“It can be said with pride, India. . . defeated Covid-19 under the able, sensible, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi. . . The party unequivocally salutes its leaders for presenting India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against Covid. These were the words of a resolution passed by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party just a few weeks ago in February.
But now India is to shake of a case flare. Hospitals lack oxygen and acute care beds. Mass cremations take place in makeshift facilities. Heartbreaking images of suffering are broadcast around the world. Mortuary surveys suggest death toll from Covid-19 could be two to five times higher than the official figure of about 2,000 per day.
The pandemic punishes pride. Narendra Modi isn’t the first world leader to pay the price for acting too slowly – or declaring victory too soon.
In China, the country of origin of the virus, the first disastrous reaction of the Xi Jinping government was to suppress bad news coming out of Wuhan. In the United States, then-President Donald Trump repeatedly predicted the virus would miraculously go disappear. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro addressed rallies anti-lockdown protesters. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has locked the country down too late. EU fair the purchase of vaccines.
But the Modi government made distinctive and disastrous mistakes. Having called the end of the crisis too soon, the Indian government opened up too quickly. Driven by the desire to win the crucial state of West Bengal, the BJP organized mass election rallies. Modi said he was “thrilled” by a large crowd who happened to hear him speak a few days ago, even as cases of Covid-19 skyrocketed. the Kumbh mela, a religious holiday that allows millions of pilgrims to converge on a single city, has been authorized and even promoted by Hindu nationalist BJP.
Indian government lack use the drop in infection after the first wave to properly prepare for a second wave. The emergency oxygen supplies were clearly too low. Despite India being the world’s largest producer of vaccines of all kinds, the government has been woefully slow in placing orders with local manufacturers. It has also slowed the approval of proven foreign vaccines for Covid-19, such as the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine, while promoting a more experimental vaccine designed by India.
National pride played a role in India’s willingness to continue exporting vaccines, even as domestic supply lagged. The Indian government has promoted the idea that the country is the “pharmacy of the world”. Geopolitical rivalry with China, which uses vaccine diplomacy gaining global influence, was a fundamental factor. Delhi’s willingness to export vaccines to the world also contrasted favorably with the lack of exports from the United States and UK. But the Indian government now has banned vaccine exports. It also speeds up the approval of foreign vaccines.
Modi entered this crisis with an extremely high poll notes, but is clearly vulnerable to a backlash. Having centralized power for many years, it now appears to shift the burden of responsibility for dealing with Covid-19 onto state governments.
India’s fate has implications around the world. There is still a trend in the West to treat the pandemic as a series of national crises in which countries compete against each other to see who can best cope with the virus. But it is an interconnected global crisis. Like Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization the dish, Covid-19 is an international fire and, “if you spray only part of it, the rest will continue to burn”. Eventually, the fire is likely to spread again, reigniting in places where it was thought to have gone out.
There is already cause for concern that the UK has been too slow to introduce strict quarantine measures for passengers arriving from India. This is particularly dangerous, given the emergence of new variants virus in India which may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines.
Obtaining medical aid in India is now both a humanitarian and a pragmatic necessity for the outside world, which is beginning to reply. For the United States, this may also be a geopolitical necessity, given that America views India as a crucial ally in its growing rivalry with China. The Biden administration’s refusal, so far, to allow the emergency export of vaccines to India is fueling anti-American sentiment in the country, which cannot be offset by overhead lifts of ventilators and other equipment.
The outside world must also guard against the kind of complacency that prevailed in India until recently. The fact that the number of cases is dropping and vaccination rates rising in Britain could easily create a dangerous easing, similar to what India experienced a few months ago. A recent item in The Times proclaimed that “Britain could feel like a paradise this summer”.
The lesson of India is to guard against premature celebrations or pride. Any improvement in the coronavirus situation must be used as an opportunity to prepare for future waves and to help the international fight against the pandemic. India will not be the last country to witness a tragic resurgence of Covid-19.