by Heeya Firdaus
Image: Mufid Majnun / Unsplash
As the first wave of COVID-19 ebbed towards the end of last year, India’s leaders prematurely declared “victory” over the disease and proceeded to mislead the public into living a dangerously care-free life. India’s Prime Minister Modi was at the helm of perpetuating this illusion. What followed was an obvious, almost step-by-step, descent into chaos and carnage caused by the sheer incompetence of an elected authority.
India’s nosedive into catastrophe was anything but inevitable. Even though Indian leaders resort to the “fate” argument, wherein they assail the media with unverified statistics claiming Western nations have also experienced the 2nd wave, the truth is far more complex. Although the 2nd wave had hit countries worldwide, the devastation it brought to India was not a universal experience. In fact, a forum of scientific advisors set up by the government itself had warned them of the 2nd wave. However, the warnings were blatantly ignored.
What made the crisis more difficult to solve was caused by the decision of Modi’s government to claim COVID-19 was a thing of the past. Falsely assuring India’s public, thousands were convinced that they no longer needed to follow COVID-19 social distancing and safety protocols.
The recipe for disaster was a series of incorrect policy decisions, illiterate and partly indoctrinated masses, lack of opposition to said decisions, and a government that is willing to prioritise anything over the lives of its own citizens.
COVID cases began to reappear in India in large numbers during April 2021. The government may have announced the start of the vaccination drive with great pomp back in January, but three whole months later, less than 1.4% of the nation had been fully vaccinated. As the 2nd wave agitated healthcare workers and common masses alike, the government met their concerns with bold announcements about vaccinations being open to increasingly larger groups. However, these declarations turned out to be counterproductive as the government had not finished vaccinating one group before announcing the availability for the next one, leading to millions being promised of a vaccine which the authorities did not even possess.
Unsurprisingly, Modi’s extremist right-wing government decided to worsen the situation by permitting the religious gathering of “Kumbh Mela” where thousands of Hindu devotees from across the nation meet at the banks of the holy river ganges. The festival, which was wholeheartedly encouraged by the ruling BJP party, turned out to be a superspreader that catapulted the nation into mayhem that had now become uncontrollable.
As if one superspreader event wasn’t enough, the BJP bolstered its in-person mass campaigns for an upcoming election which was to take place in the state of West Bengal. The fact that Bengal was a crucial state for Modi’s government, and winning it would allow them to topple yet another opposition government, clearly outweighed concerns about the mass rallies and campaign events becoming superspreaders. Even when other political parties competing in the election requested that the election process be a concise one and cancelled their own rallies, the BJP refused to permit the shortening of the election and only minimised their rallies (very hesitatingly) near the tail end of the elections.
Two consecutive super-spreader events sent the public into a frenzy of desperation where people were either contracting the disease or helplessly looking for vaccines and other supplies for their loved ones. India was gasping for air as it witnessed the complete collapse of its fragile healthcare system. Over 100,000 people died in under 2 months out of sheer deprivation of resources that could have easily been made available with a plan in place. India now accounted for 16% of the global confirmed cases.
The shortage of resources was so acute that several patients did not even make it into the overcrowded hospitals and lost their lives on pavements outside the buildings or inside ambulances. Moreover, the hospitals were of little assistance to the public as they had very low supply of medicine, oxygen, and staff. While urban patients still had the privilege of being able to call an ambulance, rural Indians were simply left to perish. There was no hospital, doctor, or even verified information about available resources that could come to their rescue. The largely poverty stricken and illiterate masses were manipulated by government backed extremist religious leaders who unflinchingly spread lethal misinformation at the cost of people’s lives. They were first convinced that the disease wasn’t real and were then convinced that religious devotion was the cure along with other equally bizarre suggestions such as sleeping under a tree.
Grim and apocalyptic scenes of bodies being carelessly buried in shallow, unmarked graves, abandoned or tossed into rivers, cremation grounds running out of space for the dead, and the haunting sound of ambulances queued up for miles outside graveyards became overwhelmingly common. Most would expect the authorities of a tragedy stricken country to be frantically working on the crisis. However, India’s ruling party was preoccupied with political commitments.
