"Last year, in February-March, a lot of experts had said that India will be the worst-affected country, there will be tsunami of cases. They predicted two million deaths in the country. But India moved ahead with a proactive public participation," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed on January 28, 2021, not too many months ago. Modi boasted his success on a world stage, claiming that India has proven every prediction wrong about the potential impacts of Covid-19 on the country. The gloating was not concealed. Addressing the World Economic Forum's Davos Dialogue, Narendra Modi said, "Today, India is among countries that have succeeded in saving the maximum lives. The country, which comprises of 18 percent of the world's population, has saved the world from disaster by bringing the situation under control." To humbly say that "we" have succeeded in averting a catastrophe, or cautiously say that the dire predictions have not come to pass is one thing—but to be gleeful is another. Modi's tone and posture were clearly triumphant. In early March, he continued the victory lap, saying that India would serve as "the world's pharmacy," as it was rolling out vaccines for developing nations. His cabinet members proclaimed that India has entered the "endgame" of the pandemic.
India's official death toll surpassed 218,000 on Sunday, a figure which is by all accounts an undercount; experts have suggested that the death toll could be ten times higher than the official count. India's Health Ministry reported 401,993 new infections on Saturday—a global record—and the total infections are expected to surpass 20 million by Monday. Indeed, any global epidemic can wreak havoc in any country. Ill-prepared nations, especially those who neglected their healthcare systems for decades, paid a high price in the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020. Inept leadership, disregard of experts' suggestions, and unwillingness to acknowledge the pandemic itself have caused unnecessary deaths in many countries, the US being the most obvious example. But more than a year after the first wave of the pandemic, and repeated warnings about an imminent second deadly wave, the lack of preparedness of the Modi government is shocking. It only demonstrates the lack of respect for human life.
Instead of ensuring that lives are saved, Modi and his ilk decided to let their sycophants cheer at political rallies and hold elections to improve their political fortunes. Modi's exuberant tweet that he has not seen so many people after an election rally was a reminder of Donald Trump's election rallies ahead of the November 2020 election, but more importantly, of his complete disregard for the consequences of such rallies. Clamping down on the press and social media have been prioritised by the incumbent over providing oxygen to millions. The Indian government ordered Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to take down posts criticising the government for mishandling the situation. The Covid-19 pandemic is now matched with the threat of persecution by the government, as demonstrated in the statement of the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. He asked officials to seize the property of people who, according to the official version, are "spreading rumours".
For the ruling BJP, setting up hospitals and clinics to provide care became secondary to encouraging millions to attend a pilgrimage, which has contributed to the spread of the virus. A country which produces the largest numbers of vaccines in the world managed to have only two percent of its own people be fully vaccinated while it embarked on vaccine-diplomacy to extend its sphere of influence in the region and beyond. Building an image of the leader became more important than saving the lives of its citizens, a hallmark of an authoritarian ruler. The penchant for spectacle triumphed prudence and compassion.
The message from the government, even when the surge began in March, was loud and clear: we have defeated Covid-19. It was heard by Indians across the country—they went on to have a "normal" life, enjoyed the IPL cricket matches, and had expected that the government would deliver the vaccine when needed. It was not only irresponsible to declare a victory but it essentially created a situation which pushed thousands to peril. Although upon being pressed by internationally acclaimed journalist Christiane Amanpour, the ruling BJP spokesperson Narendra Taneja acknowledged that responsibility for the devastating situation belongs "first and foremost" to the government, there is still an effort to suggest that others should take responsibilities, too, and that there was an absence of a warning. Nothing is farther from the truth. But the most important question is whether anyone will be held accountable for the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people.
Now, for weeks, the pyres have been burning in Delhi and elsewhere, oxygen has become the scarcest commodity, and the healthcare system has crumbled; yet there is no plan in sight to bring the situation under control. The spokesperson for the BJP expressed hope that India will soon overcome the pandemic. His optimism is not contagious, but the virus is. When and how India will be able to turn the tide are open questions. One can only hope that the current surge will not be a repeat of the last pandemic a century ago. During the 1918-19 pandemic, 60 percent of all deaths worldwide occurred in India. At that time, it was the deliberate mismanagement of the colonial British powers which was to be blamed. Who will take the responsibility now?
The world has stepped up to help India face the catastrophe; medical supplies have begun to pour in. The US has decided to resume supplies of raw materials for the vaccine to India. Expectedly, things will improve. The heartbreaking pictures of mass cremations will disappear from the media, but sufferings and slow deaths will continue in the years to come. Malnutrition, long-term health impacts of the coronavirus, the loss of livelihoods—all will remain for years to come, too. At least 75 million people have become poor because of the pandemic in 2020, and the second wave will have devastating effects on them and millions of others. How will India face the impending crisis is a question we cannot wait to ask until all the funeral pyres stop burning.
Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Illinois State University, a non-resident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, and the President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS).