Investigative Report: India's Armageddon
Will Modi pay the price for complacence?
Published : Tuesday, 4 May, 2021 at 12:00 AM Count : 167
Again on March 11, this year when new daily cases had reached nearly 50,000, Modi welcomed, via tweet, pilgrims to the banks of the Ganges River in the state of Uttarakhand for the Kumbh Mela. The Kumbh Mela is an important festival that, on certain days, draws millions of pilgrims who crowd in close quarters on the banks of the sacred river.
Predictably, COVID-19 ripped through the gathering. A top seer died of the disease, thousands of pilgrims tested positive, and the authorities in the BJP-run state insisted they could do little to arrest the spread.
However, this approach contrasted starkly with the government's reaction to a Muslim convention in March 2020, at the outset of the pandemic. That meeting was a superspreader event (at a scale smaller than that of the ongoing Kumbh Mela) and spurred fierce government action; authorities arrested attendees and held some in detention for over a year.
Certain parts of the media and the BJP's own representatives cast COVID-19 as a Muslim disease. A year later, as daily cases crossed the 200,000 mark in mid-April, Modi could muster only the weakest of pleas, urging the organizers of the Kumbh Mela to make the event a "symbolic" one.
Critics in general believe that Political imperatives also brought on the second wave. By early March, the government's attention had shifted to elections in five key states. Modi himself zipped from state to state addressing massive rallies, often without a mask. In mid-April, when India was recording over 200,000 new cases a day, the prime minister boasted about the size of his rallies in West Bengal.
His deputies and allies appeared on national television to dismiss any connection between the second wave and these large public rallies.
The BJP was the last party to suspend campaigning in West Bengal, calling things off only when it became impossible to ignore the fact that thousands of Indians were dying daily for want of oxygen.
India's current public health crisis is compounded by an epistemological one: the government's data cannot be trusted. Experts claim that India is underrepresenting the scale of its tragedy, something that is abundantly clear to those of us on the ground.
The Financial Times reported in late April that local news reports in seven districts across the states of Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh showed that at least 1,833 people were known to have died of COVID-19 over a period of several days, but only 228 COVID-19 deaths were officially reported in that time; in Gujarat's Jamnagar district, for instance, 100 people died of COVID-19, but only one death was reported.
Epidemiologists have projected an actual mortality rate that is ten times as high as the one reported and are forecasting that India will reach the grim milestone of a million COVID-19 deaths by the end of August. The real toll of the pandemic may never be clear, making it all the harder to hold the government to account.
Indian government's incompetence and inaction in tracking the B.1617 variant has meant that scientists are only now starting to study it and determine its transmissibility, lethality, and response to available vaccines. Virologists and epidemiologists have believed that it has fueled this second wave of COVID-19. More troubling still, the variant is now ABLE to circumvent immunities to the disease. Many people currently hospitalized in Delhi with COVID-19 had received either one or two shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine, a worrying fact that does not bode well for containing the evolving disease.
Beyond doubt, Vaccination has remains the best way to stave off escalating hospitalization and death rates in a crowded country where social distancing and lockdowns are difficult to enforce-and deeply unpopular politically. The virus is now spreading rapidly through urban and rural areas. The city of Kolkata, for instance, reported a 50 percent test positivity rate last week.
The Modi government has committed to making COVID-19 vaccines available to all Indians above the age of 18 after May 1. A sensible government policy would be to mandate free universal vaccination, but Indians can access vaccines for free only in particular places. Many Indians will end up having to pay for one of the two vaccines available in the country-the indigenously developed Covaxin and Covishield, the Indian-produced version of the AstraZeneca vaccine-under a confusing pricing regime. That system exacerbates the already enormous inequalities in the country.
Certainly, the Rich Indians will get vaccinated, but India's poorest may find themselves waiting for a long time.
Paying the lofty price for their government's acts errors and omissions, both negligent and criminal-is something Indians have come to know fairly well. When the prime minister locked down the country with only four hours notice in March 2020, thousands of homeless and daily wage laborers went hungry. In the absence of immediate government assistance, ordinary citizens had to band together and help each other.
Now, too, as people die from want of oxygen, citizens have come together to support one another. They make thousands of calls to find oxygen, lug heavy cylinders around from one refilling point to the other, deliver cylinders to people's homes, and, when needed, bring people to hospitals and bodies to crematoriums.
They cook meals for those recovering at home. They stand in interminable queues at pharmacies to try to find perpetually out-of-stock medicines. Many of these activists say they no longer know the difference between day and night, and their phones never stop ringing.
The light at the end of this long, dark tunnel is the grace of India's people.
The writer is a former educator based in Chicago, USA