As someone who was once a longtime Delhi resident, I am part of several of the city’s vast number of WhatsApp groups. Every one has been full of requests for help during the past three weeks. The number of people with COVID-19 in Delhi — with a population density of 13,861 persons per square kilometer and a total of 20.5 million people — has risen dramatically. Hospitals have run out of beds. There are not enough intensive care beds and ventilators. There is a shortage of oxygen and essential drugs for patients.
Even mortuaries, crematoria, and burial grounds have run out of space. Death is stalking the city. Every day brings news of the loss of friends, acquaintances, or their loved ones. Social media is awash with requests for leads on hospital beds, intensive care beds, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, plasma donors, and drugs such as remdesivir and tocilizumab. The oxygen shortage is so acute that multiple incidents have been reported of patients dying as a result.
Delhi gets the most media coverage, but the crisis is not confined there. There have been reports of patients dying due to oxygen shortages in a number of states, including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, and Karnataka. The country’s first COVID-19 wave peaked in mid-September 2020, and the numbers continued to fall until late February 2021 (the fifteenth of that month saw 9,086 new cases). But since then, and particularly since mid-March, new infections have been climbing rapidly.
On April 30, 2021, India reported a world record of 4,02,014 new cases of COVID-19 and 3,525 deaths. As of May 4, the total numbers of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths in the country have reached 20.66 million and 226,172, respectively. These are severe underestimates. Large numbers of people are dying at home, and officials often count only COVID-19 deaths that occur in hospitals. There are also widespread reports of death figures being fudged by several state governments.
What Went Wrong?
The far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has displayed an astounding level of incompetence in handling the COVID-19 crisis. When the pandemic erupted in 2020, the Modi government was slow to react. And when it did react, it did so in an entirely unplanned manner, announcing a lockdown without giving people the time to prepare.
The lockdown was certain to cause huge losses of income for the vast majority of people, and it was clear that they would find it extremely difficult to survive. But no support systems were in place. That triggered the exodus of 11.4 million migrant workers — most of them hailing from India’s poorer regions but working in major cities elsewhere in the country — to their home states. With no public transport available due to restrictions, many of them walked hundreds of kilometers to their native villages. This exodus itself resulted in at least 971 non-COVID-19 deaths.
The pandemic crisis caused a severe economic recession and massive job losses. According to one estimate, seventeen million fewer people were employed in India in December 2020 compared to the year before. And yet the Indian government’s additional expenditure in 2020–21 to revive livelihoods and the economy amounted to just 1.5 percent of GDP — far below what is required for the purpose.
Not only did the BJP government adamantly refuse to lend a helping hand to the working people, it went further and used the restrictions on protests to pass several anti-worker, anti-farmer laws. The labor laws it rammed through the parliament allow employers to increase working hours to twelve hours in a working day, weaken job security as well as social security, and dilute labor law enforcement. The three farm laws passed by the BJP raise the threat of corporate control over agriculture and have resulted in a massive and ongoing farmers’ agitation.
The Modi government’s response to the crisis engulfing the country was reflective of its agenda — stick to the neoliberal economic policies favored by the corporate-financial oligarchy that funds the BJP, while pushing through the goal of the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, the BJP’s parent organization) to turn India into a Hindu rashtra (“Hindu state”). The government was lulled into inaction, as the BJP, drunk on hubris, believed its own propaganda based on flawed projections — ones which claimed that last year’s lockdown was highly successful and that the pandemic would be over by February 2021 even without a vaccine.
Social distancing was always going to be difficult in India. Its cities are extremely congested. Half of the population in cities lives in houses where the per capita space available is less than a single room. In the medium to long term, massive public housing would be required to address this problem, pandemic or no pandemic. But ensuring that people were wearing masks was possible, as was avoiding large political and religious gatherings, at least once it was clear that a gigantic second wave of infections has hit the country. The RSS-BJP would have none of it.
Science and Reason Take a Back Seat
The RSS-BJP’s brand of politics seeks to promote division and hatred between Hindus and non-Hindus. With such vicious religious politics in the driving seat, science and reason get pushed to the rear. Top BJP leaders, including Modi himself, have promoted pseudoscience over the years. One of the remarks that Modi made early in his first term as prime minister was that Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, was an example of plastic surgery in ancient India.
BJP leaders have also extolled the virtues of cow urine, and such unscientific claims have continued into pandemic times — BJP’s West Bengal state president Dilip Ghosh advocated drinking cow urine “to stay healthy” amid the pandemic, implying that it would boost immunity to COVID-19. India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan publicly endorsed the Ayurvedic tablet Coronil, which was falsely claimed to be a medicine for COVID-19. The drug was launched by Patanjali, a firm led by well-known BJP supporters, and was fraudulently claimed to have received approval from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Himanta Biswa Sarma — BJP leader and the health minister of the state of Assam — was seen, as recently as April 4, 2021, blatantly defending not wearing a mask, claiming that there was no COVID-19 in Assam. He said, “We are going to celebrate Bihu [an important Assamese festival] with pomp and joy, and I am confident that there won’t be COVID after Bihu celebrations either.”
The Kumbh Mela, a mega Hindu religious pilgrimage and festival celebrated every twelve years, was supposed to take place in 2022 but was pre-poned due to astrological reasons. Despite COVID-19’s second wave, it was allowed to go ahead unhindered, with devotees mostly mask-less and social distancing norms thrown to the wind. At least six million people congregated to take a dip in the River Ganga during April. The number of infections in Haridwar, the town where the festival was held, increased from 15,226 on April 1 to 31,596 on April 30.
Large political gatherings as part of the elections to several state legislative assemblies also continued during this period. The most notorious of these was a rally addressed by Prime Minister Modi in West Bengal on April 17, when daily new cases in the country crossed 260,000.
