Guyana Stabroek News carried an editorial on the Covid situation in India (May 8) but it lacks balance. Covid is indeed raging in India (over last three weeks). Global attention is focused on deaths and shortage of oxygen. We see video of burning funeral pyres and some people collapsing in front of hospitals. But is it an accurate reflection of what is happening on the ground. Are Covid infected people recovering?
The editorial is based largely on a commentary by novelist Arundhati Roy, a fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and of the BJP government. Roy’s commentary and the editorial are an indictment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP government. But it lacked objectivity and balance and is replete with factual errors. A critique of India’s handling of Covid should not be based on Ms. Roy’s commentary.
Ms. Roy is a Bengali and her commentary was published in the London Guardian at a time when Bengal was in the midst of holding elections. One, therefore, has to take the critique of the PM and the government with a heavy dose of tasting salt (any some Epsom salt as well). Also, your editorial itself lacks balance and comes across solely as a critique and not an objective analysis of the ground situation in India and what is being done and more should be done. One needs to ask what is the motif of bringing up displacement and caste issues that followed partition of India. There is no religious or caste violence related to Covid. No one is being denied or given Covid medical attention on account of religion or caste.
Ms. Roy’s commentary in the Guardian, which the editorial drew upon, is ill informed; it is a malicious piece replete with factual errors. It is also unabashedly partisan. She decried Indian’s health system not just in its response to the Covid crisis but in general. However, she failed to mention that the state of India’s heath infrastructure is the result of criminal neglect by past governments of which the parties Ms. Roy supported must also be apportioned blame. She noted that Modi allocates some 1.5% of its budget on health but failed to mention there was a significant annual increase over the predecessor government which Roy supported. This year’s budget has more than doubled — is 137% larger — than last year’s. Also, the central government offers health subsidies to the state governments and union territories. Health care in India is free at all central or state government institutions. Indeed, the health care system is overwhelmed. But so was US, Italy, UK, Spain, Poland, Brazil, and so many other countries during their first and second waves.
On assessing Indian government’s response to Covid, Ms. Roy is somewhat confused and her critique is even more confusing. She criticized the government last year for acting too quickly in imposing a lockdown and attacked the government last month for not imposing a lockdown. She wrote last year that Covid 19 was not a crisis in India when Modi imposed a lockdown. She suggested that Modi used a non-threatening Covid to kill people on account of religion and caste. The lockdown affected people of all faiths and the very lockdown she criticized saved lives. The whole world praised India for managing the first Covid Crisis – with the lowest infection of less than 0.19 rate of death per million, the lowest among large countries. There were issues relating to the lockdown as migrant laborers were left stranded with train service shut down. The government did offer shelter and food to stranded migrants though it was overwhelmed by the need. It is not easy to provide for 500M people. America experienced a challenge to provide for the needs of 5 M.
Roy’s critique this time around is even more egregious as India seeks to combat this ferocious second wave of COVID-19. The government admitted there was Oxygen shortage and acted on it. But she queried why the PM Cares Fund, specially set up to combat Covid, was suddenly used to address oxygen shortage and whether it was meant “to derive profit” as though it was a business entity. What did she expect the fund to be used for? Is her critique appropriate and objective?
Ms.Roy alleged that Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, two of the manufacturers underpinning India’s vaccination drive, “are making obscene profits”, with Modi’s support, describing their prices as the most expensive in the world. The truth is Indian vaccines are the cheapest in the world at less than half the price of the nearest competitor. Covishield (same used in Guyana) is selling at US$4 per dose and Covaxine is $5.50. In contrast, Pfizer and Moderna are going at around $20 per dose and Sputnik is $10 with Sinopharm around the same. Vaccines at all government administered institutions are free and government is encouraging people to be vaccinated though there is shortage. (US had withheld exports of materials used to make vaccine in India and President Biden authorized exports only last week). People can purchase vaccines at private facilities and many do.
Ms. Roy criticized Modi for holding elections and campaigning in same and for having eight phases of voting. She criticized the government for not having one phase for the election. But the truth is elections in India, unlike in Guyana, are not scheduled by the government. The Election Commission fixes date and phases for elections. It was Modi who initially called for a ban on election campaigning. The elections commission can ban campaigning as it did in the last three phases of voting. And Modi stopped campaigning before the commission’s edict as the Covid raged.
The domestic media has largely ignored Ms. Roy’s critique of the government. So she writes for international media consumption that has an anti-India agenda. One cannot be oblivious to why Ms. Roy has been critical of the government and why she is getting international press. The party she has supported has been obliterated by the BJP and other regional parties nationally and regionally.
Ms. Roy is known to praise Pakistan’s army saying Pkaistan army does not kill its own people like Indian army does to Indians. She was made to apologize for saying that the Pakistani army did not commit atrocity against civilians. But she did so only after Bangladeshi Muslims pointed out that the Pakistani army killed 1 million Bangladeshis in 1970. In fact, it was the genocide in Bangladesh that prompted Indira Gandhi to send Indian troops to rescue Banglas.
Ms. Roy claims Modi government is anti-Muslim. Modi government has sent tens of millions of vaccines to Islamic countries. The governments of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Morocco, Bangladesh, Maldives, Indonesia, among others, have praised Modi for sending them vaccines. Guyana and Trinidad, and every Caricom nation has received vaccines. Modi also offered vaccines to Pakistan. Members of the US Congress and British parliament, while lamenting their governments non-response to aiding poor countries, praised India for its response for making available vaccines to the world. Roy, meanwhile, was criticizing Modi government’s vaccine diplomacy saying charity begins at home. She wants to have her cake and eat it too. She seems obsessed with criticizing the government.
The pandemic has presented India with complex public health challenges. There is no doubt that the Modi government was/is somewhat negligent and complacent in planning for the second wave. It appeared that the government did not expect a second wave because its handling of the first wave so successful. The government did boast in January that the world should emulate India’s handling of Covid because of its very low rate of infection and deaths. The government let its guard down. But one must note that no revolutionary change in health infrastructure can be expected in the short period between the 1st and 2nd wave. It is a myth solely intended to discredit the effort the government has made in addressing the Covid crisis. One must not get carried away with the drama being shown in hospitals of deaths and dozens of bodies burning simultaneously at an open crematorium in Delhi. Multiple cremations is normal all over India without the Covid crisis. There are more corpses than usual because of the Covid deaths.
Before apportioning all of the blame on Modi’s doorsteps, do understand that India has to take care of 1.4B people. It has managed to vaccinate 170M, the second largest number after the US. The health infrastructure in all of the developed countries could not cope with vaccinating all their people or minimize the effects of Covid. India has the lowest infection and death rate among emerging and developed nations. The US 2.90 and UK 0.95. Italy and Japan are 0.25 and 7.07% respectively. But that does not mean it must sit on its laurels. Yes more needs to be done by the Modi government. The government is tackling the crisis working with and offering state governments assistance. It should begin preparation for a third wave that could be even more devastating.