29 April 2021   Leave a comment

Arundhati Roy has written a powerful essay on the COVID crisis in India for The Guardian. It is a very long essay but pulls together a number of important threads which serve to explain why the country is in such terrible straits. The situation in India is grim: there are shortages of oxygen, vaccines, hospital beds, and wood for cremation. Reuters reports:

“India’s total COVID-19 cases passed 18 million on Thursday after another world record number of daily infections, as gravediggers worked around the clock to bury victims and hundreds more were cremated in makeshift pyres in parks and parking lots.

“India reported 379,257 new infections and 3,645 new deaths on Thursday, health ministry data showed, the highest number of fatalities in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

“The world’s second most populous nation is in deep crisis, with hospitals and morgues overwhelmed.”

Initially, India took a very hardline against the virus, ordering a nation-wide lockdown with only four hours notice. That step, while economically disastrous, was effective in bringing down the number of COVID infections. The Washington Post describes the move:

“Modi’s approach to India’s current surge stands in contrast to his actions last spring. Last March, he ordered a strict nationwide lockdown, the world’s largest, with four hours’ notice at a time when the country had recorded about 500 coronavirus cases. The lockdown caused extreme economic hardship: More than 100 million people lost their jobs. Among them were millions of migrant workers who began leaving cities on foot to return to their home villages.

“The lockdown slowed transmission of the virus and gave India time to scale up testing and other capacities to fight the pandemic. Infections surged in the fall as restrictions were loosened across the country but receded early this year for reasons that remain unclear.”

“Modi’s national government as well as state authorities ‘went into the comfort zone of believing the pandemic has passed,’ said Srinath Reddy, the president of the Public Health Foundation of India. ‘That illusion came to settle in the minds of most people and clouded their judgment.’”

Roy reproduced parts of Prime Minister Modi’s speech last year in which he celebrated India’s success in containing the virus:

“Modi spoke at a time when people in Europe and the US were suffering through the peak of the second wave of the pandemic. He had not one word of sympathy to offer, only a long, gloating boast about India’s infrastructure and Covid-preparedness. I downloaded the speech because I fear that when history is rewritten by the Modi regime, as it soon will be, it might disappear, or become hard to find. Here are some priceless snippets:

“’Friends, I have brought the message of confidence, positivity and hope from 1.3 billion Indians amid these times of apprehension … It was predicted 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 700-800 million Indians would get infected while others said 2 million Indians would die.’

“’Friends, it would not be advisable to judge India’s success with that of another country. In a country which is home to 18% of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.’”

Her analysis of the crisis is damning but it also reflects the inadequacies of governments in Trump-era America and in Bolsonaro’s Brazil:

“The system has not collapsed. The ‘system’ barely existed. The government – this one, as well as the Congress government that preceded it – deliberately dismantled what little medical infrastructure there was. This is what happens when a pandemic hits a country with an almost nonexistent public healthcare system. India spends about 1.25% of its gross domestic product on health, far lower than most countries in the world, even the poorest ones. Even that figure is thought to be inflated, because things that are important but do not strictly qualify as healthcare have been slipped into it. So the real figure is estimated to be more like 0.34%. The tragedy is that in this devastatingly poor country, as a 2016 Lancet study shows, 78% of the healthcare in urban areas and 71% in rural areas is now handled by the private sector. The resources that remain in the public sector are systematically siphoned into the private sector by a nexus of corrupt administrators and medical practitioners, corrupt referrals and insurance rackets.

“Healthcare is a fundamental right. The private sector will not cater to starving, sick, dying people who don’t have money. This massive privatisation of India’s healthcare is a crime.

“The system hasn’t collapsed. The government has failed. Perhaps ‘failed’ is an inaccurate word, because what we are witnessing is not criminal negligence, but an outright crime against humanity. Virologists predict that the number of cases in India will grow exponentially to more than 500,000 a day. They predict the death of many hundreds of thousands in the coming months, perhaps more. My friends and I have agreed to call each other every day just to mark ourselves present, like roll call in our school classrooms. We speak to those we love in tears, and with trepidation, not knowing if we will ever see each other again. We write, we work, not knowing if we will live to finish what we started. Not knowing what horror and humiliation awaits us. The indignity of it all. That is what breaks us.

The crisis in India affects everyone in the world. Given the high number of cases and how quickly it has spread, the are legitimate fears that there will be a large number of mutations in the virus, some of which may be more resistant to the vaccines that have already been developed. But the world also relies heavily on the robust pharmaceutical sector of India. CNN reports:

“The country is a major player in COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing initiative that provides discounted or free doses for lower-income countries. India promised to supply 200 million COVAX doses that are being distributed to 92 poor countries. But its own rapidly worsening situation has prompted Delhi to shift focus from COVAX to prioritizing India’s own citizens….

“‘I don’t think the global leadership has woken up to the scenario of how bad this delay can be for the world,’ said Shruti Rajagopalan, a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The moment India is short on vaccines and keeps its supplies for domestic purposes, it means other countries like South Africa and Brazil have to wait, she said. ‘You’re delaying the world getting vaccinated by many months,’ Shruti added.

“John Nkengasong, the director of Africa’s disease control body, warned earlier this month that India’s hold on exports could be ‘catastrophic’ for the continent’s vaccine rollout.”

The US and other states are stepping up relief actions, including vaccines and medical supplies like oxygen. But those supplies will take some time. In the meantime, Roy’s characterization of the failure of the Indian government looks accurate: “an outright crime against humanity“.

Posted April 29, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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