The pandemic's deadly journey across Modi's India

June 2, 2020
Protest in support of Safoora Zargar and other women student activists on May 7. Photo: CPI(ML)

In the United States, 13% of the population makes up 32% of the deaths from COVID-19. According to a Washington Post analysis, counties that are majority Black have almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority.

In Wisconsin, Black people are just 6% of the population and nearly 40% of COVID-19 fatalities. In Michigan, Black people represent 14% of the state's population but 40% of its deaths.

In Kansas, only 6% of the population is Black, but Black people account for more than 30% of the deaths.

In Louisiana, Black people make up 33% of the state's population but 70% of COVID-19 fatalities. In Mississippi, Black people are 38% of the population but account for 66% of deaths.

Social pattern of COVID-19 deaths

In India, we still do not have accurate countrywide data in the public domain on COVID-19 cases and deaths, let alone any socio-economic breakdown. But some reports are revealing. Tabassum Barnagarwala reported in the Indian Express on May 7 that “of the 548 deaths recorded in Maharashtra as of May 3, 239 (44%) are from the minority Muslim community — almost thrice their share (just under 12%) in the state’s population".

The number of infected persons from the Tablighi Jamaat [Muslim] religious gathering in Delhi [from March 13–15] was actually very low — just 69 in all of Maharashtra. So what was the reason for Muslims’ disproportionate representation in the COVID-19 deaths?

Barnagarwala reports that “a significant share of the (Muslim) community lives in neighbourhoods where social distancing is difficult, population density is high, and access to healthcare poor".

State epidemiologist Pradeep Awate told her: “The cases are spreading in slums not because of a particular religious group, but because of poor living conditions. And in the slums, Muslims are in large numbers. At least 8–10 people live in a small room where social distancing is difficult.”

Muslims in India are disproportionately poor, as the Sachar Committee report established.

But, while the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Delhi itself did not lead to a surge in cases in Maharashtra, the communal political and media campaign around it perhaps did, as members of the community were afraid to report symptoms for fear of stigmatisation.

The Maharashtra government, taking note of this, took special measures to reassure the minority community, requesting mosques and religious leaders to help spread the message that Muslims should not fear to report symptoms. But the story in other states is very different.

Communal virus

There are many instances of hospitals denying treatment to people because they are Muslim, equating Muslims with COVID-19 infection.

In the states of Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Bihar, there have been instances of pregnant Muslim women losing newborns after being denied treatment by medical staff who said Muslims spread COVID-19. The All India Progressive Women’s Association and CPIML in Bihar took up the cause of Gulshan Khatoon, who was denied treatment in a Buxar hospital on account of being Muslim.

There have been multiple instances of street vendors facing boycott or violence because of being Muslim and therefore equated with COVID-19.

Mumbai is one of the cities worst affected by COVID-19 in the world. Interestingly, Barnagarwala told data journalist Rukmini S (on the latter’s nightly podcast The Moving Curve), that “BMC [the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation] and Mumbai government hospitals are ramping up COVID-19 beds.

“A huge problem is the (lack of) participation of private hospitals in the pandemic. The government is taking care of 80% of COVID patients, with the private hospitals taking care of a mere 20%”.

In the pandemic, private hospitals flush with resources have refused to step up and provide care to the needy. Government hospitals are coming to the rescue in a time of greatest need, while public investment is going to privatised healthcare.

'Gujarat model'

Gujarat has emerged as one of the worst states in India when it comes to handling COVID-19. Gujarat was ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from 2001–14. During his first bid for the post of PM, Modi’s media managers touted the “Gujarat Model” of development that Modi would now bring to the rest of India. Here are some highlights from Modi’s “model” state:

1. Gujarat has the highest COVID-19 death rate in India — 6%.

2. The body of COVID-19 patient Chhagan Makwana (67) admitted to Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, was found dumped at a bus stop. Hospital authorities did not inform the family of the man’s death, and could not explain how the body of their patient ended up there.

3. Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani promoted a local private company’s “breathing apparatus” as a “ventilator” supplied free of charge to Ahmedabad hospitals. The company’s CEO is a friend of the Chief Minister.

The state government publicly claimed that the “Dhaman-1 ventilator” had been developed “in a very short period of just 10 days” and cost “less than Rs1-lakh [100,000 rupees or A$932] per piece” to manufacture.

“This great achievement would add a new feather to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's dream campaign of 'Make in India'.”

It later turned out the “ventilator” was a fake, and was in fact a mere “ambu-bag” [a hand-held bag valve mask, retailing at about A$32 per unit online].

4. The Rupani government began selling N95 face masks to the public — at a profit of 31%.

5. The Gujarat High Court observed on May 22 that the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital was “pathetic … as good as a dungeon, maybe worse”, and described Gujarat as “one of worst affected states” in the country due to “lack of PPE, shortage of ventilators, ICUs and isolating wards…”

For good measure, the High Court added that “there is no single command and control structure in Civil Hospital” and “the health minister of Gujarat does not seem to be aware of what is going on, nor appears to have ever visited the hospital”.

“It is distressing to know that most patients admitted to the hospital are dying within four to five days of treatment, which indicates a complete lack of critical care.”

6. The Ahmedabad Civil Hospital separated Hindu and Muslim coronavirus patients.

Witch-hunt during pandemic

In the midst of the pandemic, the Delhi Police, at the behest of Home Minister Amit Shah, are busy harassing and arresting students, anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) activists and feminists, under draconian laws.

Sociologist Nandini Sundar rightly observed that Shah is replicating the “Bhima Koregaon model” in Delhi — “starting with a few arrests” and then “widening the net indiscriminately to build up a picture of an immense threat to the nation”.

In Bhima Koregaon and in the anti-Muslim violence in Northeast Delhi, the real perpetrators of the violence (close associates or leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) were let off scot-free, while the victims of the violence (Dalits in Bhima Koregaon and Muslims in Delhi), as well as organisers of democratic protests, were arrested and charged.

In Delhi, Jamia Islamic University student activists Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, Asif Tanha and the university's alumni association president Shifa-ur Rahman have been arrested. Also under arrest are anti-CAA activists Ishrat Jahan, Khalid Saifi and Gulfisha. Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, activists from the feminist group Pinjra Tod, have also been arrested.

When the courts pointed out that no evidence had been presented against them and gave bail to some of these young activists, the Delhi Police promptly rearrested them on another pretext, or under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, under which bail is nearly impossible to get.

Under the pretext of the Northeast Delhi violence case, the Delhi Police are targeting activists from the All India Students Association (AISA) and other students, confiscating phones and “interrogating” them for days at a location where a constable had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

While anti-CAA protesters are being arrested, Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur and other BJP leaders who raised the call to “shoot the traitorous bastards” are left free.

The BJP’s “IT Cell” and even leaders like Mishra are using social media to slut-shame the women activists who were arrested. Mishra tweeted a sexual innuendo about Zargar, and a series of morphed photos and videos of Jamia University women, placing their faces onto pornographic images and circulating them on social media.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is being used as a pretext to target any kind of dissent. The lockdown is helping to create a climate where any criticism of the government is leading to arrest and police harassment.

[Abridged from Liberation. Kavita Krishnan is secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association and a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.]

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