The official Covid-19 death toll in India has passed 250,000, and the real death toll could be many times higher. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity appeared untouchable a few months ago, but as India battles with a devastating second wave of Covid-19, Modi is now facing increased criticism and backlash over government complacency around the re-emergence of the virus.
Prime Minister Modi’s response to the pandemic in March 2020 was to order a draconian nationwide lockdown, with four hours’ notice. Some of the worst affected by this initial lockdown were millions of migrant workers, many of whom were living as ‘daily wage labourers’ without savings or a home, and who lived where they worked. With interstate movement banned, hundreds had to undertake the journey home on foot, and many died on the way.
However, the general consensus from the urban middle class, including migrants, was that Modi had made the right decision in his handling of the lockdown and the virus. Now, in contrast, much of the public anger against Modi is coming from the urban middle class, who have, over Modi’s previous seven years in power, been some of his most loyal supporters. Although Modi’s current approval rate of 65% appears decent, it was 74% in late March, and as high as 80% at the end of the first lockdown.
The second wave struck with force and vengeance.
The government response to overcoming the first wave of the virus was to proclaim victory. By January 2021, the country was celebrating a triumph over Covid-19, with relatively low casualties compared to other countries. Modi’s political party, the BJP, published a resolution praising Modi’s defeat of the virus. The health minister proclaimed that India had defeated Covid.
As a result, people stopped fearing the virus, and became more complacent about everything from wearing masks properly, to social distancing as they attended parties and festivals, to bothering to get vaccinated. Modi attended political rallies in West Bengal, even as cases began to rise and hospitals ran out of oxygen.
The second wave struck with force and vengeance. In Delhi at the end of April, someone was dying of the virus every four minutes, and crematoriums had run out of space. People were dying in hospital car parks and on steps.
Such a fuelled narrative of victory over the virus, coming from within the government earlier this year, is now being turned against the government as evidence of their incompetence. The national Vice-President of the BJP, Jay Panda, claimed that Modi had repeatedly called for people to stay alert to the virus, and no one had predicted such a large surge in cases.
However, government actions through to March suggest otherwise, and the government, aware of increased criticism, has moved to delete tweets that condemn its handling of the virus. Individuals and hospitals complaining about their lack of equipment are being threatened with criminal complaints filed against them. Often praised as the largest democracy in the world, the Indian government is desperately trying to control the narrative.
Vaccine rollouts cannot be exclusively celebrated in developed countries when so many countries have vaccinated so few in the population.
Indeed, the political repercussions of the second wave could be great for India. Modi’s image as a strong leader has been tarnished, and attempts to blame the state governments or the people are seen as further deflections. The impact is already becoming clear, as Modi was recently defeated in West Bengal despite his intense campaigning in the area.
The central government should stop denying responsibility and further should work towards providing necessary information about the virus, including accurate statistics, and necessary equipment to those who need it.
India is a lesson to the world. Part of the reason why the second wave struck India so badly was because of a new variant, B1617, which was first detected in India and is believed to have increased transmissibility. For as long as significant proportions of populations around the world remain unvaccinated, new variants are likely to emerge, which pose the threat of increased transmissibility or resilience against the vaccine. Vaccine rollouts cannot be exclusively celebrated in developed countries when so many countries have vaccinated so few in the population. The UK’s efforts to send ventilators to India has been important, but of long-term importance in ensuring access to vaccines in India, and providing vaccines to developing countries that have previously been reliant on India’s production of AstraZeneca for their vaccine deliveries.
Image: Nomad Tales via Flickr