Maverick Citizen

MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

India’s Covid-19 disaster is a politically engineered tragedy

Pyres at mass funerals for Covid-19 victims at a makeshift cremation ground in New Delhi, India, on 1 May 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Idrees Mohammed)

More interested in controlling the public narrative about the pandemic than mitigating it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a punitive lockdown on the country without taking steps to boost its medical infrastructure; effectively promoted super-spreader events and failed to either procure or deliver vaccines to the Indian people.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Covid-19 pandemic is a fire ripping the very heart of the Indian nation. In fact, the country’s crematoriums, where funeral pyres burn non-stop, can no longer accommodate the dead. Instead, bodies are being cremated in adjacent car parks and on pavements. “I used to cremate three to five bodies every day before the pandemic,” crematorium worker Ashu Rai told reporters, “but after this second wave, I am cremating more than 15 bodies a day alone.” 

The country’s overburdened hospitals are unable to provide beds for Covid-19 patients, and effective treatment is hampered by a lack of necessary supplies of oxygen and other crucial medical supplies. “We need oxygen, we need drugs, we need basic medication, we need hospital supplies,” said ICU doctor Kamna Kakkar when asked by an Al Jazeera journalist what she and her colleagues would require in order to tackle the challenges they face at the coalface of the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, many patients have been relegated to long and often fruitless waiting on the streets outside hospitals. Some have even died on the streets while waiting for medical assistance. Indian citizens are taking to social media platforms with desperate calls for help for ailing family members. To the extent that they receive the help they need, this is not thanks to their government, but a result of solidarity and action from India’s civil society. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his henchmen in the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are mainly busying themselves with controlling the public narrative about the pandemic, both nationally and internationally. 

The statistics from the crisis, as manifested by these harrowing scenes, beggar belief

On 29 April 2021, India reported 379,257 new cases of Covid-19 infections and 3,645 new deaths, up from 360,960 new infections and 3,293 fatalities the day before, making it the deadliest day the country has lived through so far since the start of the pandemic. Since 21 April 2021, India has consistently been setting daily new world records in terms of Covid-19 infections. The total number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in India at the time of the writing of this article stands at 18,376,500 – second only to the USA – and just over 200,000 people are reported to have perished as a result of the virus. 

Horrific as these numbers are, the actual caseload and the real death toll are likely to be much higher due to widespread undercounting and underreporting. Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, has referred to the official numbers as “a complete massacre of data” and estimates the actual caseload to be ten times higher and the death rate two to five times higher than what the government of India has reported. 

It is difficult, then, to think of the recent insistence by Harsh Vardhan, India’s health minister, that India’s death rate is the lowest in the world as anything other than an act of deliberate obfuscation of the extent to which the coronavirus is ripping through the Indian nation.

So how did India get to this point of crisis? This question is often asked on the assumption that India did well during the first wave of the pandemic. Nothing could be further from the truth. From a public health point of view, the pandemic has been mismanaged and manipulated for political gain from the very beginning

In late March 2020, Modi imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns on the country’s 1.4-billion population. However, the lockdown was not accompanied by a concerted effort to boost the country’s medical infrastructure. As economist Jayati Ghosh has pointed out, less than 0.04% of India’s GDP was made available for immediate health expenditure, and less than half of these minuscule resources was distributed to state governments.

What the lockdown did, instead, was to create a public image of Modi as bold protector of the Indian nation in the face of the coming onslaught of Covid-19, at the same time as it enabled his regime to crack down on the nationwide protests against anti-Muslim citizenship legislation that had shaken the country since late 2019. 

Moreover, as evidenced by the desperate trek of migrant workers from Indian cities back to their rural homes, the lockdown resulted in immense economic hardship for the country’s working poor – in fact, with 75 million more people falling into poverty, India accounted for 60% of the global increase in poverty in 2020

As soon as the first wave of the pandemic began to dissipate after its peak in September 2020, Modi’s propaganda machinery got into swing, peddling a narrative of victory in the war against the coronavirus. Aided by a largely uncritical national and international media, senior BJP politicians and government ministers claimed that India had used its resources well and waged the world’s most successful battle against Covid-19. “In a country which is home to 18% of the world population,” Modi boasted when he addressed the World Economic Forum in January 2021, “that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.” 

