It’s very hard to write about technology in the midst of a raging pandemic that is claiming thousands of lives every day. When people on Twitter and Instagram are burning the midnight oil trying to find beds, ICUs, oxygen, and drugs for those privileged enough to have access to social media, and while vast swathes of the population go without even this scrappy, volunteer-driven source of relief, it raises many questions about the role of technology in combating a pandemic.
Technology is a broad term, of course, but in India, both in the current government and in the corporate sector (who are the cosiest of bedfellows, so I suppose only to be expected), the urge is not to carefully consider the role that technology can play in mitigating a crisis, but to rush headlong into the snazziest and shiniest solution that is easy to roll out and then brag about.
A couple of days ago, right after the Cowin website was opened up for people aged 18-44 to register for vaccination, India’s health minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan, went on Twitter to crow about the number of OTPs sent, the number of registrations, and the number of API hits recorded. This is the kind of metrics that startup founders might flaunt in front of potential investors whom they are trying to dazzle. But like every other PR manoeuvre of this government, the numbers conceal more than they reveal.
The simple fact is there are no vaccines to administer to 18-44s. The government, with its catastrophic decisions and unpreparedness, has ensured that there would be no availability of these vaccines for this age group and, furthermore, that they could place the blame entirely on the states. But the relatively smooth functioning of the website and its grand metrics seemed to them enough of an achievement to serve as a fig leaf to cover their naked ineptitude.
There is technology that the government could easily have focused on, like pressure swing adsorption oxygen plants. Scroll did a on how the government very belatedly in October woke up and decided to use some of the money in the to set up these plants in hospitals across the country.
The implementation of this project has been largely a failure, with only 33 out of the 162 plants having been installed. Now that the second wave is utterly ravaging the country, the government appears to have woken up again and has announced another in hospitals around the country. One can only hope that the sheer scale of the horror that is unfolding now will put some kind of pressure on them to make sure this project is successful, and that we have less of an oxygen crisis when the inevitable third wave of the pandemic rolls along.
Early on in the pandemic, it was clear that there would be a desperate need for ICU beds in various hospitals. Needless to say, the government made sure that their headline management was supreme with various outlets reporting that the PM Cares Fund was going to be used to procure . Subsequent to that, the only update that popped up in the news was that the small number of Made in India ventilators to be were found to be defective and useless. What has happened to this very ambitious target – and if even a single functional ventilator has been deployed pursuant to this headline management exercise – is still unclear.
One thing is certain. If India had actually deployed 50,000 functioning ventilators (and, to a smaller extent, the 162 PSA oxygen plants) since last year, thousands of lives could have been saved. Instead, people perished for the lack of a ventilator bed or for the lack of oxygen in their hospitals.
Another signal failure of the Indian Covid response has been with regard to genome sequencing of virus samples. One of the ways to understand the nature of the spread of the pandemic, and anticipate its future paths, is to regularly sequence the genomes of the virus from people who have tested positive in various parts of the country, to understand the kind of variants that are in circulation and the mutations that they carry, and what impact this might have.
In the first six months, India’s sequencing programme crawled, with only a few hundred sequences having been done. Belatedly in January 2021, they set up the Indian SARS-CoV2 Genomics Consortium, or INSACOG, to speed up the sequencing programme. But for INSACOG, in addition to other factors, has meant that our sequencing programme continues to crawl, and the number of sequences carried out has of the targets set.
In each of these crucial areas, where India had ample time and funds to deploy technology to ensure we were better prepared for the progress of the pandemic, the government displayed incompetence, laxity and an utter lack of capability. In the vanity metrics like API hits and OTPs sent, this government has shown alacrity and great success. It breaks my heart to think of how many lives could have been saved if this government’s priorities had been reversed.
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