Rigorous contact tracing to isolate and test people who are potentially infected by the coronavirus was never seriously carried out in India during the first wave, with notable exceptions only occurring in states such as left-ruled Kerala. Instead, seemingly lower case numbers allowed complacency to fester, and the virus kept spreading until it exploded into the gigantic second wave.
With the virus sweeping through more and more people, a double mutant strain appeared, which was first detected in India in October 2020 through genome sequencing. But the government did not provide sufficient funds or directions to take the genome sequencing exercise forward. With the government blindsided by its complacency and refusal to fund scientific research, a triple mutant has also emerged. Varieties of the triple mutant have been found in samples collected from states such as Maharashtra, Delhi, West Bengal, and Chhattisgarh, which have seen huge numbers of cases during the ongoing surge.
Even as the government failed to contain the spread of the virus, it ignored the need to expand public health care facilities and the need to increase the production of goods that are essential to tackle the crisis.
Refusal to Invest in Public Health Care
India’s government expenditure (central government and state governments combined) on health care is just about 1.3 percent of the country’s GDP — one of the lowest in the world. Successive Indian governments, mostly led by the Indian National Congress — which inaugurated the neoliberal era in the country — and the incumbent BJP, have refused to increase public investment in health care in any substantial manner.
Confident in their ability to afford private health care, India’s elites were never bothered about the country’s public health care facilities, which were utterly inadequate to meet people’s needs even in pre-pandemic times. But even the pandemic, which made it evident that nobody is safe until everybody is safe, did not shake them out of their smug callousness.
Now, with cases surging, members of the elite themselves have been hit hard. A former Indian ambassador died outside a private hospital in Gurugram (in Haryana, but just outside Delhi) after waiting for a bed for nearly five hours. Present and former Union ministers and their family members have also died of COVID-19.
Conditions for ordinary people, of course, are far worse. With the government having absconded, the masses are forced to turn to whatever is available in the “market.” People are forced to grapple with frauds selling empty oxygen cylinders, charlatans who charge exorbitant prices for essential supplies, and crooks who take money promising supplies and then disappear without a trace.
A similar scam is being played out on a much larger scale, in a more organized way, and with the veneer of corporate respectability, in the case of vaccines.
The Vaccine Fiasco
India is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of vaccines. But the Indian government, already lulled by complacency about the pandemic, overestimated the country’s capacity to produce vaccines in sufficient numbers. It allowed the manufacturing of Covishield and Covaxin — the two vaccines approved for emergency use in India in January 2021 — to be monopolized by two private companies (the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech) for several months.
Covishield is the name given to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine by the Serum Institute of India (SII), which is manufacturing it domestically, while Covaxin is the vaccine developed with the involvement of two public institutions in India — the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology — which is being manufactured by Bharat Biotech.
The government did not bother to rope in public-sector companies which have the capacity to manufacture vaccines, or even other private companies, until April. Even the emergency use authorization for the Russian vaccine Sputnik V was given only in mid-April, and it was then that the Indian government decided to engage three public-sector undertakings in vaccine production.
But it will take several months for manufacturing facilities and supply chains to be set up, and news reports suggest that by July, SII and Bharat Biotech will have produced only 450 million doses for use in India. To achieve universal vaccination, India will need 1.87 billion doses to vaccinate 939 million adults, assuming that two doses will be necessary for each person. Even with the addition of imported vaccines, the total number of doses of vaccines made available in India by July is quite unlikely to cross 500 million.
The vaccine manufacturers in India have so far supplied only about 165 million doses of vaccines, and by May 4, 2021, India had administered only 158.7 million doses. The vaccination drive, the pace of which peaked at 3.5 million doses per day in the second week of April, slowed down to just 1.25 million doses per day during the first four days of May. By May 3, India had administered only 11.43 COVID-19 vaccine doses per one hundred people, compared to 73.79 doses per hundred people in the United States, 74.09 doses in the UK, 36.59 doses in Germany, and 19.45 doses in China.
At a time when the vaccine shortage was making itself felt, the BJP government allowed SII and Bharat Biotech to make “superprofits” by charging prices way beyond those required for them to be profitable. Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of SII, claimed that superprofits are needed to expand production capacity. But that argument doesn’t hold water: the government itself has agreed to provide funds (Rs 300 billion for SII and Rs 150 billion for Bharat Biotech) to help the two firms expand production capacity.
To sum up, the lack of planning, unscientific attitudes, and fealty toward the interests of the corporate-financial oligarchy have underpinned the BJP government’s bungled response to the pandemic.
The lack of planning and the failure to produce essential goods are themselves intimately linked to the neoliberal policy trajectory that successive Indian governments have followed. The BJP government wound up India’s Planning Commission in 2014. The manufacturing licenses of three out of the seven public sector undertakings which had the capacity to produce vaccines were canceled in 2008 when the Indian National Congress was in power.
Tackling the pandemic required major increases in government expenditure to expand public health care and scientific research and to provide relief to the people in the form of food and cash transfers. Resources for these could have been raised by taxing the wealthy, or in the short term, by printing money, as the United States, UK, and the EU have done in the past year. But the Modi government stubbornly stuck to fiscal conservatism and the promotion of corporate profiteering while lives and livelihoods were being ruined.
The people of India are facing a catastrophe of epic proportions that is substantially the making of the Modi government. And yet the RSS and BJP are entirely capable of continuing with their brutish attitude, confident that large-scale protests are difficult to stage during a pandemic and that they will be able to keep people divided on the basis of religious hatred. Political activists and leaders opposed to the BJP are also aware of the difficulties of organizing at a time when the people are fighting a desperate battle for survival. The war — against death and then for recovery — is going to be a long one.