Among the many success stories spun by and about the Modi regime, this was by far the most baseless one. This much was evident in a report by the parliamentary standing committee on health and family welfare from November 2020, which pointed out that a severe second wave was very likely, and identified oxygen and medicine shortages as a significant risk factor in this regard. 

If there is any hope to be found in the current situation, it is in the solidarity that Indian people are extending to each other, for example by locating hospital beds and oxygen cylinders for those in need, or providing emergency relief to the working poor – many of whom had resorted to an emergency journey back to their rural homes for the second time in one year. 

The Modi government, however, paid no heed. The imperative of expanding the oxygen supply, for example, was handled with extreme hamfistedness. A tender for oxygen plants in 150 hospitals was floated in late October 2020, but at the time of writing as few as 11 units had in fact been installed, and only five of these were operational. 

Furthermore, rather than restricting public gatherings, Modi’s government and the BJP effectively promoted super-spreader events by insisting on an unusually long election process in the state of West Bengal and persisting in staging huge mass rallies even after all other political parties called off their campaigning to avoid fuelling the spread of the coronavirus. 

In addition, the BJP government allowed the Kumbh Mela – a Hindu religious festival that takes place at regular intervals – to be preponed by a year. More than nine million pilgrims are reported to have taken part in the festival, and several thousand have tested positive for Covid-19. Uttarakhand, the state that hosted the Kumbh Mela this year, witnessed a 1,800% increase in Covid-19 cases during the festival, and festival participants will carry the virus with them as they return to their homes across India. 

The official sanctioning of this super-spreader event of course contrasts sharply with how a meeting of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement, in Delhi at the start of the outbreak of the pandemic in March last year was decried as a case of “corona jihad”, and testifies to the blatant majoritarianism that is at the heart of Modi’s political project. 

As a production hub for some 60% of the world’s vaccines, India is often referred to as the pharmacy of the world, and at the start of 2021, much was being made of India’s global vaccine diplomacy and the rollout of what was supposedly the world’s largest Covid vaccination programme. However, the fact of the matter is that the Modi government has failed to both procure and deliver vaccines to the Indian people at the rate that is needed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

The Indian government only approved two vaccines for domestic use – the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India, and Covaxin, which is produced by Bharat Biotech. Given the size of the country’s population and the magnitude of the need for vaccinations, it is obvious that other producers should have been given a licence to increase supply. The current shortage of vaccines is writ large in the tardy progress of India’s vaccination programme: only 1.29% of the population has received two doses of the vaccine, and at the current pace, it will take 8.7 years to vaccinate 70% of all Indians. 

In short, the harrowing tragedy that is playing out in India is a politically engineered crisis. And in this crisis, Indians find themselves beleaguered on two fronts. On the one hand, they are confronting an aggressive and deadly virus that has been allowed to spiral out of control. On the other hand, they have to contend with a government that appears to be more concerned with controlling the narrative in the public sphere and safeguarding its public image than with securing the wellbeing of its citizens. 

Instead of doing everything in its power to plug the gaping holes in the country’s chronically underfunded medical infrastructure, the Modi government has kept peddling the message that India is handling the Covid-19 pandemic with competence and care, while at the same time persecuting citizens, medical staff, and journalists who are calling attention to how an unprecedented disaster is snuffing out lives with unfathomable ferocity. 

Indeed, the callousness of the Indian government runs so deep that it has turned down an offer of help with integrated chain supply for coronavirus-related material from the United Nations, claiming that its own robust medical logistics systems will suffice. While these claims were being made, the steel frames in crematoriums in Modi’s home state Gujarat were melting from overheating and crematoriums in Delhi were running out of firewood. 

If there is any hope to be found in the current situation, it is in the solidarity that Indian people are extending to each other, for example by locating hospital beds and oxygen cylinders for those in need, or providing emergency relief to the working poor – many of whom had resorted to an emergency journey back to their rural homes for the second time in one year. 

These efforts deserve international solidarity, also from South Africa. Readers of this article are encouraged to consider donating to one of the many civil society initiatives that can be found by following this link. DM/MC

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is a professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria, specialising in the study of Indian politics.

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