CALCULATIONS suggest that the savage second wave of Covid-19 behind India’s unfolding humanitarian disaster will peak in mid-May. No one has predicted that it will rapidly recede thereafter. One can only hope a precipitous decline in infections and fatalities lies in store.
For the moment, though, hope is in short supply, alongside medical oxygen, hospital beds and vaccines. The distressing tales of woe emerging from India — from desperate pleas for oxygen to overwhelmed crematoria and graveyards — have been deeply depressing. Likewise officialdom’s callous disregard for the lives and welfare of citizens.
Even now, amid a steadily deteriorating catastrophe, the union health minister, Harsh Vardhan, has the audacity to claim that India’s fatality rate is still “the lowest in the world”. A couple of months ago, ignorant of the impending checkmate, he confidently declared that his nation was “in the endgame” of the pandemic.
His boss boasted to the World Economic Forum in January that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively”. Narendra Modi’s claim was preceded by the announcement that he was bringing a “message of confidence, positivity and hope from 1.3 billion Indians amid these times of apprehension”. At least he was prophetic about the “positivity” rates.
The Indian catastrophe is a cautionary tale.
The prime minister went on to mock the prediction “that India would be the most affected country from corona all over the world. It was said that there would be a tsunami of corona infections in India, somebody said 700m-800m Indians would get infected, while others said 2m Indians would die.”
The words ‘pride’ and ‘fall’ come to mind. It only got worse when, the following month, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declared that India had “defeated Covid under [Modi’s] able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership”. A subsequent surge in the rate of infections was exacerbated by mass election rallies, notably in West Bengal, where the BJP entertained visions of toppling Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress Party.
It made inroads, but fell far short of its goal of claiming the province for its brand of Hindutva; meanwhile, reports suggest that almost half the people tested in Kolkata are turning out to be Covid-positive. Mission accomplished?
Then there was the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, brought forward by a year for astrological reasons, ignoring the astronomical risks. The BJP chief minister of Uttarakhand declared that faith and the purifactory power of the Ganga river would suffice as a Covid shield.
Sure, any government would have struggled to hold back the incredibly virulent second wave. But it might not have primarily been preoccupied by the idea of burnishing its image. It might not have peremptorily dismantled the field hospitals and other facilities set up to combat the first wave, given the international experience, even after the relatively minor resurgence of the disease after restrictions were lifted late last year gradually seemed to dissipate. It might not have tolerated the insouciance of a coronavirus task force that held no meetings between mid-January and mid-April this year.
And it might not have prematurely trumpeted its triumph over a virus that had, on a global scale, already demonstrated its resilience and mutability. It might thereby have avoided turning India into an epicentre where the official statistics, horrifying as they may be, are generally deemed to be a shocking underestimate of the actual rates of infection and mortality.
Amid the current pandemic, this deadly combination of complacency and hubris is hardly unique to India. Its pitfalls had already been demonstrated last year in nations from Brazil to Britain, not to mention the Trumpocracy. But even the Trump administration pushed Operation Warp Speed, which helped to accelerate the push for vaccines.
Yet, notwithstanding the rapid development of a range of vaccines, the international rate of inoculation has been dismal. Alongside an epidemic of governmental incompetence on every continent, we are witnessing the worst consequences of vulture capitalism, where profits take precedence over human well-being. However precious intellectual property may be to its owners, surely there could be no better time to ignore the bottom line than when millions of lives are at stake?
Creditably, India is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines. But what good is that stature when it can’t vaccinate its own population? Perhaps that question should be put to its “prince of vaccines”, Serum Institute of India boss Adar Poonawalla, self-isolating in Britain amid dire vaccine shortages in his homeland, after his family’s wealth ballooned by billions of dollars last year.
What has been happening in India — echoing the disaster that unfolded more than a century ago under the Raj, when parts of the subcontinent suffered some of the highest fatality rates amid the Spanish flu pandemic — is a cautionary tale for the rest of the world, not least Pakistan. Perhaps above all it’s a reminder of the futility of placing one’s faith in deities with feet of clay.
Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2021