We should begin by stating the obvious, India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster! Since the very first day, the government approached the problem with a combination of incompetence, ham-handedness, and glaring unpreparedness which would find few parallels in the world.
By Adhiraj Bose – Mazdoor Inqilab
Today, India has the fastest-growing COVID pandemic anywhere in the world, with daily case numbers totalling above 200,000! Deaths have also crossed the 1,000 a day mark, and these are just official tallies. Reports are emerging of certain state governments enforcing censorship through the police and administration when it comes to reporting death numbers. Two glaring examples are Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, two states that are among the worst affected by COVID. In Uttar Pradesh, a crematorium was sealed off by the police, making it impossible to record, to hide the scale of cremations taking place every day. In Gujarat, the state government reported only 67 deaths across the state on the 11th of April, while local papers reported over 104 deaths from just one hospital!
India’s healthcare system, already one of the worst on account of its high degree of privatization and low amount of government investment, has collapsed. There are shortages of beds across the country, shortages of supplies, shortages of vaccines and shortages of Remdesivir. The death toll keeps increasing, collapsing not only hospitals but crematoriums as well. Reports are emerging where crematoriums worked so hard that their chimneys melted. Graveyards are filling up, morgues are overflowing, and even then there is barely any infrastructure to deal with the dead, let alone the living. The current wave, which began in March, spiked by the middle of April with over 200 thousand cases added every day. In one week, India added 1.2 million new coronavirus cases. By comparison, it took 231 days to reach this number during the first wave. The daily rise of cases has now touched a new peak breaking all records, adding over 350,000 new cases in one day!
Many factors can help explain the abject failure of the government to contain the pandemic in India. Chief among them was the fact this government had no prior preparations for the second wave, even though it was well known that the virus spread in two waves, nor was there any preparation for the mutations which appeared in India, chiefly the UK and South African strains of the virus. In a move to bolster its international image, and engage in vaccine diplomacy, the Modi government allowed the free exportation of the vaccine, leading to critical shortages across the country. There was no stockpiling of oxygen supplies in hospitals, leaving the healthcare infrastructure extremely vulnerable to another wave. Most importantly, with the elections in five key states, the government had set its priority on election campaigning. They failed to be alert to the possibility of a second wave, as the public was lulled into thinking that the virus had passed, and even if it remained, that it would not have the lethality of the first wave.
The fact is, the right-wing BJP government is characterized by a combination of elitism and irrationality. They allow hackers and religious fanatics to control the narrative. The newly appointed Chief Minister of Uttarakhand claimed, for example, that bathing in the waters of the Ganges would cure Covid, that somehow the Kumbh Mela, an annual festival for Hindu pilgrims in the Northern Himalayan state, would not cause a spread of the virus. Now we learn that the Kumbh Mela has become a super spreader event, with five thousand reported to be infected in three days, and unofficially the number might be much higher. We can never truly know because India’s already low rate of testing has hit rock bottom in this second wave. People are simply not testing as much, and many don’t seem to care about getting tested, partly because of the elections and in part because of the common myths pervading the virus in India, a most popular one among them being that the virus does not spread as much in warm weather. It is summertime in India and the virus is hitting its peak.
The first wave
Unlike the US or Brazil, India’s government did not outrightly deny the pandemic or belittle the virus and the pandemic but had a lackadaisical reaction to the first few cases. Foreign flights continued unabated, and Indians overseas who lived in countries severely affected by COVID were allowed to return, especially those from the United Kingdom. There was barely any investment in tracing and testing since then, and when the disease spread, it was too late.
Seeing a rise in cases in the first wave, the government imposed its now-infamous lockdown, right after declaring a ‘Janata Curfew’ (translated, it means ‘people’s curfew’) on the 22nd of March, when the Prime Minister comically encouraged the population to bang pots and pans to observe the ‘curfew’. Even then, there were many instances where people foolishly flouted restrictions and gathered on the streets, sometimes to march in support of the government. The comical display was followed by the largest lockdown in the world, which began on 24th March and lasted until 31st May 2020. The government was completely unprepared for this lockdown and how it would affect people’s lives and livelihoods, giving businesses and workers no time to prepare. Even essential services like public transport were shut down, depriving many migrant workers the means to return home from the states in which they work.
