Voice

COVID-19 Is India’s Great Leveler

The coronavirus pandemic has flattened the country’s social order and turned its political divisions upside down.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Frontline COVID-19 coronavirus warriors such as health workers, patients ambulance drivers, crematorium workers, wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suits hold Indian national flags as part of the Independence Day celebrations in Kolkata on August 15, 2020.
Frontline COVID-19 coronavirus warriors such as health workers, patients ambulance drivers, crematorium workers, wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suits hold Indian national flags as part of the Independence Day celebrations in Kolkata on August 15, 2020. DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had more than a year to prepare for the second wave of COVID-19 that has swallowed India and unleashed death and despair. Instead, he grew out his beard.

In Hindu culture, a long white beard symbolizes wisdom, abstinence from or abdication of worldly pleasures, and a time for spiritual introspection. Modi’s long beard is less an aesthetic choice than a political strategy designed to manipulate his overwhelmingly Hindu supporters into imagining him as a sage and the pandemic as an unavoidable natural calamity. It is a prop that grants him the aura of an ascetic and enables him to shrug off accountability for the mayhem the coronavirus pandemic has caused in his country—including the countless deaths that would have been avoided had his government been ready with oxygen, vaccines, and hospital beds.

Modi has often been portrayed as an incarnation of one or another Hindu god by his followers, who are often referred to as bhakts, or worshippers. But as the virus infects millions of Indians and kills hundreds of thousands across religion, caste, and class, many of his ardent Hindu supporters, too, feel abandoned. For the first time, they are asking if the man they saw as a messiah was a mere mortal blindsided by hubris and political greed and simply incapable of leading the country at a time like this.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had more than a year to prepare for the second wave of COVID-19 that has swallowed India and unleashed death and despair. Instead, he grew out his beard.

In Hindu culture, a long white beard symbolizes wisdom, abstinence from or abdication of worldly pleasures, and a time for spiritual introspection. Modi’s long beard is less an aesthetic choice than a political strategy designed to manipulate his overwhelmingly Hindu supporters into imagining him as a sage and the pandemic as an unavoidable natural calamity. It is a prop that grants him the aura of an ascetic and enables him to shrug off accountability for the mayhem the coronavirus pandemic has caused in his country—including the countless deaths that would have been avoided had his government been ready with oxygen, vaccines, and hospital beds.

Modi has often been portrayed as an incarnation of one or another Hindu god by his followers, who are often referred to as bhakts, or worshippers. But as the virus infects millions of Indians and kills hundreds of thousands across religion, caste, and class, many of his ardent Hindu supporters, too, feel abandoned. For the first time, they are asking if the man they saw as a messiah was a mere mortal blindsided by hubris and political greed and simply incapable of leading the country at a time like this.

His government had been warned by scientists about an approaching second wave and of the spread of the much more contagious Indian variant discovered in December. Yet Modi did not focus on containment. Instead, his political party, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), misled people into thinking Modi had defeated the coronavirus. It carried out massive political rallies, and the government refused to ban superspreader events such as last month’s Kumbh Mela festivities, during which millions of Hindus congregated and took a dip in rivers they consider holy. Moreover, despite the fact that an Indian pharmaceutical company called the Serum Institute of India (SII) has long been manufacturing a version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Modi’s government did not procure the required doses to vaccinate India’s population in time.

Under India’s federal system, health care is devolved to individual states, so local leaders from parties other than Modi’s also share responsibility for the present disaster. But nobody disputes that the central government run by Modi could have done much more.

As the virus indiscriminately attacks Indians across communities and social strata, it has been an equalizer in a country riven with inequalities. Whether the leveling effect of the catastrophe will unify Indians in their political approach in future elections remains to be seen. The BJP lost recent elections in the eastern state of West Bengal, but Indian political analysts are wary of attributing the loss to the mishandling of the pandemic. They are also skeptical of reading too much into the BJP’s losses in the local village council elections in the most populous, and hence politically most relevant, state of Uttar Pradesh. Yet anger among Modi’s traditional support base of upper-caste Hindus is most glaring in Uttar Pradesh.

Indians are “bhagwan bharose,” or “in God’s hands,” said an upper-caste Hindu man desperately searching for hospital beds with ventilators for his very ill parents in a city in western Uttar Pradesh. He refused to be identified fearing what he called a vindictive government that might persecute him. Uttar Pradesh’s government is run by an acolyte of Modi from the BJP.

