India’s Covid nightmare
India got through the first wave of Covid-19 relatively lightly, thanks to a countrywide lockdown. Although the lockdown was chaotic, with millions of workers in the urban centres being dismissed overnight and forced, in some cases, to walk hundreds of kilometres to their villages in the countryside, it nevertheless acted as a restraint against the spread. Then the government lifted the lockdown too early.
The government was keen to be seen as having conquered this deadly virus.
This being the case, earlier this year, in February, the ruling BJP passed a self-congratulatory resolution in the following terms:
“It can be said with pride, India defeated Covid-19 under the sensible, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi … The Party unequivocally hails its leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud victorious nation in the fight against Covid” (quoted by Gideon Rachman in ‘India’s Modi and the perils of Covid hubris’, Financial Times, 27 April 2021).
Retribution for this hubris was not long in coming. Just a few weeks after the above-quoted arrogant resolution was passed, a second wave of Covid hit India with unparalleled virulence. The entire health system – public and private – descended into a state of shambles. People are dying in the street outside overwhelmed hospitals. There is an extreme shortage of hospital beds, life-saving equipment and supplies, especially of oxygen. The number of infections and deaths has shot up dramatically. At the time of writing the daily infections have shot up to over 400,000 and daily deaths to 4,000. The real toll is much higher; surveys of mortuaries suggest that the actual number of deaths may be two to five times greater than the official figure. The same goes for the number of infections as well as the total of Covid-related deaths so far which are officially stated to be just 200,000.
Heart-wrenching scenes of suffering, of the dead and the dying, of the ubiquitous funeral pyres, are daily being broadcast from this, the allegedly largest democracy in the world. India, the largest producer of vaccines, is suffering from an acute shortage of vaccines, less than 10% of its population has been vaccinated with a first dose. To make matters worse, in the middle of a pandemic which is devastating the lives of millions, price gouging has been given the official green light. The government has given permission to domestic producers to raise vaccine prices and for vaccines to be produced by the states and private entities for use on those under 45 years of age.
Driven by vaccine nationalism and a desire to compete with China, the Indian government has allowed a vast quantity of vaccines to be exported while the country producing them is starved.
Several factors have helped to stoke the current surge. Activated by the desire to win State Assembly elections in the large state of West Bengal, the Modi government has allowed, and has presided over, mega election rallies, with millions of people mixing at close quarters and criss-crossing the state. Then there was the Kumbh Mela, the largest religious festival in the world: instead of cancelling this event, which took place as Covid cases were climbing fast on a daily basis, the fundamentalist BJP government and its ideological masters of the RSS positively encouraged people to take part in this mass gathering involving a dip in the Ganges.
So as not to stand in the way of those who make huge amounts of money out of cricket, the country’s most popular sport, the authorities refused to cancel the Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament this year, with its large crowds.
While the government has literally begged the US, Britain and the European Union for help with much-needed supplies, it has studiously, not to say stupidly, failed to respond to the generous offers of help from India’s two most important neighbours – China and Pakistan. One would have thought, and common sense dictates, that in the midst of this crisis the Indian government would lay aside its quarrels with India’s neighbours and accept the latter’s offers of help in the spirit in which they are made. It hardly makes any sense to get supplies of oxygen from the West when the West is sourcing them from China in the first place. But the BJP government is so keen to please its imperialist masters by hitching India to the anti-China bandwagon of the West that it is prepared to risk the lives of millions of Indian people.
Now that things have gone badly wrong, the Modi government is engaged in shifting the burden of responsibility onto the shoulders of State governments.
What is needed most urgently in the midst of this international pandemic is close and sincere cooperation across international frontiers, for, in the words of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), no one is safe until everyone is safe.
Playing geopolitical games with people’s lives is a cruel and highly dangerous sport. India is following in the footsteps of the EU which has refused to use the highly effective Sputnik V vaccine so far and thus save the lives of EU citizens, instead allowing itself to bow to the pressure of the bullying tactics of US imperialism.
However, the pandemic has served also to exacerbate the decline in the power of the US: dozens of governments in the world – from Latin America to Asia and Africa – have entered into contracts to purchase Russian and Chinese vaccines. If there was an effective opposition party in India, it would be holding the Modi government to account for its criminal negligence and obliging it to accept help from its neighbours. But so pusillanimous is the opposition that it is frightened of being characterised as anti-India. If little New Zealand can say No to its powerful partners in the so-called Five Eyes intelligence network in regard to the latter’s anti-China crusade, it should not be so difficult for as large and powerful a country as India to chart its own course as regards trade and foreign policy.
Pending the vaccination of its population, the Indian authorities should promptly institute local lockdowns of the areas most affected by the virus, ban all large gatherings and wedding parties and put in place travel restrictions. Provision should be made for people to access hygiene facilities such as soap and sanitisers. In a country with the levels of poverty and unemployment as high as those of India, a total lockdown may not be feasible, but certain measures of a social nature can be put in place, just as they have been in China.
The pandemic has proved beyond a shred of doubt that capitalism is unfit, when it comes to caring for the lives and wellbeing of the masses; that those who suffer most are the destitute and deprived. This is a message that the parties of the proletariat throughout the world must take to the masses of the people. Socialism alone can bring peace and prosperity to the overwhelming majority of humanity.