The Making of the Covid-19 Cataclysm in India

by Garv Taneja *

Prime Minister Narendra Modi loves to use new, self-proclaimed labels on India, like Atmanirbhar (self-dependent), Vishwaguru (world’s teacher), etc. These labels are as meaningless as they are fictitious. Although for a while, during the pandemic, it did seem that India had managed to fight off the worst of it and was ready to do the same at the service of the whole world, now India’s condition has grown much grimmer.

At this writing, the country has lost 205,000 people to Covid-19, with 350,000 new cases everyday. The highest number of cases is coming from the state of Maharashtra that is run by Shiv Sena, a nativist, semi-fascist party that had been until recently, a close ally of the BJP. On the ground, it feels as if the entire Indian society is crumbling.

India is currently battling an acute shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and life-saving drugs. All the while there is a limited supply of coronavirus vaccines, which is amazing considering that just weeks ago India was supplying the whole world with millions of doses of vaccines, a feat that was heavily publicized by the Indian mainstream media as a victory for the leadership of the Indian premier, hiding the fact that the doses made available to the world never belonged to India. They were part of a World Health Organization-led Covax program meant for the poorer nations (many of which did not receive any vaccine).

There are many factors that led to such a catastrophe. This naturally includes the nonchalant manner with which the general population has conducted itself post the first wave in late 2020. Prior to a few weeks ago, it was not uncommon to see an ocean of people without masks going about their lives. Still, the lion’s share of blame must go the government’s handling of the pandemic (both in the states and at the center).

The populace is operating on the contradictory information provided to them by government sources or the mainstream media. For their parts, central and state governments were quick to impose a lockdown during the first wave, back in March 2020, and quicker, at the request of major corporations, to remove it, with little or no planning either way.

Imposition of the surprise lockdown and lack of preparation led to an exodus of estimated 11.4 million migrant workers out of the big cities and towards smaller towns and villages. Many of these migrants had to walk hundreds of miles due to the lack of transportation facilities. Almost a thousand people died during the terrible trek. Those who made it brought the virus along with them to the rural areas.

New Covid-19 cases were nearing bottom during early 2021. The mass media was quick to declare the crisis over; to portray the pandemic as another victory for the ruling party and state governments. This sentiment directly resulted in the free movement and unmasking of the masses, laying the groundwork for the current and much more deadly wave of COVID cases.

The subsequent few months of low daily cases was an opportunity for the government to prepare itself for the impending second wave. Instead, the government decided to run a victory lap. India’s oxygen crisis was a thoroughly foreseeable outcome, but the central government did not take up production, instead relying on the private distributors who are now failing to meet the growing demand.

Today, most states are begging for increased supply of oxygen and hospital beds. The Modi-led central government, the first to take credit, is now offloading most of the responsibility onto the helpless state governments.

Hospitals in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi have seen the demand for oxygen surpass the supply by a factor of 10. Compare this with the Communist Party of India – CPI(M)-run state of Kerala, the only state to have a surplus of oxygen supply.

When most governments India were looking to somehow lift the lockdown and get people back to work, the authorities in Kerala anticipated the increase in demand and started building oxygen plants back in May 2020. Because of this foresight Kerala not only is self-sufficient in terms of medical oxygen; it also supplies the excess production to nearby states.

The scale of callousness with which the political leadership operates in India is illustrated by the fact that, during the months leading up to the second wave, politicians across party lines were seen holding election rallies in places like Kolkata, West Bengal, a city where every second person tested is now found COVID positive.  

During one such recent rally, Prime Minister Modi points to the crowd of closely packed thousands of unmasked supporters and shamelessly remarks how popular he is in the state of West Bengal. This attitude of politics-above-all, combined with the unscientific mindset of the ruling party, has created a COVID petri dish for the nation.

If that was not enough, the BJP-led government allowed the organization of Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival attended by hundreds of thousands who gather in one place, with thousands bathing in the River Ganges closely together. Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic congregation that took place last year during the first COVID-19 wave in Delhi, is dwarfed in comparison, and yet it was singled out by BJP leaders as solely responsible for the exploding number of cases.

Of course, an uninformed and irresponsible population, and incompetent and indifferent governments share the blame for this tragedy, but they are mere characters in the larger story of late capitalism.

Neo-liberal austerity policies of the post-1990s have led to near complete decimation of public health and education sectors. They left the poorer sections of society with no shelter from the pandemic, victims of both the virus and heaps of misinformation.

Major businessmen and industrialists forced the government’s hand last year in opening the markets prematurely and implementing anti-labor policies, at the same time adding to the countless deaths and misery of the people. Private hospitals instead of assisting during the pandemic have been charging exorbitant amounts for the COVID treatment. This kind of reaction in a deeply class and caste-bound society such as India amounts to a death sentence for the poor and genocide of the people of “lower castes”.

According of OXFAM, Indian billionaires saw their wealth increase by 35 per cent during the lockdown that resulted in millions losing their livelihood. Logic dictates that if a country’s elites benefit from a crisis there would be no incentive for the ruling elites to quickly end that crisis. That is exactly what India is experiencing right now.

To combat growing inequality and the worst economic consequences of the pandemic, in 2020 a team of Indian Revenue Services (IRS) officers publicly recommended increasing income tax on the wealthiest citizens to an underwhelming 40 per cent.  The government, instead of critically assessing the recommendation, went on to file charges against the officers and to relieve them of their duties so as not to offend the wealthy elites of the country.

The situation of India today could not be properly handled by even the most capable of officials, let alone the unscientific, fascistic, authoritarian, and incompetent BJP government – which is virtually silent during the greatest calamity India has faced since independence in 1947.

Thus, it is fair to say that the tragedy of the pandemic in India today was years, maybe decades in the making. It is a natural consequence of neo-liberal austerity, political corruption, ever growing extraction and, a society build on hatred and intolerance.

The question, however, is whether this is enough to foment fundamental change, or does the pain and suffering need to be much greater before capitalism, along with all its spawns, is dumped into the garbage heap of history?

* Garv Taneja is a member of Socialist Action reporting directly from India.