Jyoti Yadav, an Indian journalist who has traveled to at least 15 towns and cities in the state and reported on people’s grief as well as the state’s inadequate arrangements, said rural areas in the state were worse off. “Citizens have been orphaned by the state. There is no government,” she said. “No one is accountable, and people in villages don’t even know who to ask for help.”

Yadav recounted a visit to a hospital in Ballia in eastern Uttar Pradesh where she met a woman accompanying her husband who was gasping for air but left unattended by the hospital staff. “She offered me her jewels to help save her husband, but what could have I done? I am not God,” Yadav said. “In the absence of the state and shortage of health care workers, people see God in everyone and are begging for help. It is grief and helplessness wherever I go.”

In the state’s capital, Lucknow, Harshit Srivastava told Foreign Policy a horrifying tale of how he ran from hospitals to government offices to testing centers to be able to help his father. On April 16, his father’s blood oxygen level dropped, but several hospitals refused to admit him because of the unavailability of beds or absence of a positive test result. His test results arrived two days later, but he had died within 24 hours, after lunch on the 17th.

“He did not die a natural death. He was murdered by the government,” Srivastava said. “Modi’s government and his party just focus on exacerbating Hindu-Muslim rivalry—they have done nothing else. They say, ‘If you won’t vote for us, then India will become Pakistan and Muslims will rule.’ That is how they fool people who forget to ask for hospitals, for oxygen, for employment. I am also a Hindu, but I am not a duffer. If there is no space in hospitals and no oxygen, then what did they do with my tax?”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a leading political analyst in India, chastised the prime minister in unequivocal terms and accused him of criminal negligence. Modi’s “performance has been a stunning mixture of shocking callousness, ineptitude, and bureaucratic incompetence sustained by a culture where he can believe his own lies and no one around him [will] speak truth to power,” Mehta said. He added that even though anger against Modi seemed palpable, it was not clear if it would translate into better services by the state in the future or more informed political decisions by the electorate. The virus “is a leveler in that no class will remain immune from its effects,” Mehta said. “But it is unlikely that inequalities in access will be addressed. Even now there is much less attention to rural India, where we aren’t even testing.”

As this mammoth tragedy unfolds and people die in droves, experts say the worst is far from over.

Since the pandemic began last year, India has reported nearly 22 million cases and more than 238,000 deaths. As the second wave hit, however, it started to report around 400,000 daily new cases and between 2,000 and 4,000 daily deaths, which is most certainly an undercount. According to experts, infections and deaths will further skyrocket as the crisis peaks in mid-May. Shahid Jameel, an Indian virologist and academic, said that “the daily count at the peak is estimated to be between [500,000 and 1 million].” He added that the slow procurement of vaccines by the Indian government has set India back in its battle against COVID-19. So far India has vaccinated only 2 percent of the population with both jabs, while a little over 9 percent have received just one dose, Jameel said.

The Indian government has now announced vaccination for all adults and is administering as many as 3.5 million doses a day. Experts, however, say it must upscale that number to at least 10 million a day. But it cannot, and one reason is that it did not order the required vaccines for Indians in time.

India has approved two vaccines for use in the country: SII’s Covishield (its name for the locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine) and Covaxin from Bharat Biotech, an Indian vaccine producer. It will take months for both to ramp up production. “Reports suggest that even though both the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech had capacity, especially the former, there were no confirmed purchase agreements with the government. As a result, they slowed down production, precipitating this supply crisis,” Jameel said. With the government now investing about $400 million in SII and another $200 million in Bharat Biotech to expand capacity, the supply chain is expected to improve by July, he added.

Even when production and supply are boosted, administering two jabs on even the most vulnerable would take two to three more months, which means that India’s recovery is going to be painfully slow. In the interim, Modi is even reluctant to impose a nationwide lockdown to reduce transmission.

Indians feel they are on their own, citizens without a government. While the Modi government likes to make a big noise about India’s place in the world as a scientific superpower, the reality on the ground is that it is unable to provide its people with the most basic lifesaving services.

Whether rich or poor, rural or urban, Hindu or Muslim—all are reeling under the catastrophic impact of COVID-19. They are combating the worst crisis in the history of the country since Partition in 1947. In several cities, crematoriums are packed with pyres that are spilling onto parking lots and pavements. Sons and daughters are running to black-market hoarders of oxygen and to hospitals begging doctors to look at their ailing parents. Many are choking to death outside hospitals in wait for medical attention. Once the dust settles, and a people struck with grief look for answers, for someone to be held accountable, will they forgive Modi and move on? Or will they see through his politics of polarization once and for all and demand their politicians build hospitals rather than more temples and mosques?

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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