Uncovering India’s COVID crisis

After months of demanding centralization of vaccines by experts and opposition parties alike, the Narendra Modi government has finally caved in. While announcing this, the Prime Minister claimed that earlier India had to wait for decades to procure vaccines while under his govt India is self-sufficient. This claim is grossly exaggerated. There is evidence, for instance, that the precursor to modern smallpox vaccine(inoculation) had its origins in India and China as late as the seventeenth century. The first smallpox vaccine was administered in India only over 5 years after its discovery(1802). The first vaccine laboratory was built in 1899. Though the initial trajectory was slow, India successfully eradicated smallpox in 1975. Five years later, WHO declared the world to be smallpox free. India was actually self-sufficient in vaccine manufacturing at the time of independence. The PM also claimed that “Mission Indradhanush” has led the country’s vaccination coverage to increase from around 60% to 90%. This directly contradicts the latest official govt data which clearly suggests that most states have not achieved 90% vaccination coverage yet.

Putting aside the glaring factual inaccuracies, one needs to look broadly at the government’s management of the pandemic to determine whether it has in fact succeeded or failed. The BJP has accused critics of having “vested political interests”, not to mention the disgraceful ad-hominem of “low IQ”. Does this claim stand out in the face of scrutiny?

India was clearly not prepared for the pandemic. After 2000, the growth of health spending in most lower middle income countries outweighed the growth of GDP. India has been an exception to this. India ranks 145 out of 180 on quality and access of healthcare and 179 out of 189 countries when it comes to prioritization of health in budget. India’s hospitalization rate is also among the lowest in the world. We have a deficiency of both infrastructure and quality healthcare, which is illustrated by the steep increase in communicable diseases(see graph).

The Indian government’s latest economic survey explicitly points out that India’s healthcare spending is similar to “donor-dependent countries” like “Haiti and Sudan” while being well “short of its peers in development”(graph 2, Economic Survey 2020–21)

Given this background, the government’s handling of the first wave was predictably disastrous. India imposed one of the strictest lockdowns. The lockdown was announced with just around 4 hours notice with barely any preparedness. One would have expected the Modi government to have learnt their lessons from the disaster that was demonetization. However, this government seems to have a pattern of incompetency. What unfolded in the succeeding months was an artificially created(and avertable) migrant crisis, resulting in hundreds of unnecessary deaths including 12 from police brutality.

The maladministration of the first wave(barring the avertable migrant crisis) can still be blamed on incompetency as no country really knew how fatal or infectious the virus was. The same cannot be said about the second wave. As the cases were rising up and deaths were piling up, the government decided to completely ignore it. The people were to blame, according to the health minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan. It was the people who were not taking COVID protocol seriously. It was the people who were not wearing masks. Interestingly, it was the BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma(then health Minister and now Chief Minister of Assam) who asked people not to wear masks and “create panic”. The govt’s decision to allow gathering of millions of pilgrims in the Kumbh Mela helped spread the virus. The Chief Minister of Uttarakhand removed “unnecessary restrictions” and claimed that “faith will overcome the fear of COVID-19”.

When thousands were dying daily due to oxygen shortages, the Prime Minister was busy gloating about “huge crowds” at election rallies. At the same time, the Health Minister was busy prioritizing and fast tracking “cow science” to look into cures for diseases like “diabetes and cancer”. In light of these facts, it doesn’t seem surprising that the govt cares more about its “image” than actual human lives. This reveals an utter lack of regard for human lives. Everyone dying now is a victim of state malevolence, not COVID.

When the Narendra Modi govt came to power in 2014, many saw it as a victory of the Hindutva ideology. Now, even the chief of the Hindu nationalist organization RSS has critiqued the government for dropping its guard. Sensible voters believed that this government will change history books in order to make it more inclusive of regions other than the North. It is true that most history books tend to be written from a Delhi-centric perspective leaving out significant events like the Paika rebellion of 1817 and significant figures like Marthanda Varma of Travancore. However, this government did nothing to change textbooks. What it did do, however, is sneakily add a section in the CBSE class 12(of which I’m a student) political science book extolling the government. I reproduce the section below: -

“A major change in Indian politics after 2014 is the shift from caste and religion based politics to development and governance oriented politics. With its pre-intended goal Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, the NDA III Government started several socio-economic welfare schemes to make development and governance accessible to the masses….All these schemes intended to take administration to the doorstep of the common man by making the rural households, particularly the women, real beneficiaries of the Central Government schemes. The success of these schemes could be seen from the results of 2019 Lok Sabha elections where the voters across states — castes, classes, communities, gender and regions brought back the issues of development and governance to the centre stage under the BJP led NDA Government characterizing the current change with ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas and Sabka Vishwas”

This section is not just explicit propaganda but also runs contrary to facts. BJP leaders have time and again inflamed communal passion and advocated directly for “control of state power by Hindus”. The BJP is directly responsible for creating an atmosphere of polarization and a politics based on assertion of Hindu identity. The battle against Mr. Modi, however, is not simply ideological. It is a battle against a cult of personality formed around the Prime Minister. While Mr. Modi is an avowed Hindutva ideologue, he has also shown his willingness to let thousands die(Delhi riots, Godhra, pandemic etc.) if it helps him win elections. It is not enough to blame his failures on incompetency. A single mistake can be blamed on incompetency. But a pattern of mistakes must be blamed on malevolence.

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