How Has Modi Handled The COVID Crisis?
Updated: May 19
A huge number of Indians are currently hospitalised or isolated because of COVID-19. All of their relatives and friends are struggling to find oxygen, medicines, ventilators, even masks. People have lost their entire livelihoods, families have been ruined and thousands have died. It is undoubtedly the biggest crisis ever faced by independent India.
How did we come to this?
How is it possible that one of the world's most powerful governments, with one of the largest GDPs, has its citizens dying in the parking lots of hospitals? Despite warnings from experts, the Modi Government seemed to be in denial, even as India reported half of the global cases daily
It’s all been caused by a series of unbelievably reckless decisions taken by the man in charge. Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With 4 Indian States conducting legislative elections, PM Modi and his party went into election mode, conducting rallies with thousands of people in attendance, many of them unmasked. Besides that, they encouraged religious gatherings which had the potential to become super-spreader events and created a false illusion that India had beaten the virus and was back on track as the worlds “fastest-growing economy”.
Cases in Jan-Feb of this year were considerably low compared to India’s peak of around 90,000 cases a day back in 2020. Vaccines were being tested and approved, deals were being made to procure over 1.5 billion doses. 2021 seemed to be a hopeful year for India and its people, at least as far as the pandemic goes.
India “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively,” PM Modi told a virtual gathering at the World Economic Forum in late January.
And then began the downfall of one of the largest countries in the world. General callousness among the Indian people led to the situation becoming worse than any country has ever seen in the last year. Keen to maintain the image of a country open for business, Modi and his administration did nothing to stop the large crowds and religious gatherings, especially not in political battleground states.
Critics say that the responsibility for containing the virus rests solely with the Central Government, and in turn with PM Modi. But the ruling party has claimed on countless occasions that the second wave is the fault of State governments. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has stated that oxygen shortages in hospitals are because of distribution and transport issues, a responsibility of the State Governments.
However, the Supreme Court doesn’t seem to share the same mindset. In a hearing on the lack of oxygen in the capital city and state, New Delhi, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta raised the point that Delhi was facing shortages because the Aam Aadmi Party and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal were not able to transport the full 490 MT of oxygen allocated to them by the Centre.
The 3-judge bench reminded the Centre that they cannot simply sit back and watch if the Delhi Government is not able to transport all the oxygen. They must pitch in and ensure that lives are not needlessly lost.
We want the crisis to be handled, not in recrimination, but in the spirit of cooperation. Please keep your politics for the election. If oxygen is not supplied to hospitals, there will be many deaths and all that will be on the head of all of us.
~Supreme Court to Delhi Govt - April 30
In a time of crisis like this, it is unimaginable that the Centre would sit back and watch people die in the capital when they could easily help transport oxygen. Politics among the ruling BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party must take a backseat when lives are at risk.
But PM Modi seems to be more concerned about his PR campaigns. The vaccines were developed by scientists in private companies, they are bought by private hospitals and state governments, they are being administered by healthcare workers, and yet the vaccination cards have the Prime Ministers face on them.
After avoiding a catastrophic first wave to the surprise of medical experts around the world, producing a Made in India vaccine and managing to reach a 7 day average of 10,000 cases in early 2021, it looked like a positive win for the PM. Perhaps it was that same overconfidence that has led us to these devastating times.
But the pandemic was far from over. By February, cases were beginning to tick up. The BJP, however, still claimed India had "defeated Covid under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership" of Modi.
On March 7, when the country reported about 18,000 new daily cases, Health Minister Vardhan said India was in the "end game of the Covid-19 pandemic." And on March 30, a day before authorities reported more than 81,000 cases in a single day, Vardhan said: "The situation is under control."
Is it fully Modi’s fault?
While it is true that State Govts. share some of the blame, it is unreasonable for PM Modi to take credit for the work of healthcare workers, scientists and experts, while also deflecting blame for the government's failure in the last few months.
“The bulk of the blame lies in Modi’s governance style, where top ministers are chosen for loyalty rather than expertise, where secrecy and image management is privileged over transparency,” said Asim Ali, a research scholar at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Mr Ali’s interpretation definitely holds up when you examine the statements made by BJP officials regarding India’s “success” at beating the pandemic.
Mr Modi surrounded himself with allies rather than experts, analysts said. Officials felt too intimidated to point out mistakes, the analysts said, or to call into doubt his claims that the pandemic was over. His party and his allies have also moved to silence critics, ordering Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take down critical posts and threatening to arrest ordinary people for pleading for oxygen.
Many leftist groups have called PM Modi and his government “fascist”, and while that may not hold up all across his administration, it certainly seems to stand true in this situation.
Policymaking was another disaster in the last few months. While vaccine production and administration remained low within the country, the PMO decided to send 66 million doses abroad, likely to boost its position in the global community, as a successful country. The export of vaccines continued until late April, as India reported record-breaking cases every day.
It took increasing pressure from medical experts and the public for the Modi government to release a much-needed fund boost of $400 million to the Serum Institute of India.
Also, in order to appeal to India’s majority Hindu demographic, the government did nothing to stop religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela, which attracts millions of devotees. He also conducted multiple political rallies with thousands of maskless attendees. PM Modi neglected to wear a mask himself at these rallies, a move which caused leaders to be fined in other countries but was ignored by the Election Commission in India.
The Madras High Court has called out the EC on these matters, going so far as to say that EC officials should be booked for murder charges for allowing these events to go through.
"Modi was complacent, even arrogant in thinking that India had succeeded when more developed countries, countries with much stronger health systems ... were struggling." said an Asian Politics expert.
Despite warnings from epidemiologists about a deadly second wave, Prime Minister Modi definitely did not take adequate action. It’s not entirely unreasonable to say that his inaction is largely to blame for the death toll in recent months.
While experts both in India and abroad strongly advised for a second national lockdown, PM Modi actively discouraged the notion. However, in interviews conducted by The Vastavik with small business owners, the consensus seemed to be against a lockdown, stating it would devastate businesses.
During the last lockdown, millions of daily wage workers lost their livelihoods, the economy shrank by a record 24% and GDP contracted by 6.9% overall.
But should private businesses and the economy be prioritized at a time when crematoriums are burning 24x7, and there are kilometre long lines for oxygen?
However, something to be noted is that in a country where Modi has enjoyed a strong following for many years, he is receiving unheard amounts of criticism even from his strongest supporters. It raises the question of whether this is the beginning of the end for Modi and his party.
Modi is undoubtedly the most powerful politician modern India has ever seen. But even the staunchest BJP supporters have been left feeling betrayed after they have witnessed firsthand the healthcare crisis in the country. On the other hand, experts believe the second wave will peak in May. Add that to the fact that India plans to vaccinate a huge part of its population in the coming months, it seems likely the pandemic won’t move into 2022.
The next general elections are in 2024, which means Modi has plenty of time to win back the votes of the country. He also doesn’t face any significant opposition as of now, though that could change in the coming years.