constitute India’s overall performance.
We’re coming out of the second wave now, slowly. Some parts of the country are still hurting. In other parts, numbers have come down. We still are losing some 3,500 souls every day, so it’s still serious. But for the most part, I think we’re seeing the other side of the peak and I think we’re all sobered and have learned a lot of lessons for the third wave.
Q) Many neighbouring countries in South Asia are also witnessing a similar sharp increase in COVID cases. In your assessment, why did India and the world fail to see such a deadly second onslaught?
It is not as if we didn’t anticipate a second wave. Everyone saw that different parts of the world were experiencing second and third waves of the pandemic. So, the idea that, somehow, there wouldn’t be a second wave was never seriously considered. We all expected a second wave.
But as I said, the characteristics of the first wave were very different. We were primed to think about the second wave along the lines of the first wave – that it would be slow, that we will have time to prepare, that it would not be any more contagious than the first wave. That’s what caught us by surprise.
Also, during the course of last year, as you know, vaccines were produced in record time and India was producing two very important vaccines. Vaccination had already begun in January this year. So, I believe there was a feeling that finally vaccines are being administered, so we have more armour against this vicious pandemic. I think, that some complacency set in.
Also, even though India had expanded its epidemiological response capabilities in the first wave, and some of it had started to contract early this year, the speed with which the second wave took off didn’t leave much time to expand the response.
Q) There have also been warnings of a third wave. You said the lessons have been learned from the second wave. Do you think we are now prepared to deal with the next wave?
I think all of us are now expecting a third wave. But we don’t know what it will resemble. And it’s hard to prepare when you don’t know what to expect. Over the last year, we saw many predictions, such as when the pandemic will peak, but virtually all of them were wrong. I think we have to be humble and admit that we still do not know a lot about this virus. And therefore, what we’re anticipating is something that we cannot really define yet. All we can say is that it could be like the first wave, it could be like the second wave or it could be completely different. It’s rather hard to prepare for something like that.
But I think that one thing is very clear – we need to expand vaccination coverage quickly. I know that there have been issues with the supply chain and such. But in a few months hopefully, the production of vaccines will speed up in the country. With that, I hope that there will be much more protection against the virus in the third wave.
Now, everyone is working to ensure that the response system – the health response system – can expand and contract more quickly. If there was a third wave that resembles the second wave, we would definitely need to add more beds, more oxygen quicker than we saw in the second wave.
At the same time, despite the challenges we’ve seen, I’ve also seen some extraordinary efforts put in at all levels — centre, state and local. We’ve also seen many countries struggling with this virus, even the countries with the most sophisticated health systems. So I think we all have to be understanding and work together. And the most important thing is that we learn our lessons as we go forward.
Q) What has been the UN’s response to the evolving situation and how has the UN in India stepped up to help India in this time of need?
The pandemic has an epidemiological dimension, a health systems dimension and of course, socio-economic impacts. The UN in India has been working on all these fronts. We supported the national response right from the beginning. We are lucky because the WHO office has a large presence in India. They have deployed some 2,600 medical personnel, stationed across the country, who were experienced in managing communicable diseases and were immediately repurposed to work on COVID-19.
As I said, from the beginning of the pandemic, we responded to the early dimensions of preparation and containment with technical expertise, and immediate support such as PPEs, etc.. Now with this second wave, we’ve not only revved up ongoing support, but we also customized our support to the recent needs. We imported 10,000 oxygen concentrators, several UN agencies worked on establishing 72 oxygen plants, we supplied RT-PCR testing machines and cold chain equipment and more.
In addition to the epidemiological response, the UN is also supporting India with regards to health system strengthening – not only those health systems to respond to COVID-19 – but also to keep other essential health services and vaccinations programmes running – for example, those required to protect children from communicable diseases.
In addition, we’ve been supporting the socio-economic response. Several UN agencies are working on securing livelihoods. We all know that the impact of COVID-19, particularly the movement restrictions, led to an enormous job loss last year. And unfortunately, India was only just getting back onto its feet, economically speaking, when the second wave hit. So we’re deeply concerned about the impact of that on livelihoods, people’s well-being and their ability to feed their families. We are also concerned about the economy as a whole because when an economy the size of India slows down, as it did last year, it takes a long time to start up and that’s not easy. So we are also providing support on that front.
Q) Many from the UN staff have also been affected by the COVID infection. What is the in-house situation and how are you dealing with it?
The United Nations system in India is here to stay and deliver its services. No matter how many waves come, we are here to support the country in its time of need. Quite a few of our staff are actually on the frontline. As I mentioned, 2600 WHO personnel and many from UNICEF and other agencies are also working hand-in-hand with the frontline responders, and are quite vulnerable. Fortunately, when the government rolled out its vaccination in January, it covered all the frontline workers and they were gracious enough to include UN frontline
workers amongst them, who are nationals. So we were lucky that many of them got vaccinated quite early.
But of course, we are also vulnerable and we had staff that came down with COVID-19, like everybody else. There are few people in the country who have not had one or more family members, loved ones, close friends or neighbours hit by COVID-19. I think everyone has been affected and the UN has been no exception on that front. But I would like to emphasize that we are here to stay and deliver. When things get difficult, we only try to work harder.