Inside India: the battle against Coronavirus

As more and more horrifying scenes emerge from India, what’s it like to live there and what went wrong? Tannice Hemming talks to Ravi Nair, 55 about the series of costly mistakes that got India to this point.

Few of us could have imagined the scenes we’d seen in Italy in 2020 could be repeated anywhere again. In the UK, many feared our NHS could become overwhelmed to the point where serious decisions about capacity would have to be made and survival of the fittest would kick in. Thankfully, due to the incredible hard work of NHS staff and logistical rearrangements, although we came close, the NHS never reached the point India is in today.

Ravi, who lives in Mumbai, is 55 and due to problems with high blood pressure, has had both his vaccinations. The protocol in India is to wait 4 weeks between vaccinations. Ravi told me that they were aware around three weeks ago that things were about to get bad. Two weeks ago, a lockdown was announced. The lockdown rules differ in various parts of India, he says. Mumbai’s lockdown meant that all shops with the exception of food shops and pharmacies would close and there is a curfew in place between 8pm and 6am. Some smaller, corner shops can open for a limited period in the morning. 

“an astonishing amount of hubris”

Most of the pictures we have seen, he says, are from Delhi. So why has it got so bad? With an “astonishing amount of hubris”, says Ravi, the government conveyed the message that Indians are special and there was “an assumption” that the Covid situation had withered and died. The complacency of the government was responsible for the huge rise in cases, as well as some political decisions which spelled disaster. 

Due to the “peculiarities” of the Indian systems, a shortage of beds and a dearth of testing kits and access to pathology laboratories; coupled with the idea that India would be ok due to religion, the situation in India is terrifying. 

What we have been seeing is the reportage of the urban elite and Ravi says that “god only knows” what’s happening in the villages. Underreporting of deaths in the villages is a serious issue and whilst journalists and activists are trying desperately to understand the true extent of the death toll across the country, Ravi fears it could be as much as double what has been reported. 

No test? No treatment.

The Indian government has made testing a lynchpin in the fight against Covid and you cannot gain entrance to a hospital for treatment without a test. It doesn’t matter if you have all the classic symptoms of Covid, without a test you are refused entry. The same applies if you need treatment for non-Covid illness – no negative test means no treatment. Ravi says this is a clear way for the government to put the burden back on citizens and a lack of testing kits and access to path labs is meaning that many are dying before they can even see a doctor. 

Elections and festivals

One of the main drivers for the super spreading events is likely, Ravi says, to be the fact that the Indian government were encouraging laxity in terms of mixing for political reasons. Results for the West Bengal 2021 election are due on May 2nd and the government was keen on having huge rallies to help drive their campaigns. “They wanted crowds” says Ravi. Crowds were what they got. With few following social distancing protocol and nary a mask to be seen, Al Jazeera shows pictures of cramped conditions in between supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with people standing shoulder to shoulder in late March and early April.

Devotees were also encouraged to take part in religious ceremonies, including the incredibly popular Khumb Mela in Haridwar, in the northern state of Uttarakhand on April 12, 2021. Images from the event show carefree people luxuriating and celebrating in the Ganges, seemingly without a care in the world. You’d never know that a pandemic was raging, as the images could have been taken years ago. The Khumb festival lasts for two weeks and, Ravi says, is just one of the events that meant Covid would have been spread far and wide as people travelled back to their homes afterwards. 

Modi’s “great success”

In January, at the World Economic Forum, Modi spoke of his great success in containing Coronavirus at the time that Europeans were struggling with our second waves. 

“Friends, I have brought the message of confidence, positivity and hope from 1.3 billion Indians amid these times of apprehension … It was predicted that India would be the most affected country from corona all over the world. It was said that there would be a tsunami of corona infections in India, somebody said 700-800 million Indians would get infected while others said 2 million Indians would die.”

“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.”

As people die by the roadside, in their homes and – as one tragic photo showed – wedged between their children on the back of a moped in search for treatment and the crematoriums run out of fuel to cremate the dead, Modi is silent. 

As hospital oxygen stores deplete, politicians and hospital administrators deny that patients are dying for want of air, floundering like dying fish out of water in their desire to downplay the crisis. 

Meanwhile Indians across the country, remembering the 2020 lockdown as arguably the harshest in the world, flock home to their loved ones to prevent further harsh separation, spreading the virus only further as they do. 

As you are unable to receive treatment for Covid without a positive test, your death from the illness will remain unregistered in the official death toll should you die without one. Another way the government is doing its utmost to shield the truth from the rest of the world. 

Modi Must Resign

With the hashtag #ModiMustResign trending on Twitter, it’s clear many are laying the blame squarely at the feet of the government. Whilst it’s clear that new variants (some of which are being called Bengal variant, no doubt due to the election campaign) have caused issues, the lack of preparedness from the government over the last 4 months has to shoulder the majority of the burden. 

In Mid-April, since Modi’s maskless face gushed towards countless other naked faces that he “had never seen such crowds”, the country has seen death and devastation on a horrendous scale, with funeral pyres lighting the sky night after night. Covid continues to wreak havoc on India’s built-up populations and the dead are not the old and disabled like we’ve previously seen – no, 65% of cases in hospitals are under 40 years old. Whilst Ravi did his best to put the numbers of dead and dying into context, given India’s huge population, it did little to quell my horror.

The UK, amongst other countries has sent over aid and equipment but the concern is of course the way it is used given the logistical disorganisation that is evident amongst those who seek to hide the truth. 

They gave the virus the chance to rise again

The President of the Public Health Foundation of India, K Srinath Reddy, told the Guardian: “Victory was declared prematurely and that ebullient mood was communicated across the country, especially by politicians who wanted to get the economy going and wanted to get back to campaigning. And that gave the virus the chance to rise again.”

Numbers are reaching over 400,000 cases per day, according to Johns Hopkins data. Whilst my correspondent, Ravi, and his beloved parents are vaccinated, so many more are not so lucky, despite India’s vaccine program having been opened to anyone over 18.

One can only hope that more and more countries can come to the aid of India and that Modi and his cronies can provide a better leadership in the days to come to bring this situation under control.

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