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The Politics Behind India’s COVID Crisis

Among the world’s autocratic populists, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of India, is distinguished as a storyteller. He offers beguiling accounts of Hindu identity and Indian greatness, with the aid of allied newspapers and television networks, as well as on Twitter, where he has sixty-eight million followers and a phalanx of trolls. When the pandemic struck, last year, Modi summoned his loyal media barons and editors, who, according to the Prime Minister’s Web site, promised “inspiring and positive stories” about his government’s fight against the coronavirus. The country suffered tens of thousands of Covid-19 deaths in 2020, but forecasts of even more dire outcomes did not materialize. In January, at Davos, Modi boasted that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.” He loosened restrictions and invited worshippers to the Kumbh Mela, a weeks-long Hindu festival that attracted millions of people. As spring arrived, he staged mass rallies during an election campaign in West Bengal, a state with a population of a hundred million. At a gathering on April 17th, he extended his arms and proclaimed, “Everywhere I look, as far as I can see, there are crowds.”

Illustration by João Fazenda

The coronavirus thrives off of complacent politicians. At the time of that rally, new infections in India, by official counts, had exploded to two hundred and fifty thousand a day, a figure that last week reached four hundred thousand. Shortages of oxygen and hospital beds have driven desperate citizens—and even hospital directors—to beg for help on social media. State police have threatened or filed preliminary criminal charges against some of those seeking aid, because the “rumours” they generate may “spoil the atmosphere,” as Yogi Adityanath, a Modi ally and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, put it. According to the Hindu, an English-language daily, he called for prosecutions under the National Security Act. On April 30th, India’s Supreme Court held that there should be no “clampdown” on those using social media to plead for oxygen or beds. Crematoriums are overwhelmed; photographs of makeshift funeral pyres have become iconic images of an unspeakable tragedy. Last week, at least a hundred and fifty people in India died of Covid every hour. The surge reflects many factors, including the fragility of the underfunded health system. But, as Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, wrote last week, Modi’s government “appears obsessed about managing the narrative” rather than addressing urgent needs.

The Biden Administration and other governments have dispatched planeloads of small oxygen-making plants and vaccine ingredients to New Delhi, to bolster India’s vaccine industry. The aid is needed, but it alone cannot address the scale of India’s suffering. The pandemic has laid bare—and exacerbated—the contours of global inequality. The conditions incubating India’s outbreak also exist in other emerging countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, where thousands perish daily. In the U.S. and a few other wealthy nations, about half of all adults have now received at least one vaccine dose, and economies are reopening, whereas in much of the rest of the world it will require many months—perhaps a year or two—before vaccination rates are likely to rise enough to suppress the virus. India’s crisis will make that campaign longer, since to address its own emergency New Delhi has suspended vaccine exports to COVAX, a World Health Organization project established to assure equitable access to vaccines in low-income nations.

Both India and South Africa have asked the World Trade Organization to waive coronavirus-vaccine patent protections, arguing that this will jump-start manufacturing worldwide and speed global recovery. American and European pharmaceutical companies protest that waivers won’t work, because making the vaccines is too complex to scale up quickly. Last Wednesday, the Biden Administration departed from years of precedent to announce support for a temporary waiver of some patent protections. “The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, said. But it isn’t clear whether Biden’s decision can overcome European opposition at the W.T.O. in order to change existing treaty arrangements. In April, in a signal of political opinion on the Continent, the European Parliament voted decisively against waivers of intellectual property.

The moral and public-health case for prioritizing rapid global vaccination over corporate profits is inarguable. (Last week, Pfizer reported that sales of its covid-19 vaccine during the first three months of the year brought in three and a half billion dollars.) But the patent dispute lies in the realm of “vaccine diplomacy,” a phrase that describes the use of supplies to win influence and that aptly evokes the cynical maneuverings of great-power politics. While we justly celebrate the heroic service of individuals during the pandemic—nurses, doctors, delivery workers, bus drivers—our governments have often acted with unapologetic selfishness in order to protect national interests. Like the climate emergency, the coronavirus has challenged political leaders to discover new models of collective survival that might overcome threats that even the most hardened borders cannot stop. The record to date is not encouraging.

India’s death toll from Covid-19 has now officially crossed two hundred thousand, a figure that experts say is almost certainly an undercount. Yet Modi’s government continues to expend energy on censorship. The Wire, an independent news outlet, reported that on May 3rd Sun Hospital, in Lucknow, released an emergency announcement on social media that it was “not able to get enough oxygen supply,” despite repeated pleas to the government. Appearing to disregard the Supreme Court’s ruling of three days earlier protecting such appeals, the state police alleged that the hospital didn’t really need oxygen. “No rumours should be spread to create panic among the people,” a police statement read.

Last year, Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate best known for his work on the causes of famine, who is now eighty-seven, wrote in the Guardian about his country’s slide toward tyranny. “The priority of freedom seems to have lost some of its lustre for many people,” he said, and yet “the growth of authoritarianism in India demands determined resistance.” Modi, though, by rallying his followers and suppressing dissent, has weathered many previous challenges, and he is not likely to face another national election for several years. The history of independent India is one of political and humanitarian crisis followed by self-renewal, and the country’s eventual recovery from Covid-19 can hardly be doubted. Whether its democracy can also regenerate seems, at this dark hour, a less certain prospect. ♦


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