India’s coronavirus apocalypse

May 6, 2021
Image: Viv Miley/Green Left

It is hard to adequately describe India right now as the daily death toll from COVID-19 reaches 3700 people. News headlines describe it as an “apocalypse”. They are not wrong.

In Delhi alone, one person is dying of COVID-19 every five minutes. But it’s not only Delhi and Mumbai that are desperate for help. The second wave of the pandemic is ripping through small villages and other parts of the country, like West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — my home state.

At the time of writing, more than 300,000 cases are being reported daily and more than 210,000 people have died from COVID-19. 

These figures are under-reported due to the lack of testing, the result of authorities running out of testing kits. In many cases, states are hiding the number of deaths to minimise the horror. Despite this, people are sharing stories of losing loved ones; they are not necessarily dying from the virus, but from the lack of public infrastructure.

People are dying because there are no ventilators, plasma, medicines and no doctors to administer life support. India is now even importing oxygen and faces vaccine shortages despite exporting them earlier on in the pandemic. 

In my hometown of Lucknow, authorities have now even started covering up funeral grounds to prevent people from knowing how many bodies are being cremated. This happened after a video created furore around the under-reporting of cases. Given the lack of space to cremate, bodies are being dumped and burnt in parks and parking lots, in some cases people are running out of wood to burn. Gravediggers and cremators — largely caste-based professions — are often not even being paid and they work without protective gear.

Nothing learned

This disaster could have been prevented if the Narendra Modi government had learned anything from its earlier poor handling of the virus or had a shred of responsibility.

Even now, the Modi regime continues to promote its fascist vision for India at its election rallies. State-sanctioned mass events and religious pilgrimages, such as the Kumbh Mela, have led to mass infections in places where more than 300,000 devotees gather together.

The privatisation of vaccines and their inflated price is creating an even bigger class divide. India is the world’s biggest manufacturer of COVID-19 vaccines, with the government dependent on two manufacturers — the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech.

But in a situation where vaccine supplies are already low, the government has taken the inexplicable decision to decentralise their procurement. Differential prices, as well as decentralised procurement are exacerbating the vaccine shortages and worsening the inequity.

While some states are choosing to vaccinate adult populations for free, many are not and those without money cannot afford to vaccinate themselves.

The vaccine companies are being allowed to roll out the most expensive vaccines in the world to the poorest people in the world.

This, as well as continuing shortages, is a result of rich countries, such as United States, Britain and Australia, blocking South Africa and India’s request that the World Trade Organization suspend patent rights on vaccines.

The patents prevent the large-scale, immediate and affordable manufacture of vaccines across the world, allowing rich countries to order and hoard vaccines (in excess of their population numbers) at much lower prices than countries of the South.

A recent state election in Bengal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised people free vaccines if they voted for it in the recent elections.

Vaccines should be free for everyone; they should not be a campaign promise.

Oxygen a class issue

Oxygen in India has also become a class issue. It is being sold at extremely high prices, which means the poor go without. Seeing people having to bid for their lives is horrifying and is the result of India’s privatisation of its health sector.

The Modi government was underprepared for this crisis but instead of regrouping to help it is now actively contributing to making the situation worse.

The BJP is gaslighting 1.3 billion people telling them that “no one in the country was left without oxygen” and blaming COVID-19 for the “system collapse”. 

India’s solicitor-general Tushar Mehta even told those requesting oxygen to stop being “cry babies”. 

Anyone who dares to criticise the government faces repression. In my state, the BJP government even arrested someone for requesting help; it accused them of “rumour mongering”.

It is threatening hospitals calling for more of oxygen and reporting equipment shortages. It is also accusing them of exaggerating and falsifying the numbers of people dying. It is even cracking down on people sharing help and resources on social media. 

It is also continuing with what it calls “development activities” — including the construction of a new parliamentary building. There has been no audit of the special health fund collected since last year, which has been placed outside the purview of India’s main transparency and anti-corruption law, Right to Information

I don’t know anyone who has an immediate family who has not been infected by and lost a family member to COVID-19. My parents live with a tenant who has tested positive and every day for them is a stressful nightmare. My grandfather has also tested positive for COVID-19.

It is strange to be so far from home in a country where COVID-19 is mostly “over”. Last week, my family spent around 12 hours trying to find a hospital bed in Delhi for a close friend who had high fever with COVID-19 symptoms (testing was unavailable) and dangerously low levels of oxygen.

Around 30 people desperately tried to contact at least 80 hospitals, including making multiple calls to numbers which were either switched off or not picked up, and we still had trouble finding just one bed in Delhi.

I can’t imagine what must be going on for those with fewer resources. But we can see it; it’s all around us. It is death.

Blocking vaccine waivers

More than 100 countries have voiced their support for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rules to boost poorer nations’ access to vaccines — the only humane action to take. But they are up against rich country governments and pharmaceutical companies that oppose a waiver; the Swiss-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations even said any cut to companies’ returns was a “disincentive to innovation”.

The Australian government’s xenophobia is on full display as it now threatens a $66,000 fine and prison for those returning home from India.

I feel helpless and frustrated. I do not know what to do other than help with medical expenses and share social media links on sourcing hospital beds and oxygen. I want to go home and see my family and support them. But I cannot.

The only thing giving me strength is to see people coming together and helping each other during this crisis. From those cremating bodies for no pay, to the nurses and doctors in hospitals who have been working non-stop and risk getting fined for simply saying there is no oxygen and beds, my faith now rests on the collective action and humanity of those simply struggling for survival.

[Divya Garg is a student from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, where many of her family and friends live. Garg is a PhD student and sessional tutor in Melbourne.]

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