As businesses closed, daily-wage earners, who are the most vulnerable group of workers in India found their incomes drying up. This combined with supply disruptions, meant many simply starved in their homes for want of food. Migrant workers were of course the worst affected, and heartbreaking scenes could be seen on the streets of India’s capital, where starving migrant workers were forced to drink spilt milk from the streets or beg for food. While the rich were treated with minimal coercion at the hands of authorities, workers and the poor on the street were subjected to beatings and harassment daily. There were even some reports of the police beating people for not wearing a mask properly, or even walking out in public. The class character of the Indian state has never been so clear as it was during the lockdown.
Hundreds of migrant workers died on the long way home, either due to accidents, exhaustion, or suicide by those who could not take the indignity of living like refugees in their own country. The government never revealed the true numbers of the dead because they never bothered to keep data. It took an NGO to try and compile this morbid statistic, and even then the numbers are almost certainly an underestimate because they had very limited means at their disposal to count the numbers of migrant workers moving out. In total, almost twenty million people were rendered jobless overnight and many of them forced to leave for their homes. Most of the migrant workers were from the Northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it was a journey of over a thousand miles from North-Western and Western India. The government did not provide even minimal help to the migrants caught in this crisis.
About three weeks later, the deadlock did end when the workers at Surat and Mumbai nearly erupted in revolt against this imposed isolation by the government. The lockdown started to be lifted from then on, with trains and busses being provided for the workers to return to their home states. The measure came after over a thousand had died this way. Unfortunately, with the shoddy facilities and lack of care given to the migrants, many were forced into cramped quarters or stay in slums or crowd around train and bus stations, which made it easy for the virus to spread among them. As they returned home, and the lockdown was weakened, the virus spread rapidly. The period of the lockdown saw India almost flattening the curve, only to see the pandemic explode out of control. It did not take long for hospitals to become overwhelmed, and healthcare infrastructure to come to the point of collapse, and in some cases fall apart.
Between April and October, when the wave of the pandemic hit India really hard, the country became one of the worst affected by the virus in the world with a death toll quickly surpassing the United Kingdom which stood closest in the ranking (in absolute numbers of deaths). The blame for this disaster can be justly pinned on the government which had no clue on how to handle the pandemic, as well on most preceding governments, both the national and state ones, who had failed to build up India’s healthcare infrastructure or invest in sound medical education for the population. The one ‘shining example’ of the state of Kerala, which was one of the lone states to handle the first wave of the pandemic adequately, would falter when the second wave hit. The Kerala state, that is known for its high human development index and has one of the best medical infrastructures, engaged in a community-driven approach to treating the disease, which contained the pandemic effectively.
The wave subsided around December of last year. It took the combined efforts of India’s doctors and medical workers, who were working with the greatest limitations often round the clock, to bring the pandemic in check. The case of the ASHA workers is most telling in this regard. Despite being frontline healthcare workers, they often had to work without adequate protective suits or equipment. Many weren’t even paid during the period of the lockdown. The healthcare workers of India, its scientists and conscious citizens who came forward to help in times of need, deserve all the credit for containing the virus during the first phase. However, the pandemic was far from ‘over’.
Even during the declining phase of the first wave of the pandemic, thousands of cases were being recorded from across the country, most from the western Indian states of Maharashtra and Kerala. These two states have accounted for the bulk of new cases when the second wave of the pandemic hit India. Despite this, there was an air of triumphalism as if the virus had gone. People returned to their daily routine, many stopped wearing masks or taking precautions, the government too, began focussing more on the elections than the pandemic. During the waning months of the first wave, we were witnesses to some of the biggest mass mobilizations seen in the country since independence. A general Strike in November 2020 protesting the new Labour Codes, followed by a protest mobilization by the farmers against the farm laws. At the same time, the Bihar elections took place. With both of these events going on, the government turned its entire focus on ensuring an electoral victory in Bihar and doing whatever it could to destroy the farmer’s protests, which has since been continuing for 138 days.
