For Ashish Yechury (1986-2021), journalist.
It is difficult to overstate the grip of COVID-19 on India. WhatsApp bristles with messages about this-or-that friend and family member sick with the virus, while angry posts about how the central government has utterly failed its citizenry rapidly increase. This hospital is running out of beds, and that hospital has no more oxygen, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Cabinet evade the problem.
Thirteen months after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the world was in the midst of a pandemic, the Indian government continues to stare right into the problem like a deer in headlights, unable to move or act while impending doom hurdles closer. While other countries are well within their vaccination programs, the Indian government sits back and watches a second, possibly third wave land heavily on the Indian people.
On April 21st, 2021, the country registered 315,000 cases in a 24-hour period. This is an extraordinarily high number. Bear in mind that in China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, the total number of detected cases stands at less than 100,000.
Modi said he would win this Mahabharat against COVID-19 in 18 days. 56 weeks later and the Indian people suffer under an uncaring leader.
This spike has raised eyebrows: is this a new variant, or is this a result of failure to manage social interactions (including the 3 million pilgrims who gathered at this year’s Kumbh Mela) and to get enough people vaccinated in time.
Regardless, at the core of the problem is the complete failure of the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Modi, and their inability to take this pandemic seriously.
A glance around the world shows that governments who disregarded the WHO guidelines, regulations and warnings, suffered the worst at the hands of COVID-19. Since January 2020, the WHO had asked governments to insist on basic hygiene rules—washing hands, physical distance, mask wearing, etc.—and later made suggestions on testing for COVID-19, as well as contact tracing and social isolation.
Insisting on basic hygiene etiquette does not take tremendous resources. Vietnam’s government, for instance, took those recommendations very seriously, resulting in the slower spread of the virus.
India’s government moved very slowly. By March 10th, 2020, the Indian government had reported roughly 50 COVID-19 cases in India, with infections doubled in 14 days. The first major act from Prime Minister Modi in response to the virus, was a 14-hour Janata Curfew. A dramatic act, but one not fully in line with the WHO recommendations.
This ruthless lockdown, given with only four hours’ notice, sent hundreds of thousands of workers on the road to their homes, penniless, some even dying by the wayside, and most carrying the virus with them to their towns and villages. Prime Minister Modi executed this lockdown without checking with his own departments, whose advice might have warned him against such a precipitous and truly unnecessary act.
Prime Minister Modi has taken the entire pandemic lightly, with little regard or respect for the science behind the WHO suggestions and recommendations. He even urged people to light candles and bang pots at one point, hoping to use noise to scare away the virus.
There has been no national policy that one can find anywhere on any of the government’s websites. In May and June of 2020, the lockdown was extended, although this was meaningless to the millions of working-class Indians who still went to work, surviving solely on their daily wages.
A year into the pandemic, there are now 16 million people in India with detected infections, with 185,000 people confirmed dead from the pandemic. One has to write words like “detected” and “confirmed” because mortality data from India during this pandemic has been totally unreliable.
Consequences of Privatization
The consequences of turning over Health Care to the private sector and underfunding public health have truly been felt. For years now, advocates of public health care, such as the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, have called for more government spending on public health and less reliance upon profit-driven health care.
These calls fell on deaf ears.
India’s governments have spent very little on health—3.5% of GDP in 2018, a figure that has remained the same for decades. India’s current health expenditure per capita, by purchasing power parity, was 275.13 in 2018, around the figures of countries such as Kiribati, Myanmar and Sierra Leone. This is a very low number for a country with the kind of industrial capacity and wealth of India.
In late 2020, the Indian government admitted that it has 0.8 medical doctors, and 1.7 nurses, for every 1,000 Indians. No country of India’s size and financial value has such a low ratio. And, it gets worse.
India has only 5.3 beds for every 10,000 people. In China, for example, they have 43.1 beds for the same number of people. India has only 2.3 critical care beds for 100,000 people (compared to 3.6 in China) and only 48,000 ventilators. China had 70,000 ventilators in Wuhan alone.
The fragility of India's medical infrastructure is wholly due to privatization, where private sector hospitals run their system on the principle of maximum capacity with no ability to handle peak loads. Because it would mean extra capacity during 'normal' times, the theory of optimization within private hospitals does not allow the system to be prepared for crises. No private sector is going to voluntarily develop any surplus beds or surplus ventilators.
This only serves to worsen the crisis in a pandemic. Low health spending means low expenditure on medical infrastructure and low wages for medical workers. Truly a poor way to run a modern society.
Vaccines and Oxygen
Shortages are a normal problem in any given society. But the shortages of basic medical goods in India during the pandemic have been outright scandalous.
India has long been known as the “pharmacy of the world,” since the pharmaceutical industry sector there has been very successful at reverse-engineering a wide range of generic drugs. It is the third-largest pharmaceutical industry manufacturer. India accounts for 60% of total global vaccine production, including 90% of the measles vaccine used by WHO, and India has become the largest producer of pills for the U.S. market.
But none of this helped during the crisis.
Vaccines for COVID-19 are not readily available for Indians citizens despite their local production. Vaccinations for Indians will not be complete before November 2022.
What's more, a new government policy will allow vaccine makers to hike up prices, but will not force makers to produce the vaccine fast enough (India’s public sector vaccine factories are sitting idle). No large-scale rapid procurement is on the horizon, nor is there enough medical oxygen, and promises to build capacity have been unfulfilled by the ruling party.
On March 25th, 2020, Modi said that he would win this Mahabharat—this epic battle—against COVID-19 in 18 days. Now, more than 56 weeks after that promise, India looks more like the blood-soaked fields of Kurukshetra, where thousands lay dead, with the war not even at halftime.
Independent Media Institute
This article was produced by Globetrotter.