How did a country’s unlikely coronavirus success end up falling apart?
“At the beginning of the pandemic, global experts had predicted that India would face a tsunami of Covid cases...we not only solved our problems but also helped the world fight the pandemic.” – Narendra Modi, Prime Minister, in a speech at WEF’s Davos Summit, January 28, 2021
Modi wasn’t wrong. When the pandemic began, India’s high population mixed with densely packed cities set the stage for a perfect storm of high infections and high casualties, or so the world thought. But surprisingly, India has one of the lowest mortality rates of Covid-19 in the world (1.1%). While there is not enough data to say why, scientists believe it has to do with environmental factors, age demographics, or potential underreporting. This low mortality rate, calculated genuinely or otherwise, gave rise to the narrative of the lockdowns being unnecessary, doing more harm than good for the country.
India's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has thus resulted in shortages of hospital beds, oxygen tanks, and medicine in many hospitals across the country. Funeral pyres have not stopped burning since this calamitous second wave hit, black market medicines are in high demand. Since the end of March, cases and deaths have been on a steady incline. As reported, there are over 400,000 new cases and 4,000 deaths a day at the time this article was written (Reuters). And this surge has exposed the inefficiencies of India’s healthcare system.
Established after independence in 1947, the system was segmented into three tiers: village, small urban areas, and specialized treatment; over time, this system has been perverted to prioritise for-profit hospitals at the cost of healthcare for those in villages, or small towns, all while overcharging their patients (Kalpana Jain, STAT News). And through this crisis, the government continues to gaslight the populus, understating yet again the severity of the crisis which they spawned with their own willful ignorance of science, inability to accept responsibility, and their prioritization of reelection campaigns over the safety of their people.
India’s Covid-19 “death paradox” in tandem with the winding down of the first wave led to a knee-jerk reaction by the government, opening up prematurely and completely. “When the first wave was tapering, that’s when they should have prepared for a second wave and assumed the worst. The [government] should have taken an inventory of oxygen and [the drug] Remdesivir and then ramped up manufacturing capacity,” says Mahesh Zagade, former health secretary of Maharashtra state, to BBC.
Policy-makers ignoring science have given rise to a state of indifference towards the crisis.
A group of scientists, known as Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genome Sequencing Consortia or INSACOG, created a report on a variant (now known as the Indian variant), and passed it over to the National Centre for Disease Control before March 10th. This came a day before 3.5 million pilgrims converged for the Kumbh Mela celebration (Reuters). The NCDC sent the findings to the Health Ministry, who has not publicised nor made policy to prevent the spread of this increasingly common, more contagious strain. Rather, the Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan, prioritizes pushing the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda. In a virtual meeting a month after the INSACOG report had been sent to his office, Vardhan stated that “Significant progress needs to be made on the cow science front before PM Modi’s speech on 75th Independence Day. Covid-19 pandemic cannot be used as an excuse for this delay” (The Print).
Downplaying the virus as a mere obstacle in the way of more meaningful problems has been this government’s narrative even once India hit more new cases in a day than ever before. Additionally, doctors and hospital directors are being arrested for putting out SOS calls for oxygen when their hospital supply runs low. According to SkyNews, Akilesh Pandey, who runs a hospital in Uttar Pradesh, was arrested by UP police, charged with “false scaremongering” for requesting oxygen as 4 patients died as the supply ran out. This pattern is seen unfolding across the country as the government continues to downplay the gravity of the crisis.
Besides downright denying the severity of the virus, there are leaders who allege that spirituality will protect people from falling ill. “Kumbh is held on the bank of river Ganga. Maa Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. Hence, there should be no corona” says chief minister of Uttarakhand (the state in which Kumbh takes place), Tirath Singh Rawat, on April 13th. He goes on to warn that there should be no “rok-tok,” or hindrance, to the practices, and the recommended testing and distancing measures should be ignored. There are also widely circulating “home remedies” to cure Covid-19, which include inhaling alcohol vapors, staying inside on certain phases of the lunar cycle, and more pseudo-scientific solutions to beat the virus.
This all stems from a lack of transparency between the government and its constituents. “[O]ur inability to adequately manage the spread of infections has, to a large extent, resulted from epidemiological data not being systematically collected and released in a timely manner,” researchers wrote (Science Mag). Modi’s BJP ministers won’t publicize important cautionary information for people to follow, and thus they either underestimate the severity of the virus, or create their own home solutions. Both cases of state-induced ignorance have contributed to the spreading of Covid-19 like wildfire.
Scientists don’t believe we’ve seen the worst of this deadly wave yet, some predicting a peak in June, or late May at the earliest (NY Mag). While the nature of viral crises make it impossible to bring cases and deaths to a screeching halt, this disaster has exposed some inadequacies of India’s money-driven healthcare system and the great deal of incompetency that exists in the country’s leadership.
During this crisis, here are a couple sites collecting donations for oxygen tanks, icu beds, etc. to help India during this crisis. Please help as best you can.
The American India Foundation (AIF)
The American India Foundation is launching Phase II of it's COVID-19 relief effort to provide infrastructure support (such as oxygen supplies), to protect front line workers via PPE and other measures, and to build community resilience through campaigns and nutrition. Donations are accepted from the United States: Donate HERE
Ryan Ford '23,