Many worried that the Bihar elections would trigger another crisis, the same worry was in place for the farmer’s protests. However, the government took only one of these potential threats seriously and attempted to impose restrictions on the farmer’s protests, blocking them from entering Delhi or conducting rallies citing COVID protocols. All the while, they flouted the same norms in the state of Bihar. The true extent of the pandemic in India was never known, and it is still not really known how many fatalities there may have been in the first wave or how many were infected by it because India’s tracing was notoriously inefficient, its testing rates were low and its bureaucracy notoriously inefficient. All these factors combined to give credence to a false narrative of the Pandemic under control. The truth was the pandemic was still spreading but at a slower pace and with reduced lethality. That would change dramatically when the second wave hit, and it could not have come at a worse time.
The second wave
The first wave of the pandemic hit India soon after the first recorded cases were reported, around February of 2020. The first wave hit a peak around September of 2020 with a daily case rise of nearing 100,000 cases. From that peak on the 17th of September, the intensity and spread of the virus seemed to decline till it reached a low point of around 9,000 new cases in February 2021. As the virus declined in intensity, people began to grow complacent, it was common to hear people say that the virus was not as dangerous because of the low reported death rate, or that it was done and dusted in India and there would be no second wave. The complacent attitude was further strengthened by the belief that the virus naturally slows down during the summer months. Nothing stopped the festive period between September and November, though many organizers still took precautions as was the case with the much muted Durga Puja celebrations in West Bengal and other parts of Eastern India.
The largest mass event during the end of the first wave, however, was the Bihar elections where millions in the populous Eastern state of Bihar had turned out to vote in the assembly elections. Despite all the failings of the BJP central government, the people of Bihar had voted en mass to re-elect the BJP-backed coalition government. Among the major issues in the minds of people was joblessness and the effects of the migrant crisis caused by the Central government’s lockdown. Much of the ire was directed against the local state government led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, rather than the BJP. The results of Bihar showed both opposition and ruling coalitions were more or less at the same spot where they were in the previous elections, with the exception that numerous left parties, notably the Maoist oriented CPI(ML) and the Stalinist CPI(M) had managed to gain heavily in the state assembly. COVID norms were brazenly flouted as mass gatherings took place without any concern for the virus, and social distancing appeared more the exception than the norm. Many roamed around the streets maskless. Despite this, the state did not register a dramatic rise in cases. This may well be due to the slowdown in testing that followed the end of the first wave.
The virus, however, hadn’t disappeared. New cases were still being reported and in the thousands. Around the end of February and the middle of March, daily infections rose from around 18,000 to 25,000. So far the epicentre of the virus had been Western Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The case of Kerala is especially important since that was where the first COVID19 patient was reported. The state was hailed for its handling of the first wave, where after an initial rise, the state managed to turn things around and flatten the curve effectively, using a combination of community-driven initiatives and a scientific approach to trace and contain the virus from spreading. The state is also known for its excellent quality of public healthcare, certainly better than the rest of India. This state is now one of the worst affected by the second wave, a price they had to pay for letting down their guard and falling into the trap of complacency that plagued the rest of the country. The situation was only made worse by the challenges of election campaigning, mass gatherings made it harder to contain the virus, and the state government’s focus had shifted towards maintaining power. Despite the high caseload, the state has reported one of the lowest death rates in the country, less than one-tenth of the worst affected state, Maharashtra.
