COVID-19 in India: Is the Government to Blame?
17.7% of the world’s population resides on the subcontinent of India. But in May of last year, India accounted for a staggering 47% of global COVID-19 cases. This didn’t occur organically. Rather, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s politically-motivated COVID policy jeopardized the health and safety of Indians.
Similar to many western countries, India initiated its first nationwide lockdown in late March of 2020. Prime Minister Modi’s initial messaging was reassuring and calm, as he affirmed that the disease’s presence would be transitory. When India’s case count began to rise, however, religious and sectarian rhetoric was invoked. Prime Minister Modi’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP), attributed COVID case rates to Islamic religious festivals that had occurred in March. BJP leader’s accused Muslims of spreading the virus like “a human bomb”, and waging “corona jihad” on India’s population. Incited by government and BJP party officials, this rhetoric lead to an uptick in islamophobia and religiously motivated violence across India.
BJP leaders further demonstrated their rhetoric was motivated by bigotry, rather than public health concerns, when they permitted the congregation of more than 3 million Hindus less than a year later amid a COVID surge in the Ganga-river region (which resulted in nearly 560 cases a day). Muslims, meanwhile, continued to face harsh consequences for a gathering in significantly smaller quantities. This hypocrisy and religiously discriminatory sentiment isn’t novel for the BJP, and largely reflects the party’s commitment to Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist positions.
By January 2021, the Modi government declared India as having beaten the COVID pandemic. This preemptive declaration of victory was just in time for poll season. The BJP encouraged attendance at political rallies where Modi addressed hundreds of thousands of people gathered in small areas with little social distancing, mask-mandate enforcement, or COVID-regulation imposition. The lives of millions of Indians were put at risk because the political leadership failed to look beyond electoral concerns.
As a result of this leniency, India incurred a second wave of COVID cases in early 2021. In a speech given in early April, Prime Minister Modi reassured citizens that the federal government was adequately prepared to combat COVID. However, this second wave of infections took hold at an unprecedented pace. Hospitals across the country quickly became overwhelmed, running out of oxygen and ICU beds, and began turning away patients.
Many hospitals’ lack of oxygen, however, wasn’t attributable to a national shortage but rather inequitable distribution policies: India’s liquid oxygen reserves were mostly distributed across Eastern India, while Western and Central Indian municipalities were left in dire need of supply. Suspiciously, distribution often correlated with the degree of BJP support in a given territory. States with high degrees of BJP support– such as Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka– were allocated upwards of 94% of the oxygen demanded. In comparison, non-BJP controlled states, such as Delhi, often only received 34% to 54% of the oxygen they initially requested. A doctor at a private hospital in Delhi mentioned that he had been waiting on a promised supply of oxygen for days, but he could not complain as he feared retribution. This inequitable oxygen distribution cost lives: citizens were left to die outside hospitals that had long surpassed capacity.
Facing these healthcare inadequacies, many Indians turned to social media to voice their grievances, pleading for medication or oxygen tanks. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, a BJP stronghold, claimed that any hospitals or people “falsely” reporting claims of an oxygen shortage will face legal action, and went on to claim that “no shortage” of drugs, hospital beds, or oxygen existed.
Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, believes that this information suppression campaign is vital to the Indian government’s political agenda. After the Modi government’s false declaration of victory over COVID, states under BJP control faced tremendous pressure to demonstrate progress in combating the virus. During this time, journalists and citizens who inquired about oxygen distribution or COVID death rates were often arrested for defamation and negligence. Modi’s government continued to peddle an image that all was well.
In the BJP-controlled state of Gujarat, for instance, a newspaper uncovered just how significantly the Indian government had fabricated COVID death counts. Reporters were sent to nearby cremation burial grounds, where they measured more than 610 COVID-19 daily casualties, compared to a reported 150 deaths-- demonstrating an underreporting of 75% in just one day. It was later uncovered that local governments often encouraged or even disallowed cremation workers to report a person’s cause of death as COVID. Similarly, prominent Indian hospitals in BJP territories were contacted by government officials and discouraged from reporting COVID-19 as a cause of death.
The dire circumstances in India are best exemplified by the experiences of Baljeet Asthana, a Delhi woman who recorded a viral plea in November. Her mother was in Fortis Hospital– one of the biggest hospitals in Delhi– and was unable to receive a bed, medication, or oxygen. She asked Prime Minister Modi for advice on where to take her mother, and then followed her inquiry with a shocking request: “If you cannot advise me, sir, I would request you to legalize mercy killing in India, because you have no idea what the common citizen of India is going through at the moment… Let us die with dignity.”.
The faith in the Indian government has been lost. Though we cannot say that a different approach to COVID-19 could have saved all of the lives lost, it is abundantly clear that Narendra Modi’s political interests influenced his COVID policy, and negatively affected the Indian people. Had the government taken a scientific, proactive, and equitable approach, substantial suffering endured by many Indian families could have been avoided.
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16. Asthana, B. (2021, May 3). I M baljeet and my mother is slowly dying due to low oxygenation because of covid and for the last 4 days no bed and oxygen is available in any hospital in Delhi. in this scenario I request mr modi to kindly legalize mercy killing and would ask him to do the honours for my mother pic.twitter.com/dymzcixxdn. Twitter. Retrieved November 30, 2021, from https://twitter.com/Baljeet_asthana/status/1389162256345165826?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1389162256345165826%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.npr.org%2F2021%2F05%2F11%2F995446333%2Fthis-government-has-failed-us-anger-rises-in-india-over-pm-modis-covid-response.