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India's COVID crisis: A deadly example of government failure

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2018 (image by the Press Information Bureau via Wikimedia Commons)

The devastating outbreak across India exposes the stark failures in governance and vaccine development locally and across the world, writes Dr Rashad Seedeen

THE ONGOING CRISIS of COVID-19 has exposed the abject failure in strong-men governments and neoliberalism.

India, a Government led by Hindu-nationalist Narendra Modi, has recently reported the highest daily total of COVID-19 cases at 401,933. This was reported after ten days of over 300,000 of new daily cases.

As author Arundhati Roy noted, only a few months earlier at the World Economic Forum, Modi smugly declared that:

“Friends, it would not be advisable to judge India’s success with that of another country. In a country which is home to 18% of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

That was in January of this year. Three months later, India currently has 20,658,234 cases and a death toll of 226,169. 

That number is already much higher when we consider that reports have been coming out of India that the Government is under-reporting deaths and cases. Experts currently working in India reported to CNN that the numbers could be up to 30 times higher.

Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in New Delhi, told CNN:

It's widely known that both the case numbers and the mortality figures are undercounts, they always have been. Last year we estimated that only one in about 30 infections were being caught by testing, so the reported cases are a serious underestimate of true infections. This time, the mortality figures are probably serious underestimates, and what we're seeing on the ground is many more deaths, than what has been officially reported.

India’s healthcare system has drowned in a flood of cases. Oxygen, which provides enhanced respiratory support to patients, is running out in most hospitals, while beds are becoming increasingly scarce and patients are being turned away.

The dramatic rise in cases is mostly due to an increase in public gatherings, including election rallies held by Modi and religious events, and new variants, most notably the UK variant and the "double mutant" variant unique to India.

Modi and his allies in states and the central government have been more focussed on the optics, trying to downplay the severity of the crisis. Modi has ordered Twitter to remove posts critical of the Government’s response.

Surprisingly, Twitter has partly complied and censured posts in India. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, has ordered officials to take action under the National Security Act against those who spread “rumours” and “try to spoil the atmosphere” on hospital shortages. 

Further, Modi allowed religious festivals and election rallies, attended by thousands and with little protective measures, to continue during the peak of the crisis.

It would appear that a divisive ultra-nationalist leader is useless in a crisis. 

When it comes to vaccinations, strongman Modi has failed his people, as well. Once a leader in vaccine diplomacy, sending out millions of vaccines to over 60 countries, India has botched its domestic vaccine rollout.

As of late April, India had only vaccinated 7.7% of the population. In comparison, the UK has vaccinated 48.2%.

From the beginning of the year, it was clear that India had a shortage of vaccines available for a population of 1.3 billion, with an adult population of around 966 million.

By late April, 123.8 million adults had received at least one dose of the required two doses.

India has a long way to go.

Up until April, the Indian Government refused all foreign imports of vaccines, only approving the Indian vaccines of Covishield and Covaxin. These local vaccine manufacturers already had commercial interests in the export of the vaccines, while the mass production capacity needs of the Indian people will not be met.

The Government should have taken these factors into consideration and approved foreign vaccines months earlier. Instead, it blocked their import until only recently. Now, the central government has passed the buck of vaccine imports to the state governments, which will inevitably lead to a slowing of procurement.

The other hurdle to local production of vaccines in India has been the United States’ export bans on vaccine-related raw materials, which has had a direct impact upon the local capacity to increase mass production.

On 26 April, the Biden Administration reversed this policy by assuring India the supply of raw materials needed in the production of Covishield. Ventilators, rapid diagnostics kits and personal protection equipment (PPE) and therapeutics have also been promised by the U.S. Government, but not access to the AstraZeneca vaccine of which the U.S. has hoarded tens of millions.  

Governments like India and the United States, who have applied a nationalist and market-based approach to vaccine development, acquisition and distribution have had a direct impact upon the response, spread and continuation of COVID-19. 

The wealthiest nations of the world have hoarded vaccines, while the poorest nations of the Global South have been completely forsaken.

The simple fact is that until a global absolute majority of people are vaccinated we remain exposed to future outbreaks with mutated variants.

However, the world’s leading pharmaceutical corporations and their home governments have ruthlessly protected their patents and technologies in vaccine development so as to hold a monopoly. Profits have never been better.

A cheerleader of this neoliberal approach, Bill Gatesundermined the worldwide movement to develop patent-free vaccines last year. In a similar vein, Oxford University chose to partner with AstraZeneca rather than fulfil its original promise of producing a vaccine patent-free.

Small, medium and large-scale pharmaceutical businesses in partnership with government research institutes and universities have either the know-how, technology or production capacity to make enough vaccines for the world’s population. But this can only happen if the patents are released and technology shared, which can all be facilitated through the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

But leading governments, most notably the United States, continue to protect their industries over the health needs of people by blocking this process. India has concretely proven that this cannot continue.

Further to this, many governments think that the best way to deal with these nationwide outbreaks is to simply place a steel ring around these countries as global pariahs.   

Countries from around the world have banned international flights from India, including the United States, Canada, Belgium, Japan, the UK, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. Australia has outdone the rest of the world in its cruelty by also denying its own citizens from returning home from India. Even the United States has provided special flights for citizens as a right of return.

Governments from around the world have provided aid but it is coming in at a trickle. From Europe, the UK has promised 600 pieces of medical equipment and Germany is providing 23 mobile generation plants.  Taiwan has just sent 150 oxygen concentrators and 500 oxygen cylinders. Even Pakistan has provided ventilators, PPE and medical assistance. Australia is also sending over a support package that includes 500 ventilators. With a population over 1.3 billion, India will continue to struggle to flatten the curve.  

Segregating the world based around COVID hot-spots deprived of vaccinations only entrenches global injustice and allows mutant variants to spread at a later date. 

If we are to get to the other side of this crisis, we must realise our common humanity.

Dr Rashad Seedeen holds a PhD in international relations and works as a high school teacher. You can follow Rashad on Twitter @rash_seedeen.

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