Around the end of March, the second wave was in full swing with new cases steadily piling up. Between the third of March and the 1st of April, daily case numbers ballooned from around 18,000 to 81,000. Between the 1st of April and the 21st of April, daily case numbers increased from 81,000 to 315,000 per day. This was a world record, and even now the numbers keep increasing. Bear in mind, India still has a low testing rate, among major countries it is possibly among the lowest in the world. The actual data might as well be more than this, however, even with that limited testing, we are seeing a dramatic rise in cases which is unparalleled. Along with the new cases, the daily death figures have also been showing a steady increase. The result of all of this has been that India’s faltering healthcare infrastructure has all but collapsed. Among the shortages seen are shortages of vaccines, oxygen cylinders, intensive care units, and finally a shortage of essential drugs like Remdesivir. The government had created a scheme for building up India’s healthcare capacity during the pandemic under the so-called Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations scheme (or PM CARES scheme for short). However, the lack of transparency in the scheme had already started to raise suspicions. Now it has been found out that almost a billion dollars were accumulated from the PM CARES fund, but it is still unclear how the money has been spent. It is not a stretch to imagine that this PM cares fund was simply a way to swindle the public of their money. It had been reported that many of the ventilators procured by the fund were of sub-standard quality and there was discrimination against states that faced the steepest rise in cases. The fund did not help in overcoming the shortage of critical healthcare infrastructure.
The discrimination did not stop here, on the contrary, vaccine distribution and oxygen supplies were similarly hampered by such discrimination, done entirely at the hands of the central government. Between March and early April, when the second wave hit largely along Western Indian states, it was clear that Maharashtra, which remains the epicentre of the virus, would be the worst affected state in the country, and one which had the greatest demand for vaccines. Of the total vaccines distributed, about 4 million doses were made available to Andhra state Pradesh, 3 million doses to Gujarat state, and only 1.7 million to Maharashtra. The state with the second largest population in the country received less than half the doses of another peninsular state (Andhra Pradesh) which had a fraction of COVID cases. This discrimination was purely based on political consideration, as Maharashtra had a Congress and Shiv Sena coalition government in power, both oppositional parties. This isn’t all that is flawed about India’s vaccine drives. The country which had been hailed for its success in wiping out polio and mass vaccination programme is now faltering, as leading vaccine producers are charging for each dose. Further discrimination was revealed when the chairman of the Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, reported that they would be selling vaccines to states at over three times the price to the central government.
As things stand now, the virus has spread and continues to spread at an alarming rate, the situation can be said to be beyond grim, and nearly hopeless. The arrogant Modi government has been forced to take the bitter pill, and accept aid from outside. In a heartening development, people from Pakistan expressed their support and sympathy for Indians across the border, Twitter started trending #pakistanstandswithindia, some organizations offered ambulances to help the treatment of patients. For a moment at least, it seemed like the virus had brought Indians and Pakistanis together. Death from the virus had mellowed communal divisions and proved to be an equalizer, even as Pakistan had been fumbling in containing the pandemic in its own country. Ironically, Pakistani citizens had shown more sensitivity for the lives of Indians than the country’s political leadership, including personalities like Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, who went on record to say that there was no point in gathering data for the deaths from Covid because ‘it would not bring them back.’
The most egregious and insensitive of the BJP Chief Ministers, however, has proven to be the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has focused the state’s machinery on harassing and arresting people who have posted about oxygen shortages in the state. The government has repeatedly claimed that there is no oxygen shortage in Uttar Pradesh, but the claim has been debunked over and over again. This has not stopped the state government from cracking down on hospitals that have reported oxygen shortages, or individuals who have taken to social media to reach out to the public for help in procuring essential supplies, especially oxygen cylinders and Remdisivir. In this time of crisis, the government has barely taken any steps to ensure spreading such vital information, and it has left it to the states and individuals to take care of themselves. While people everywhere are clamouring for oxygen cylinders and essential drugs, the government continues to push on its vanity Central Vista Redevelopment Project in New Delhi. No doubt the health and safety of workers involved in the construction would be threatened due to the state of the pandemic in New Delhi.
The pandemic continues to show the insensitivity of the right-wing government that rules India and the reactionary character of the BJP.
The lessons of the failures of the first wave were clearly not learnt by the government. From the beginning of its second term, the Modi government’s mishandling had already exacerbated the catastrophic crisis, which India’s already faltering healthcare system was ill-equipped to handle. The second wave of the virus proved to be far more devastating than the first. Morbid images of overburdened crematoriums and graveyards fill the news, destroying the false narratives of the government which claims to have the situation under control. It has gotten far beyond the government’s control now. With leadership nearly absent, and focused entirely on winning elections, people have stepped up to provide any manner of assistance to those who need it, be it in spreading vital information, or in exceptional cases of providing free oxygen. Religious institutions like gurdwaras and mosques have been converted into emergency COVID care centres, volunteers helped with providing ambulance services and beds.
