DM168 Covid-19

India struggles to breathe while Narendra Modi’s government abdicates all responsibility

By Prabir Purkayastha 1 May 2021

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on 27 September 2019 in New York City. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

As the numbers began to rise, India's Bharatiya Janata Party decided that if it could not control the pandemic it would try to control the narrative and it went on the offensive with its troll army to shift the blame away from Narendra Modi.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The Covid-19 pandemic continues its brutal march across India. New infections reached 387,000 on 29 April –about 44% of the world’s new infections that day. As hospitals run out of beds, ICU capacity, and even oxygen, the death toll is rising. The number of dead bodies in mortuaries, crematoria and burial grounds speak of the awful toll of the pandemic.

India’s numbers have outstripped countries such as the US and Brazil. The end of the surge is nowhere in sight, as more states and cities slip into the grip of the pandemic. Their numbers are rising quite steeply, even if numbers in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi are beginning to flatten. More worrying, the number of positive tests is rising very steeply, indicating that the actual numbers of those infected are even higher.

After the first wave subsided last year, the government of Narendra Modi declared a victory against the pandemic. Perhaps it truly believed its own propaganda. In the World Economic Forum in January this year, Modi said: “In a country which is home to 18% of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

In February, the national executive of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) applauded Modi: “The party unequivocally hails its leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against Covid.” This pyrrhic victory and vainglorious claim is doubly painful as we grapple with a wave that makes the earlier one seem like a trailer.

The BJP was focusing on how to convert this “success” into electoral victory in the next set of state elections when the second wave struck. As the numbers began to rise, the BJP decided that if it could not control the pandemic it would try to control the narrative. It went on the offensive, with its troll army amplifying the message: the state governments have failed; the people are to blame for abandoning the safety norms of masks and social distancing; everyone is to blame except us. This, notwithstanding the central government’s signal of a return to normalcy with public rallies, election campaigns and huge religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela. If people did relax the Covid-19 norms, they were only following what the leaders on the dais during these events – Modi and others – were doing.

The first Covid-19 wave peaked around mid-September, touching nearly 100,000 new infections per day. It had gone down to about 10,000 by mid-February. This period should have been used to strengthen the public health system: increasing hospital beds, ICU facilities, stepping up oxygen production and building a supply chain for its delivery. Tragically, the central government, which has centralised all powers under the Disaster Management Act, refused to prepare either itself, or the states, or the public, for this second wave.

The worst failing in the current crisis is the lack of oxygen. When the lungs of patients are affected, the most important “medicine” is oxygen. Patients requiring oxygen are unable to get admissions in hospitals; they are dying as hospitals run out of oxygen; oxygen cylinders are not available for home treatment. Over the past week, hospitals in Delhi have been reporting that they have only a few hours of oxygen left. If this is the situation in the nation’s capital, and in its elite hospitals, we can only imagine the plight of hospitals elsewhere.

That is the core of the current crisis. The major reason for deaths during an epidemic is when the number of serious patients outstrips the availability of hospital beds and the supply of oxygen. That is when fatalities start mounting. As we are witnessing now.

In the first wave, the spread was limited to a few states, and in certain densely populated areas. This time, it is spread across almost all states, and a much larger cross-section of people.

Why didn’t the government prepare for a rise of this magnitude? This government is, unfortunately, completely centralised; only Modi, the prime minister, and his trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah, the home minister, can act. The other ministers are harnessed only to dismiss any criticism, even constructive criticism – from the former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, for example. Modi’s sights seem to have been set on winning the elections in the east, particularly West Bengal. Only after other political parties stopped their rallies did he realise the poor optics of being in electioneering mode amid a major pandemic. By then it was too late.

Vaccinations will not address the immediate crisis, though they will help with the future waves that may follow. The government’s announcements that 152 million have been vaccinated are misleading. Although 152 million vaccine doses have been given, only about 20 million people have received the two required doses.

At the beginning of April, states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab were complaining about their vaccine supplies running low. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan dismissed their complaints as politicising their “failure to control the Covid-19 pandemic”. Unfortunately for the minister’s claims, figures for vaccination show that the number of vaccine doses given per day has indeed come down to half what they were in early April.

With the vaccine supply still constrained, the Modi government has failed to explain why it is now proposing that everyone above the age of 18 be vaccinated. No explanation has been offered, nor a plan announced on how the country will ramp up its production and delivery to meet the expanded target.

The central government has also abandoned its responsibility for either acquiring or delivering the vaccines, except to health workers and people above the age of 45. It will meet this requirement by earmarking 50% of the country’s vaccine production for central government procurement. The balance is for the state governments and private hospitals to secure from the only two vaccine suppliers that we now have.

The centre has also removed all price controls on vaccines, creating competition for scarce vaccines among the states – and benefiting private suppliers. Instead of a well-thought-out plan to increase vaccine production, centrally distribute vaccines, and vaccinate all the people, this appears to be a cynical exercise in denying responsibility and blaming the state governments for failing to vaccinate the people.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology (NIV) had developed Covaxin. There is no reason why ICMR and NIV should not have licensed it to other vaccine manufacturers, including half a dozen public-sector units that are idling today. Instead, the Modi government gave the vaccine created with public-sector technology and public money to a private company, Bharat Biotech. And we still have no explanation why the Modi government refused to take up the US denial of vital supplies for the production of vaccines in India until we reached the current crisis.

The Modi government believes in centralising all political power in its hands and letting the “free market”, led by big capital, solve the problems of the country. And if such a policy fails, it can always blame the state governments, the anti-national forces and, finally, the “opposition”. DM168

Prabir Purkayastha is editor of Newsclick.in a digital media platform, and a science activist.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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