If there had to be one defining drama of the coronavirus pandemic in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s advice of maintaining do gaz ki doori (a distance of two yards) soon after addressing election rallies in West Bengal where people without masks were packed like broiler chickens, would get the Oscar. Not too far behind would be images of Home Minister Amit Shah walking around without a mask, during the campaign in Assam and West Bengal.
How do you explain the gravity of a pandemic to a country whose leaders preach caution on TV but are reckless in public? You can’t unless there is some communal divide to be exploited. So, we have the spectacle of millions participating in the Kumbh Mela, barely a year after slamming the Tablighi Jamaat for hosting 2,000 participants.
India’s political leadership has let the country down not just through bad optics, but also through petty (and communal) politics, and poor planning. As a result, India is already the worst-performing country in Asia, and – if the current trend continues – will end up with the highest number of corona infections and deaths in the world.
The Indian government made three blunders in dealing with corona. First the leadership gave a false sense of hope (programming people for impatience), then it gave a false sense of achievement, and finally, like Pied Piper, it lured the country into recklessness by leading with example in election rallies and poll campaigns.
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In the cult film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Eli Wallach (Tuco) gave timeless advice that politicians across the world should treat as their talisman. He said: “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.” Unfortunately, the Indian government, throughout the pandemic, has been more talk and less shooting.
When the pandemic began, the prime minister gave the impression that it was like the Mahabharata battle that would end in 21 days. He was perhaps inspired by China where the virus had almost disappeared after a few weeks of lockdown.
In July, 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic was still burning through India, Modi announced the country was in a much better position than other nations in the fight against COVID as a result of “right decisions taken at the right time”. He said the country had expanded its health infrastructure at a rapid pace to deal with the pandemic.
In various statements at different stages of the pandemic he claimed “India’s COVID fight is inspiring the world,” and that “India’s fatality rate was among the lowest in the world”.
All his statements were classic examples of speaking too much, too early, and announcing victory even before the battle had begun.
Fact check: On April 12, when India reported more than 1.5 lakh new infections and more than 800 deaths, it became the second-worst affected country in the world. India’s corona crisis appears graver when compared with our neighbours, where the people live in almost similar conditions – high population density, low healthcare facilities – and, arguably, have similar genetic make-up.
On April 12, Pakistan reported 4,818, Bangladesh 720 and Sri Lanka a mere 263 new cases. India, on the other hand, hit a new peak and is on the way to 2,00,000 reported (the real numbers could be 10x) cases per day.
So, India is neither an inspiration, nor a role model for the world when it comes to combating the pandemic. It is now the epicentre of a fresh wave.
Much of the government’s claim of having controlled the virus has been jumlebaazi. The government’s strategy of dealing with the virus has been as effective as its idea of demonetisation to deal with black money.
The government’s other blunder was going slow on vaccination. In January, when vaccination drives began across the world, in India, the government initially allowed just two manufacturers to inoculate citizens. By then, at least two more vaccines – the ones made by Pfizer and Russia’s Sputnik V – were also available. By February, both these manufacturers had approached the government for seeking its approval for supplying their shots to India. But, the government procrastinated and wasted two valuable months. Only on April 13, it announced that any vaccine approved in Europe, Japan and the US, or listed by the World Health Organisation, could be imported to India.
Apart from stalling the import of vaccines, the government also went slow with its immunisation drive. By the third week of March, when the virus was relatively in remission, India had vaccinated just 44 million people, a mere 1.6 per cent of the total population, when it had the capacity to give 4 million shots every day (the existing average now).
Much of this slow pace was because of vaccine hesitancy, and the false sense of victory that emerged within the public watching packed election rallies and reckless leaders. If the PM and his team had shown the kind of zeal they have exhibited for vanquishing Mamata Banerjee in the battle with corona, if massive campaigns were held in support of vaccine drives, India would have been in a much better position today.
There would, of course, be a price to pay. Till a month ago, India was talking about a rapid, almost V-shaped recovery, from the impact of the first wave. That discussion will now be replaced by fears of another slowdown because of a fierce second wave that would lead to partial lockdowns, health-care costs and demand bigger relief packages from the government. The IMF forecast of a 12 per cent rise in GDP in the current financial year looks like a distant dream.
But, the bigger cost would be borne by Indians. Reports from at least three states – Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh –suggest the healthcare infrastructure in these states is under severe strain. As the wave multiplies, other states would face similar differences in demand for hospital beds, oxygen and intensive care. Even if the case fatality ratio remains low in India, the high number of infections would lead to a huge number of deaths.