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Friday, June 18, 2021

What blinded government to the devastating second wave of Covid?

Among the obvious factors are hyper nationalism, concentration of power in the hands of a few and reliance on pseudo-scientific remedies.

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot
Updated: May 17, 2021 8:39:48 am
Family members of Covid-19 patients outside LNJP hospital in New Delhi on Sunday. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Why has the Modi government failed to anticipate the second wave of the Covid pandemic and its devastating effects? Some explanations are obvious: Concentration of power in the hands of few men – who were busy canvassing in West Bengal – is one of them. Not only was this centralisation of power developed at the expense of federalism, but it appears that bureaucrats and experts were either “yes men” or not listened to.

They were not listened to, partly because the rulers were prisoners of nationalism. In January, Narendra Modi said, in the context of the Davos yearly meeting: “We transformed the fight against coronavirus into a people’s movement and today India is among the most successful countries in saving lives … While two India-made vaccines have already been introduced to the world, many more will be made available from India … We guided the world on how India’s traditional medicine, Ayurveda, can help in improving immunity. Today, India is sending its vaccine to several countries and helping in developing the infrastructure for successful vaccination, thus saving lives of citizens of other countries”.

This speech reflects a form of blind nationalism from three points of view. First, Modi asserted with some bravado that India has won the battle against Covid-19 when other countries are still struggling. He stuck to this line till March, whereas the second wave had started in late February. Didn’t he consult experts on a regular basis? Probably not, as the national scientific taskforce on Covid-19 formed in 2020 to advise the government did not meet between January 11 and April 15.

The second, correlative, effect of hyper-nationalism is evident in proud references to Hindu traditional medicine. Union health minister Harsh Vardhan went one step further when he endorsed Coronil as an effective medicine against Covid-19. In February 2021, Baba Ramdev launched Coronil in the presence of Vardhan, whose ministry had certified it. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) responded sharply through a communiqué: “Being Health Minister of the country, how justified is it to release such falsely fabricated unscientific product …can you clarify the timeframe, timeline for the so-called clinical trial of this said anti-corona product?”

The government endorsed many other pseudo-remedies. For instance, it supported the clinical trial of a medicine derived from panchgavya — cow’s milk, butter, ghee, dung and urine. Some BJP leaders claimed sacred rituals like bathing in the Ganges procured immunity. Millions of pilgrims assembled at Haridwar in April for the Kumbh Mela, while the second wave was gaining momentum. Finally, after one week, Modi sent a tweet inviting the devotees to now perform a “symbolic” Kumbh because saving lives was also “sacred”.

Thirdly, the Modi government believed India could “guide” the world out of the pandemic thanks to its vaccines. On March 7, Vardhan declared: “Unlike most other countries, we have a steady supply of Covid-19 vaccines. These Made in India vaccines have shown some of the lowest AEFI anywhere in the world”. (In fact, Covishield is the name of AstraZeneca in India, where it is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India; Covaxin had caused a controversy because it was cleared by the government in the absence of Phase-3 trial data).

The Modi government believed its vaccines endowed it with a new international status, as a role model and as a “guide”. Hence a two-fold vaccine diplomacy. First, India became a key player of the UN-backed Covax programme, which is supposed to provide 2 billion vaccine doses to middle and low-income countries. Second, the Modi announced in January that India would export its two vaccines free of cost to Mongolia, Oman, Myanmar, Philippines, Bahrain, Maldives, Mauritius, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Seychelles, as “a goodwill gesture”. In four months, under the “Vaccine Maitri” initiative, India exported 64.4 million doses of vaccines, including 35.7 million on a commercial basis, 18.2 million through the Covax programme and 10.4 million as grants. At the time, only 120 million people had been vaccinated in India.

When the second wave gained momentum, not only India had to stop its exports, but it had to accept aid from foreign countries. Will this reversal of roles affect its image in the West? Certainly, India will have to recover first economically for retrieving the status of an emerging country. But it remains a reliable partner so far as the main expectations of the US and Europe are concerned: To balance China in the Indo-Pacific. For that, you do not need a public health system. A weaker India – that needs them more — may even be a good thing from the viewpoint of western countries as the country may not be in position to retain all its strategic autonomy.

In the short run, however, India’s critical situation may make its rapprochement with the West more complicated simply because New Delhi may be asked more embarrassing questions. Few days ago, the European parliament, for instance, passed a resolution where it “encourage[d] India, as the world’s largest democracy, to demonstrate its commitment to respecting and protecting the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, to end attacks against — and to release — arbitrarily detained human rights defenders and journalists, including in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir”. The EU-India Summit that followed was mostly about other things, including climate change, trade as well as connectivity in the Indo-Pacific. The final communiqué appreciated “India’s efforts to produce and distribute Covid-19 vaccines to over 90 countries” — as if nothing had changed — but also emphasised “the importance of strengthening mechanisms for the promotion of human rights”. Hypernationalism sometimes boomerangs, and not only because of domestic mismanagement.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 17, 2021 under the title ‘Prisoners of nationalism’. The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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