India’s Covid-19 inferno: What went wrong?

doctor sitting on floor with mask
Ellen Coburn

8th June 2021


During the onset of the Covid-19 global pandemic, epidemiologists predicted that “India could see the worst of it”. As home to some of the world’s most crowded cities with a population of over 1.3 billion people coupled with an ailing healthcare system, it seemed as though India was the perfect kettle of fish for the coronavirus to cast its deadly net over. Yet, the first wave of the pandemic saw India spared from the harrowing scientific prophecy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi swiftly announced a nationwide lockdown of the entire population for three weeks in early 2020 which, at the time, was the most severe step taken anywhere in the world. While this decisive action proved effective, it seems as though a false sense of normalcy crept back into society as in October 2020, the Indian government scientists speculated India had reached herd immunity and in January 2021 Prime Minister Modi spoke at the World Economic Forum declaring the virus had been defeated. Subsequently, big religious gatherings went ahead, public places were reopened and crowded election rallies were held without adequate social distancing or hygiene measures. Thus, the Covid-19 tsunami that crashed onto the shores of India ensued and with it not only a public health emergency, but a humanitarian crisis.


What was to come in 2021 were stories of no oxygen for hospitalised patients, bodies burning on pyres in the streets, bodies washing up on the banks of rivers, mass cremations and intensely overwhelmed hospitals. 


“Only, these are not just stories. This is real life. This devastating situation accentuates the fact that there is no room for complacency in the face of a deadly virus while simultaneously showing how India’s unfolding humanitarian crisis exacerbates its underlying human rights issues.”

But before this is explored, what caused such a colossal increase in Covid-19 cases in India in the first place? It is difficult to attribute the surge to one factor alone. Rather, it seems as though a myriad of elements fused together to create what the World Health Organization has dubbed “the perfect storm”. The daily case numbers in India began rising towards the end of February 2021 after continuing to fall since September 2020. The spike in cases came as one coronavirus variant found to be circulating in India, the B1617 variant which has two mutations, became more prominent and began spreading rapidly throughout the densely populated country. What seems to have aggravated the situation further however, was the holding of political rallies, religious celebrations and vaccine shortages, all of which created the ideal breeding ground for this more infectious and deadly disease to proliferate indiscriminately.  


The Vice President of the Indian Medical Association, Dr Navjot Dahiya, labelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “super spreader” of the virus after enabling political rallies to take place and allowing religious festival celebrations to occur while India was on its knees recording record-breaking daily infections. In April, millions of people gathered in Uttarakhand’s city of Haridwar to take a holy dip in the river Ganges as part of the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela. Festival goers for the most part, failed to follow Covid-19 hygiene measures and it later emerged that over 2,642 devotees tested positive for the virus, including numerous religious leaders. Critics of the Prime Minster claim that his reluctance to call off the gathering was due to the backlash that he could potentially face from Hindu religious leaders, who are amongst the most important and influential supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, particularly during election times.  


As election rallies continued to go ahead around the country, the rate at which the coronavirus was multiplying continued to accelerate. Thousands of people gathered in West Benegal, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu for a series of state elections that saw Covid-19 guidelines largely flouted. As Modi allowed such mass gatherings to take place, it becomes difficult to ignore the possibility that his government’s handling of the pandemic, particularly India’s devasting second wave, is largely characterised by self-serving political interests as opposed to public health and safety. 


In an interview for the BBC, Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, declares that India’s Covid-19 outbreak is the “worst humanitarian crisis” he has witnessed. In a country that is generally one not poorly endowed, Dr Laxminarayan continues, there are shortages of beds, drugs and testing is not readily available in some of the country’s best hospitals as people continue to suffocate from lack of oxygen on the streets and, as bodies wash up on the banks of the river Ganges due to an overflow in the country’s crematoriums.   


Solidarity with the humanitarian crisis in India has been seen around the globe including from Ireland who sent 700 oxygen concentrators supplied through the European Civil Protection Mechanism. However, while international donors are raising millions, Modi’s government passed an amendment in September 2020 with little warning that limits international charities who donate to local non-profits. As reported in the New York Times, the amendment gutted reliable sources of funding for countless NGOs that were already “stretched thin” by the pandemic. It prompted international charities to reduce donations that supported local efforts in areas such as health and education. When India urgently needed international donations, Modi’s government seem to have put the nail in the coffin. Moreover, alarmingly Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister spoke about utilising India’s oppressive National Security Act against people who speak out on social media about the lack of medical supplies. The authorities in Uttar Pradesh went onto file criminal charges against a man who pleaded on Twitter for oxygen for his dying grandfather. The same authorities also sent notices of complaint to three journalists who reported that oxygen supplies had been diverted from a district suffering heavily with the coronavirus and sent elsewhere.  


Right when Modi’s government should be upholding the rights of citizens the most, it seems that censorship has defined the majority of actions taken against those desperately seeking help online. The humanitarian crisis India has witnessed has exacerbated underlying human and civil rights issues as well as governmental flaws in their dealing with the pandemic. But this is not the only thing it has underlined. As restrictions behind to relax all over Europe, I cannot help but wonder, will the public health emergency witnessed in India have a successor? Complacency is a dangerous game to play in times like these and as we all know, if you play with fire, you will inevitably get burned.





Featured photo by Mulyadi on Unsplash

This article was supported by: Programme Assistant Rachel


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