Agitated healthcare workers and helpless masses both faced radio silence from the government regarding any assistance. They simply refused to develop a strategy or even acknowledge the lack of resources. Left to fend for themselves, people took to social media to organise assistance such as oxygen supply, medicines, beds and food for the quarantined. Even though it was in the most unfortunate circumstances, the nation witnessed the positive potential of social media as every citizen, teenagers and adults alike, swiftly and efficiently provided a steady supply of COVID related information and resources with a much greater sense of responsibility and empathy than the nation’s elected government displayed.
As the public began to realise the absolute absence of government responsibility or involvement, criticism of the authority’s mismanagement began to surface and unsurprisingly, like a moth drawn to a flame, the government instantaneously devoted all their resources to creating and implementing elaborate mechanisms that would quash any and all criticism.
Villagers who critiqued the government for misinformation were arrested and the state machinery such as the police were weaponized to lodge numerous random police reports against common citizens who spoke out about how India was completely abandoned and neglected by its elected government at a time when it needed them the most.
Overnight, they erected walls around graveyards to cover up the realities of the failing system. Twitter was served robust notices and was forced to take down tweets that were critical of the government. Teenagers putting out SOS tweets for their loved ones were faced with legal charges. Moreover, even amidst a health crisis, the BJP managed to incite violence in the state of Bengal as they failed to win the election. Pakistan, having just signed a peace deal, offered to send crucial medical supplies to India but the Modi government turned down their offer because political power plays seemed to be more of a priority than the lives which those supplies could have saved.
India houses the world’s largest vaccine producer, The Serum Institute, which has produced and allowed for vaccines to be sent to 47 countries, including the UK, which has now almost fully recovered. Deals deciding commercial export quantities were negotiated by the very government which now complains of a vaccine shortage. The only thing that truly came in between citizens and their access to their own locally produced vaccines was the government’s decision to not prioritise its own nation’s needs. The government’s newly discovered “vaccine diplomacy” seems to be its latest attempt at boosting its global image even at the cost of the lives of the very people they govern.
Courts backed the public concern about why India was even facing a shortage this extreme in the first place. When the pandemic first began, PM Modi established a donation based fund, “PM CARES”, that would be utilised to fight the pandemic in India. Millions donated along with prominent celebrities and politicians. The fund is worth 30 billion dollars, more than enough to keep the country in surplus of resources. Additionally, it was announced that 550 oxygen plants would be set up with the money. However, a single material product from the fund has yet to be seen and the fund itself has been protected from any transparency checks by the PM himself. It wasn’t until strong directions from the Delhi High Court that the government decided to divert oxygen from non-essential industries to hospitals, a move that was expected much earlier.
In certain cities, BJP ministers were caught operating illegal vaccine and hospital bed rackets where they would profit off privately selling vaccines at higher prices or providing hospital beds to the highest bidders, essentially blocking these supplies from the ones who needed them urgently.
With most cities under lockdown, including the capital, all services came to a standstill except the essential Covid related industries. In a predictable and insulting move by the PM, the extremely costly construction of his opulent (and environmentally harmful) new residential estate was listed under “essential service” resulting in the 2.8 billion dollar construction being given the greenlight to drain the country’s taxpayer’s resources amidst a national emergency.
To add salt to the wound of citizens who had been swindled and scammed by their own government during a healthcare crisis, the government unhesitatingly lied about statistics and shamelessly attempted to defame doctors and allopathy practitioners. Such actions from the BJP have been criticized by the Indian Medical Association, even leading to the resignation of a top virologist from a government appointed panel.
Following the utter disaster that has been the BJP’s counterproductive efforts, the masses seem to have now accepted the responsibility of having to fend for themselves. Even at the peak of criticism, the government only managed to convene a couple of meetings with state governments, that too, only to tell them that they had to handle things on their own. States were asked by the Centre to arrange for vaccines on their own but were met with Central interference when they tried to establish their own systems.
India’s citizens, BJP supporters and opposers alike, received nothing but indifference, irresponsibility and incompetence when they looked to the one institution that is supposed to keep their interests at heart. Even though it was under tumultuous circumstances, perhaps these tragic times opened the public’s eyes to the realities of a party that had so far enjoyed strong “cult” support. With newfound disappointment, many supporters of the extreme right wing learnt of the government’s true loyalties. But, most of all, perhaps this crisis has taught the world that accountability is a luxury when a despotic government is voted into power.