A story of collective grit and fightback: 3 years since India detected its first Covid patient – India Today

The first Covid-19 patient was confirmed in India on January 30, 2020. In the last three years, India saw nationwide lockdowns, mass exodus from cities and a devastating Delta wave. What stood out amid all the gloom were acts of kindness by absolute strangers and the successful vaccination drive. Here’s the story of India’s Covid fightback.

India saw three distinct Covid waves during the three years of the pandemic (Photo: India Today)

By Yudhajit Shankar Das: It is a story of hope and fightback. It is exactly three years ago that India saw its first Covid-19 patient. Since then, from lockdowns to an urban exodus, from trying out new medicines to developing vaccines, it has been an eventful three years. No one went unscathed as the pandemic upturned lives. Livelihoods were lost, but Good Samaritans stepped in with food and oxygen cylinders. If there were mass cremations, there was a successful nationwide vaccination drive too. On this third anniversary of sorts, here’s a rewind and what to expect in the year ahead in a post-Covid world.


India’s First Patient

The novel coronavirus was first identified after an outbreak in China’s Wuhan in December 2019, but it wasn’t till January 2020 that the world took note of the impending danger. India’s first reaction to the pandemic came in the form of a travel advisory on January 17. A third-year medical student, who had returned from Wuhan, was confirmed as India’s Patient Zero on January 30 in Kerala’s Thrissur. She was discharged from hospital on February 20, 2020, after she tested negative. But India’s first Covid patient tested positive again in July 2020.

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India’s First Response

India issued a travel advisory on January 17 against travel to China and started screening inbound passengers from China and Hong Kong on January 18. Universal screening of all international flights started on March 4, and from March 22, India suspended all inbound international flights.

Lockdown and the Exodus

India initially announced a 21-day lockdown from March 25. On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation and appealed to 1.3 billion Indians, other than emergency workers and people in essential services, to stay at home. Stranded in cities without work, India saw a massive exodus from its urban centres as daily wagers started leaving for their hometowns in rural parts of the country. The lockdown came in for criticism, but what is generally agreed upon is that it bought time for the country to prepare the infrastructure for the Covid-19 fightback. To mitigate the pain, the government announced a stimulus package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore to provide free foodgrain, cash support and cooking gas to people most affected by the lockdown.

The Three Waves

India saw three distinct Covid waves during the three years of the pandemic. The first wave peaked on September 17, 2020, and saw 98,000 cases. On average, 412 deaths were reported daily with a total toll of 1.5 lakh during the first wave, which started fizzling out in February, 2021.

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The second wave, which was the deadliest of the three, started in March 2021 and lasted almost 60 days. Over 1.6 crore people were infected in this Delta wave and it saw 1.7 lakh Covid deaths. Frenetic calls for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds and visuals of mass cremations epitomised the second wave. The government came in for sharp criticism for allowing political rallies before assembly polls and the Kumbh Mela, leading to mass gatherings of people. But in those dark days, when the government seemed missing in action, it was absolute strangers who helped each other out. Be it with arranging oxygen cylinders, medicines, hospital beds or ferrying people. Social media was the control centre and the real world the stage of action.


The third wave was driven largely by the Omicron variant and started in late December, 2021. But India was now prepared with oxygen plants and additional hospital beds — the medical infrastructure had been cranked up. The wave peaked around January 20 and saw 3.5 lakh cases.

India’s Vaccination Drive

The over 50-year-old Serum Institute of India (SII) is the biggest manufacturer of vaccines in the world. Not many would have given even a passing thought to it, but the Adar Poonawalla-led company helped in India’s hunt and overall vaccination drive. SII announced in April 2020 its partnership with Oxford University and AstraZeneca to manufacture Covishield. On January 11, 2021, SII began transporting Covishield doses after the Centre placed an initial purchase order of 1.1 crore doses.


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Meanwhile, the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech in association with the National Institute of Virology was working on Covaxin. It got emergency approval from the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation on January 2, 2021, even before its phase-III clinical trial results were out.

India began administering Covid-19 vaccines on January 16, 2021, with healthcare and frontline workers getting priority. Touted as the shot of hope, the vaccines would go on to provide a way to contain the damaging spread of the novel coronavirus that had seen multiple mutations since its Wuhan arrival. India vaccinated over 100 crore people by October 21, 2021.

According to a June 2022 Lancet study, the vaccination drive prevented an additional 42 lakh deaths in India. In January 2022, the country started administering the precaution, or booster, dose to its frontline workers and in July, the government announced a 75-day drive to provide booster doses for all eligible people. As of today, India has vaccinated over 220 crore people.


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Vaccine Diplomacy

At a time when China was under increasing scrutiny over charges of letting the novel coronavirus leak from a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan, in early 2021, India set out to help its neighbours. In what was seen as New Delhi’s vaccine diplomacy, India began providing vaccines to its neighbours and between January and April, it had supplied almost 2 crore doses to countries in the subcontinent. Till now, India has exported its Covid vaccines to over 90 countries.

What’s Next?

Thanks to the hybrid immunity from vaccination and infection, India has so far stayed unscathed from the Covid wave that has forced China to impose strict restrictions, which resulted in rare protests in the Communist country. India has recorded the presence of various Omicron sub-lineages, but there hasn’t been any significant rise in cases and government officials say there is no need to panic.

SII CEO Adar Poonawalla had, in December 2022, alleviated concerns of a new wave in India. “…We need not panic given our excellent vaccination coverage and track record,” Poonawala tweeted in December 2022. Health expert Soumya Swaminathan had a word of caution. She said we need to be cautious as it is a new virus and still evolving. The focus, she suggested, should be on more research and development and better vaccines. R&D for new, better vaccines.

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