A letter from India, amid virus disaster

A letter from India, amid virus disaster

A woman, 68, receives a dose of Covishield, a coronavirus disease (Covid-19) vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, at a vaccination centre in Bangalore, India last week. (Photo: Reuters)

Every morning, I wake up in my home in a middle-class locality in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, and heave a sigh of relief. I do not have temperature; my oximeter readings are normal.

For the last 14 days, my city and state have been under lockdown. My computer has become my window to the world. Every hour or so, I write condolence messages for friends for their family members. My wife, a frontline worker, will step out a bit because she works with waste pickers and runs children’s libraries in informal settlements. When she is home, she is on calls, coordinating relief efforts because the virus has started reaching poor neighbourhoods.

The official number of cases and deaths in India has surpassed all other countries; as I write this, India has recorded over 25 million cases and over 277,000 deaths. But each day, those numbers increase. Daily coronavirus cases have been exceeding 400,000 with more than 3,500 deaths. Our country currently makes up nearly half of the world’s new Covid-19 cases and a quarter of its deaths.

But those numbers don’t even reflect the full picture; reports from hospitals and cremation grounds vastly contradict the projected figures of cases and deaths. One of the reasons is that given the acute shortage of beds in hospitals, many patients never reach them and their deaths are not registered or counted. There is also massive under-reporting with the government deliberately fudging numbers.

This is a blind fall from where the country was in February this year, when it was averaging about 12,00 cases and 100 deaths a day. On Jan 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi patted himself on the back at the World Economic Forum, announcing India had ducked the dire predictions on the pandemic. On Feb 21, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) passed a resolution “unequivocally hailing its leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against Covid-19”. These premature assertions sent the wrong message: abandon caution.

Taking its so-called victory over Covid-19 too seriously, the government announced elections in five states. In one state, Tamil Nadu, the election was conducted in one day. This extended election was only to showcase the BJP’s ability to draw huge crowds to their rallies. The prime minister lauded the crowds.

Making the situation worse, eyeing local body elections, as a populist measure, the government permitted the Kumbh Mela — a Hindu festival held every 12 years in which millions of devotees participate and ritually bathe in the Ganges river at Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. The last Kumbh Mela was conducted in 2010. Technically, this one should be in 2022, but it was advanced by a year for astrological reasons. RT-PCR tests, mandatory masks, and physical distancing were not enforced, leaving the 3.5 million people from all over the country who made the pilgrimage especially vulnerable to what would become a super-spreader event.

No country’s healthcare system was ready for Covid-19, but India’s was especially vulnerable. Neo-liberal policies that the government adopted in the early 1990s allowed haphazard private investment with hardly any regulations. And the country’s public health spending has been incredibly low.

Making the situation worse, in many states, last year’s Covid-19 facilities were already dismantled by the time the second wave hit. Old bills to vendors have still not been settled. And while the government did invite bids for pressure swing absorption oxygen generation plants last autumn (with a total of 262 plants sanctioned under the PM-Cares fund), to date, less than 33 of those plants have been installed. Meanwhile, while many countries have recently donated liquid oxygen, canisters, concentrators, they are currently stuck at the Delhi airport. The reason? No policy has been established for distributing the supplies to the states in proportion to the devastation the virus has caused.

On April 20, the PM announced vaccines would be made available to anyone 18 years or older. The irony there is that there remains a huge shortfall of vaccines in the county, even now. India is the world’s largest manufacturer of medicines and vaccines. But last August, when many countries placed huge orders with the Serum Institute of India, the country’s largest vaccine-producing company, India placed a woefully small number of orders and is now scrambling for vaccines. Currently, about 12% of India’s population has been vaccinated with one dose. The population that is fully vaccinated is far smaller.

The Modi government has still not put forth a national plan to deal with the unfolding public health emergency. The courts have stepped in to hear cases in connection to this catastrophe, but the government is lying in the courts and denying accountability. The government does not even have the integrity to acknowledge the tragedy unfolding in India. There’s the country’s home minister who says there’s no shortage of oxygen or beds, the minister of commerce and industry who tells patients to conserve oxygen, and the health minister who promotes mumbo-jumbo cures by gurus. As this goes on, the government has tried to shut down Twitter handles and news reports of what is happening, file police cases on people seeking help, and target relief agencies.

Throughout the crisis, citizen groups have stepped up to save lives, setting up oxygen centres, food services, and even hospital facilities. Still, this has created confusion because many lists are duplicated, phone numbers do not work, and patients and care givers are harassed. The least the government can do is coordinate with relief agencies to create a central system that can be updated regularly.

Instead, demonstrating arrogance and apathy, the government seems more preoccupied with the construction of the US$2.8 billion (988 billion baht) Central Vista Project (with a new parliament and PM’s residence), recently declaring it an essential service in Covid-devastated Delhi. ©2021 Zocalo Public Square