The government has proven that it is not bothered with the suffering of the people of the country and interested more in seizing power in the five poll-bound states, West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Pondicherry (a union territory). Most important of these of course has been West Bengal, which has the largest share of seats in the parliament and is a bastion of opposition against the Central government. Tamil Nadu in the far south is under an ally of the BJP, while Assam remains under the firm grip of the BJP, the party has almost no prospect in Kerala which remains firmly behind the left front government. Pondicherry, which was a former French colony, is a union territory whose importance is prime among union territories. The government has made it clear by its actions that they would rather have mass gatherings and parades for elections than take caution to socially distance or build up medical infrastructure. The BJP is willing to come to power on the corpses of tens of thousands of Indians. Already the official COVID death toll has reached over 200,000 deaths. It is not known how many more would die for their lust for power.
However, it would be short-sighted to place all of the blame on the BJP, when successive governments since independence till today have largely ignored the healthcare sector and allowed the creation of what has been arguably one of the worst healthcare services in the world, with excessive privatization, and shortages of critical supplies. Even now, when vaccines are available, the Indian state is showing its inefficiency and weakness in its horrible distribution system. Much needed central planning and enforcement is practically absent; black marketeering and chaos are the order of the day. This is a classic case of capitalist healthcare at work, even in a country with universal healthcare coverage. The advantages of universal healthcare have been nullified by undermining public healthcare coverage with a lack of funding and competition from private healthcare providers, notorious for overcharging and exploitative practices. The Indian state continues to treat its frontline healthcare workers with disdain, even in the time of the pandemic. Money has instead been spent on vanity projects like the Central Vista.
To these crises, revolutionaries must propose the following emergency solutions:
1) NATIONALISE HEALTHCARE!
The pandemic has exposed the frailty and inequities of India’s healthcare system. We must strip down privatized healthcare and replace it with a nationalised health service with adequate coverage from urban centres to rural villages. This must be developed as part of a national plan with healthcare workers, doctors and scientists at the forefront! We must build this on an emergency footing as fast as possible, for lives are at stake!
2) FREE AND EQUAL VACCINATION FOR ALL!
At the bare minimum, we must demand that vaccines be distributed freely and equitably across states, greater attention must be given to regions that are epicentres of the virus, in states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Kerala, where daily numbers are much higher, and high population density makes it difficult to maintain social distancing.
3) PRIORITISE HEALTHCARE WORKERS!
The healthcare workers, especially those in the front lines for vaccination and testing efforts must be prioritised. Their salaries and wages must be paid on time, and with necessary bonus and complemented with health insurance to protect them from the adverse impact of planned lockdowns and risks to their life and limb in the service of the people. Doctors, nurses, and ASHA workers must be put at the forefront!
4) HOSPITALS, NOT TEMPLES!
At a time when India is reeling from the worst pandemic in recent history, the government is still going ahead with the construction projects of the Central Vista in New Delhi and the Ram temple in Ayodhya. The people of India need hospitals and medical infrastructure, not temples and vanity projects! We must demand freezing of funds and a halt to all such non-essential constructions, and diverting resources and money for the construction of hospitals across the country.
5) FOR A UNITED WORLD EFFORT TO COMBAT THE PANDEMIC!
While rich and powerful nations hoard vaccines and prevent patents from being shared, poorer countries are thrown under the bus and left reeling from critical shortages. The COVID-19 virus does not care about this sort of nationalism, nor for national borders. We cannot defeat it until everyone is shielded in rich and poor country alike. The workers of the world must unite to ensure an even distribution of vaccines and critical medicines in combating the pandemic.
Lastly, we must remember, the root cause of this disaster in India, and much of the world is unbridled capitalism in the era of imperialism. There cannot be a future for humanity under capitalism.
LONG LIVE SOCIALISM!