Sadhus, or Hindu holy men take a holy dip in the Ganges river during Shahi Snan at "Kumbh Mela", or the Pitcher Festival, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), in Haridwar, India. Picture: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters
Sadhus, or Hindu holy men take a holy dip in the Ganges river during Shahi Snan at "Kumbh Mela", or the Pitcher Festival, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), in Haridwar, India. Picture: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

The blame for India’s Covid-19 catastrophe rests largely on glory-seeking Modi

By Sanjay Kapoor Time of article published May 2, 2021

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Delhi has been in a lockdown for the past week. Unlike last time when police shut down cities, this time it is being enforced by fear. Meant to break the chain of surging infections and deaths and flatten the curve, has the lockdown succeeded in its objectives? Certainly not!

For someone living in Delhi – like many of the 146 cities that have been hammered by the rising tidal wave of the coronavirus – the new sounds of India’s capital are the wailing ambulance sirens that can be heard every minute.

The galloping increase of the infected has risen in excess of 360 000 cases every day and around 3 600 deaths – believed to be a gross underestimation.

Hundreds of thousands of people – young and old – suffering with the virus are gasping for oxygen with many of them unable to find a bed in a hospital or a doctor to give them succour.

The Kafkaesque nightmare of not being able to reach a doctor or a person in authority is playing out in everyone’s life – people with resources or without them. In this writer’s neighbourhood there are 11 houses – all of them infected and living in isolation. It is easy to extrapolate the numbers in dense neighbourhoods of Delhi and other towns of the country.

It is a kind of calamity that may have destroyed civilisations in the past and could well do it again if not controlled with all the help India can get from the global community.

Crunching data, a Financial Times London analysis, based on newspaper reports of people being buried or cremated in certain cities of the country, showed that the death toll was at least 10 times more than what was being claimed by the government.

After the first wave last year, there was a blatant undercounting – perfected after the first wave – to show the government in good light. Even during the second wave, the central government has reportedly instructed the states under their control to keep the figures of the infected and the dead low. The efforts are proving inadequate. This time around an inordinately high number of deaths, as witnessed in the unrelenting deathly noise from ambulance sirens and corpses piling up at crematoriums, do not allow that concealment.

Satellite images show unending fires in crematoriums dotting many cities of northern India. Most of the dead may not figure anywhere in the local government’s lists of birth and deaths, but they are a painful reality.

What further prevented the authorities from their usual practice of hiding the dead was the manner in which the paucity of oxygen in hospitals, due to the rising numbers of patients, exploded on them. So grave is the crisis that hospitals in Delhi and elsewhere are always threatened by hundreds of coronavirus patients gasping for oxygen, a symptom of aggravated Covid19, from dying.

Since the second wave of the virus ravaged India’s health system and its carefully constructed reputation as the pharmacy of the world that had managed to fight off the first one (wave), so many hospitals have had to turn off the oxygen, forcing their patients on ventilators to die.

This is murder in every other circumstance, but during the pandemic it is more a manifestation of how the government failed to anticipate the enormity of the crisis, which brought to the fore the inadequacy of its public health system.

The blame for this colossal tragedy rests largely on glory-seeking Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his policy to over-centralise decision-making. In January this year, he grandly told a global audience at a Davos webinar that India had vanquished the pandemic and it was helping some 150 countries with vaccines to control the pandemic.

There was exaggeration as many of these vaccine exports were part of commercial arrangements between the India-based Serum Institute that had the franchise to manufacture AstraZeneca jabs, and these “150” countries. Modi did not take cognisance of the emergence of the dangerous UK mutant that led British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to shut the UK. The Indian government allowed the flights from England to continue to fly to many Indian cities. The government did not pay attention to the virulent Indian mutant, which is now creating havoc.

The country’s Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan, who was promoting an ayurvedic concoction of dodgy credentials for curing coronavirus, even announced that India was at the “end game” of the global pandemic.

Modi took two decisions that have ended up as super-spreader events: first was the election campaign in Bengal and Assam, and second the religious event at Kumbh, which saw about four million take a bath in the holy river Ganges to wash off their sins. It was also told to many of the believers that taking a bath could fight the pandemic. Even the chief minister of the state lent weight and credence to this view and gave an impression that the authorities had created filters to test out those who were infected.

This was a sham. What was expected by cynics and epidemiologists has begun to play out by adding a monumental case load to the pandemic. In West Bengal and Assam state elections, it never occurred to anyone that the campaign that involved large rallies attended by hundreds of thousands of people was happening amid a pandemic. The so-called Independent Election Commission that has been accused of wilting under government pressure staggered the polls by holding them in eight stages.

When the numbers of the infected began to rise, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi stayed away from the election campaign, forcing Modi to follow suit.

In an earlier meeting in Bengal and when nationally the coronavirus cases were going through the roof, Modi had gushed about the number of people who had come to listen to him. Lots of those who may have attended his meeting may have been infected by the virus – if reports from Kolkata are anything to go by.

If the government’s efforts to undercount these growing numbers do not succeed, the world is staring at a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. This is aggravated by a leader whose followers last year had first taken advantage of the pandemic to blame the Muslims and later used the country’s traditional proficiency to show himself as a world statesman.

Understandably, he has been accused of exporting vaccines when his own countrymen would have benefited from the jab. The list of charges against him is long and it will be interesting to see whether this pandemic will make the vast legion of his supporters have a rethink on his much-vaunted capabilities.

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* Sanjay Kapoor is the editor of Hardnews Magazine.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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