Among the autocratic populists of the world, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands out as a storyteller. He offers alluring tales of Hindu identity and Indian greatness, with the help of allied newspapers and television stations, as well as on Twitter, where he has sixty-eight million followers and a phalanx of trolls. When the pandemic struck last year, Modi summoned his loyal media barons and editors, who, according to the prime minister’s website, promised “inspiring and positive stories” about his government’s fight against the coronavirus. The country has suffered tens of thousands of Covid-19 deaths in 2020, but the predictions of even more disastrous results did not materialize. In January, in Davos, Modi boasted that India had “saved mankind from a great catastrophe by effectively containing the crown.” He relaxed restrictions and invited worshipers to Kumbh Mela, a week-long Hindu festival that drew millions of people. As spring came, he organized mass rallies during an election campaign in West Bengal, a state of one hundred million people. At a rally on April 17, he stretched out his arms and proclaimed, “Everywhere I look, as far as I can see, there are crowds.
The coronavirus is thriving thanks to complacent politicians. By the time of that rally, new infections in India, according to official figures, had exploded to two hundred and fifty thousand per day, a figure which last week reached four hundred thousand. Shortages of oxygen and hospital beds have prompted desperate citizens – and even hospital directors – to seek help on social media. State police have threatened or filed preliminary criminal charges against some of those seeking help, as the “rumors” they generate can “spoil the mood”, such as Yogi Adityanath, an ally of Modi and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Put it on. According to Hindu, an English-language daily, he called for prosecution under the National Security Act. On April 30, India’s Supreme Court ruled that there should be no “crackdown” on those who use social media to advocate for oxygen or beds. The crematoriums are overwhelmed; photographs of makeshift funeral pyres have become emblematic images of unspeakable tragedy. Last week, at least 150 people in India died from Covid Every hour. This surge reflects many factors, including the fragility of the underfunded health system. But, as Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch director for South Asia, wrote last week, Modi’s government “seems obsessed with managing the narrative” rather than meeting urgent needs.
The Biden administration and other governments have sent planes from small factories manufacturing oxygen and vaccine ingredients to New Delhi, to bolster the Indian vaccine industry. Aid is needed, but it alone cannot remedy the extent of India’s suffering. The pandemic has exposed – and exacerbated – the contours of global inequality. The incubation conditions for the epidemic in India also exist in other emerging countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, where thousands of people perish every day. In the United States and a few other wealthy countries, about half of all adults have now received at least one dose of the vaccine, and economies are reopening, while in much of the rest of the world it will take several months – may – be a year or two – before vaccination rates increase enough to suppress the virus. India’s crisis will prolong this campaign, as to deal with its own emergency, New Delhi has suspended vaccine exports to COVAX, a World Health Organization project set up to ensure equitable access to vaccines in low-income countries.
India and South Africa have asked the World Trade Organization to waive patent protection against coronaviruses, arguing it will jumpstart manufacturing around the world and speed up the global recovery. American and European pharmaceutical companies are protesting that the waivers will not work because vaccine manufacturing is too complex to scale up quickly. Last Wednesday, the Biden administration stepped back from previous years to announce its support for a temporary waiver of certain patent protections. “The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic calls for extraordinary measures, ”said Katherine Tai, the US trade representative. But it’s not clear whether Biden’s move can overcome European opposition to the WTO in order to change existing treaty arrangements. In April, in a signal of political opinion on the continent, the European Parliament voted decisively against intellectual property waivers.
The moral and public health argument for prioritizing rapid global immunization over corporate profits is compelling. (Last week Pfizer announced that sales of its covid-19 vaccine in the first three months of the year grossed three and a half billion dollars.) But the patent litigation falls under the realm of “vaccine diplomacy,” a phrase that describes using the supplies to earn influence and which rightly evokes the cynical maneuvers of the politics of the great powers. While we rightly celebrate the heroic service of individuals during the pandemic – nurses, doctors, delivery men, bus drivers – our governments have often acted with unapologetic selfishness in order to protect national interests. Like the climate emergency, the coronavirus has challenged political leaders to discover new models of collective survival that could overcome threats that even the toughest borders cannot stop. The results to date are not encouraging.
India’s death toll Covid-19 has now officially crossed two hundred thousand, a number that experts say is almost certainly an undercoverage. Yet Modi’s government continues to put energy into censorship. The Wire, an independent media outlet, reported that on May 3, Sun Hospital in Lucknow posted an emergency social media announcement that it was “unable to get enough oxygen. ”, Despite repeated appeals to the government. Appearing to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling three days earlier protecting such appeals, state police alleged the hospital did not really need oxygen. “No rumor should be spread to cause panic among the population,” read a police statement.
Last year, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, best known for his work on the causes of famine, who is now eighty-seven, wrote in the Guardian about his country’s slide into tyranny. “The priority of freedom seems to have lost some of its luster for many people,” he said, and yet “the rise of authoritarianism in India demands determined resistance.” Modi, however, by rallying his supporters and suppressing dissent, has overcome many previous challenges, and he is not expected to face another national election for several years. The history of independent India is one of a political and humanitarian crisis followed by self-renewal and the eventual recovery of the country after Covid-19 can hardly be doubted. That its democracy can also regenerate seems, at this dark hour, a less certain prospect. ♦