India’s Health Disaster Points to the Populist Leadership’s Systemic Flaws

“The sky in Delhi is filled with smoke, in the night you can see the glow coming from the many overwhelmed crematoriums and the makeshift pyres being set in parks and fields. The acrid smell of corpses fills the air around Sarai Kale Khan [one of the main crematoriums in Delhi] and people are waiting in queue to burn their loved ones, they have to fight for space, wood has run out”, says an exhausted Sunil Kumar Aledia, founder of the NGO Centre for Holistic Development (Chd) that works with the Delhi homeless, “We needed hospitals, but we got crematoriums”. India is now the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic and Delhi is the emblem of the catastrophe. The second wave of Covid-19 has swamped India and brought the system to collapse. The contagion has skyrocketed in the last month, with more than 300,000 new coronavirus cases registered for fourteen consecutive days. On April 30th, the official bulletin accounted for almost 402,000 cases, the highest daily increase ever registered worldwide since the beginning of the pandemic. Hospitals lack oxygen, beds, and medicines; ambulances can’t keep up with the pace of calls. People are dying in the streets, gasping for air.

With over 3,600 dead a day and the crematoriums working non-stop to assure last rites for an ever-growing line of bodies, many have started to question the real numbers of this catastrophe which, probably, will never be fully known. The official death toll has just surpassed 200,000 and almost 20 million cases were registered in India since the beginning of the pandemic. But many believe the numbers could be grossly underestimated: some think the number is two to five times the actual figures. What is known is that the pandemic is out of control in the subcontinent and India is now driving the case surge worldwide, with one case every three being reported on the subcontinent. The lack of oxygen is making the “Covid tsunami” even more devastating, with states scrambling for supplies and hospitals unable to admit patients due to the lack of life-saving supplies. The dire situation and the images of people dying in the streets prompted the international community to come forward and send aid to India. On the ground, people say the situation is “apocalyptic”.

Social media has become a sounding board for citizens’ request for help: it is here that people post their SOS’s – beds, oxygen, testing centers – and where they get vital information in this time of acute shortage. Hospitals too are sharing their appeals online, as they run short on supplies. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous State and one of the poorest, the chief minister Yogi Adityanath – a Hindu monk of the ruling Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) – has asked officials to seize the property of people accused of “spreading rumors” on social media. After denying any oxygen shortage, the Yogi Adityanath government is focusing on hiding the spiraling deaths by banning pictures of the burning pyres that are now circulating worldwide. The situation in India is out of control. A recent Time magazine cover featured one of the many aerial images that in the past weeks helped us define the magnitude of the disaster – an aerial view of one of the many crematoriums running 24/7 – with the title: “India in crisis. How Modi failed India”.

The international media has thoroughly covered the humanitarian catastrophe in India, pointing the finger at its irresponsible administration, seen as increasingly unfit to guide India through the pandemic. An article on The Australian particularly angered the executive. It was titled “[The premier Narendra] Modi is leading India towards a viral apocalypse – A mix of arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have created a crisis of epic proportions, with its crowd-loving premier basking, while citizens suffocate”. In Davos, at the beginning of 2021 Modi announced that India “showed the world how to deal with the pandemic”. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. In little over two months – while the government was busy campaigning for the upcoming elections in five states and allowed a religious meeting to draw millions of Hindu devotees to the banks of Ganges for the Kumbh Mela – India has been overwhelmed by a new variant that has brought the system to collapse. But premier Narendra Modi is rather focusing on taking control of the narrative: upon the Indian government’s request, Twitter has deleted hundreds of critical posts questioning the management of the pandemic.

Just days later, Facebook temporarily censored posts carrying the hashtag #ResignModi that were trending on social media and criticizing the management of the pandemic. Facebook assured it was only a mistake. Last Thursday, in a virtual meeting with Indian ambassadors and high commissioners, Foreign Affairs Minister S Jaishankar expressed his dissatisfaction with the “one-sided” narrative of the international media, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government had failed the country by their “incompetent” handling of the second wave of Covid-19. But criticism is mounting also within the country. Dr Navjot Dahiya, National Vice President of the Indian Medical Association, has recently called Prime Minister Modi a “super spreader” of the coronavirus for holding rallies in the states where elections were being held and for allowing an event such as the Kumbh Mela to take place in the midst of the second wave. Just over one year ago, a Muslim religious congregation in the capital – a lot smaller than the Kumbh Mela and in a time where daily cases were limited – was quickly labelled a “spreader event” and its participants as “Corona jihadis”.

According to a Reuters exposé, in the early days of March, a forum of scientific experts set up by the government did warn Indian officials of a new contagious variant of the coronavirus spreading in the country. Despite the warning, the central government did not act to impose restrictions to stop the contagion. Millions of unmasked people attended religious festivals and political rallies held by Prime Minister Modi. The warning about the new variant in early March was issued by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium, or INSACOG, the same to first detect B.1.617, which is now known as the “Indian variant” of the virus, as early as February. Reuters could not assess whether the findings were passed on to Modi himself, but it is now clear that the authorities willingly underestimated the warnings and confidently went on with business as usual. Although the report did not receive much attention on India’s mainstream media, Modi might begin to feel the punch of criticism over his failure to curb the second wave of the pandemic.

Despite campaigning hard, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has received a major setback in the recent crucial state elections: according the first polls, the party was decimated in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu (where it gained no seats) and in West Bengal, with 76 seats against the 214 of the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee, while it is leading in Assam with 75 seats of 126. The election in West Bengal – a state that has been on Modi’s wish list for the past five years – is seen as a major victory against the sectarian, majoritarian, and authoritarian policies of the ruling BJP. A sign that the pandemic seems to have increasingly exposed the systemic flaws of India’s populist leadership who has repeatedly failed its citizens.


Cover Photo: A BJP public rally ahead of the West Bengal’s state elections – Kawakhali, April 10 2021 (Diptendu Dutta / AFP).

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