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How My Uncle Became One of Modi’s Coronavirus Victims

The Indian prime minister’s deadly blundering has sown the seeds of his own fall.

By , a writer from Kashmir.
A health worker wearing a protective suit stands before a window in a newly inaugurated oxygen hub for COVID-19 patients in Kolkata, India, on May 23.
A health worker wearing a protective suit stands before a window in a newly inaugurated oxygen hub for COVID-19 patients in Kolkata, India, on May 23. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP via Getty Images

On Friday, April 23, my uncle, Ali Mohammed, died from COVID-19 in New Delhi’s Holy Family Hospital. A day before, the doctors had informed us that the hospital had just eight hours of oxygen left. After that, the patients on oxygen support would gradually start dying.

Last year, during the first wave, my father recovered from the virus after battling it for a month. We hoped that my uncle would see a similar recovery—but instead, multiple organ failure, followed by a heart attack, stole his last breath. Yet I would not say the coronavirus killed him. My uncle, like thousands of patients in India, died not because of the virus alone but because the government failed to provide him basic health care services such as sufficient oxygen supply, accessible lifesaving vials, proper treatment, and early vaccination.

When my uncle was alive, he was the most apolitical person I knew. Born into a large and poor family, he was a self-made man who had, with hard work, made it into the upper-middle class. He had managed to buy a flat in New Delhi, where he lived. However, like many Kashmiris, he had never voted for any mainstream political party in any election. If he were asked his opinion on the government, he would reply in lazy monosyllables.

His mantra was that as long as you were doing the right thing, it didn’t matter who was ruling the country. If he still lived, perhaps the current situation would have changed his mind, as it is doing for many others. As the mask comes off Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indians are witnessing an egocentric demagogue leading the country into an apocalyptic inferno.

Last March, when the coronavirus made its way to India, Modi boasted that just as the Hindu mythological war, the Mahabharata, was won in 18 days, it would take him only 21 days to shove the virus away from India. After he announced a stringent lockdown, with only four hours’ notice, millions of migrant workers were stranded in urban metropolis areas. With roads bereft of any transport, their only option was to walk back home to their villages. It became, as the Bloomberg columnist Pankaj Mishra described it, “the biggest and most desperate internal migration witnessed in India since 1947.”

The toll of economic suffering wasn’t enough. Today, India is the epicenter of the pandemic. People are dying on the roads, forests are being cut down for firewood to make up for overstressed crematoriums, and every day India is witnessing hundreds of thousands of cases. Experts have stated that the official death count is a “complete massacre of data,” with the true number of deaths possibly two to five times greater. In an interview with the Wire, Murad Banaji, a mathematician at London’s Middlesex University, estimates that coronavirus-related deaths have already crossed the 1 million mark in India. The Lancet in its editorial lambasted Modi’s malign incompetence toward the people he rules over, stating that rather than devising ways to control the situation, he seems more occupied with “removing criticism on Twitter.” By mid-March, cases were rising at an alarming rate. Scientists cautioned that a second wave was imminent. India’s rich flew to safer areas like Dubai, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. The poor were left at the mercy of the government, which was wildly overconfident due to a faux belief that India had now become immune to the coronavirus.

Instead of acting, Modi allowed the Kumbh Mela, a massive Hindu religious festival during which millions of pilgrims congregate in the northern city of Haridwar to take a dip in the Ganges, to proceed. When the chief minister of Uttarakhand state, Trivendra Singh Rawat, protested that the coronavirus rules should be followed, he was fired overnight and replaced with a new chief minister, who publicly announced: “Maa Ganga’s [the goddess of the Ganges] blessings are there in the flow. So there should be no corona.”

A senior leader in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) told the Caravan magazine that the “Kumbh was allowed to happen because the Uttar Pradesh polls are in the next eight months. … It made no sense to annoy a friendly ally just a year before elections.” That friendly ally is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath. In early May, he set up health centers and 700 helplines throughout the state to monitor health during the crisis. Not for people though. For cows, which are sacred to Hindus.

According to the Kumbh Mela force, a government body, a total of 9.1 million pilgrims visited Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela between Jan. 14 and April 27. Around 3.5 million people took a dip in the Ganges in a single day on April 12, just as the second wave in India took hold. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, called it “the biggest super spreader event in the history of this pandemic.”

In April, while millions of people were begging for medical help, Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah were busy campaigning in West Bengal—without wearing masks and devoid of social distancing norms. On April 17, just a week before my uncle’s death, Modi attended an election rally, lauding the maskless crowd for coming out. “In all directions, I see a huge crowd. I have witnessed such a rally for the first time,” he said. “Next step is more important: go and vote and take others also.”

When my uncle fell ill that month, he showed the classic symptoms: decreasing oxygen level, difficulty in breathing, and stiffness in the entire body. My cousin drove him from one hospital to another in the hope of finding a bed, and finally, after begging and pleading with everyone we thought could help, he got a bed in Holy Family Hospital. No one was allowed inside the hospital ward. My cousin and other family members talked to him via video call, as did others in the family. It felt like a clip from a dystopian movie. Many more people, though, haven’t been able to get space in the hospitals at all.

Since the arrival of the pandemic, the Modi government has been prioritizing everything but essential services, health care in particular. An independent investigation by the news site revealed that the Indian government squandered time to invite bids for a $27 million contract to place 162 oxygen generation plants in 150 Indian hospitals. It was only eight months into the pandemic that the government came up with tenders in October 2020.

According to India’s Ministry of Health, by the end of May, only 80 of those oxygen systems will be installed. Ironically, during the fiscal year 2020-2021, the Modi government spent $73 billion on defense and is currently spending $2.8 billion to revamp the Central Vista, where the parliament complex is located. The building work continues despite a lockdown in Delhi.

Despite all of Modi’s deadly campaigning, when the election results came out, the BJP was handed a humiliating defeat. According to Morning Consult’s Global Leader Approval Rating Tracker, Modi’s approval rating plummeted from 84 percent on May 3, 2020, to 63 percent on May 11, 2021. That’s still very high—but it may go lower. Even allies are turning their backs on him. And the death toll continues to grow.

Every Thursday, we visit my uncle’s grave to recite the Quran with the hope that his soul may find some peace—a luxury he couldn’t afford while he was dying. Last Thursday, while watering chrysanthemums on his grave, the words of the paramedic who treated my uncle repeated in my mind: “If only we had had enough oxygen, he would have been alive.”

Shoaib Shafi is a writer from Kashmir.