A lesson from India: Covid punishes arrogance

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“It can be said with pride that India (…) has defeated Covid-19 under the able, reasonable, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi (…) The party unequivocally praises its leadership to present India to the world as a proud and victorious country in the battle against Covid “. Those were the words of a resolution passed by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party just a few weeks ago, in February.
But India is now experiencing a spike in cases. Hospitals are running out of oxygen and intensive care beds. Mass cremations are taking place in makeshift facilities. Pictures of painful suffering are broadcast around the world. Surveys in mortuaries indicate that the number of Covid-19 deaths may be two to five times higher than the official figure of about 2,000 people per day.
Pandemic punishes arrogance. Narendra Modi is not the first world leader to pay the price for acting too slowly – or declaring victory before its time.
In China, where the virus originated, the government of President Xi Jinping’s first disastrous response was to suppress bad news from Wuhan. In the United States, Donald Trump, then president, predicted again and again that the virus would miraculously disappear. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro addressed crowds of protesters against the lockdowns. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson shut down the country too late. And the European Union screwed up the vaccine purchase.
But the Modi government made some distinct and disastrous mistakes. After announcing a premature end to the crisis, the Indian government opened up very quickly. Driven by a desire to win the crucial state of West Bengal, the BJP organized mass rallies. The Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that allows millions of people to congregate in one town, has also been allowed to run, and has even been promoted by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Indian government has failed to use the fall in casualties after the first wave to properly prepare for the second wave. The oxygen supply to the emergency departments was clearly extremely low. Despite the fact that India is the largest producer of vaccines of all kinds in the world, the government has been painfully slow to place requests for vaccines from local manufacturers. It also slowed approval of foreign confirmed COVID-19 vaccines, such as the Biontech / Pfizer vaccine, while promoting a more experimental vaccine designed in India.
National pride has played a role in India’s desire to continue exporting vaccines, even as domestic supplies are delayed. The Indian government has promoted the idea that the country is the “pharmacy of the world”. The geopolitical rivalry with China, which is using vaccine diplomacy to gain global influence, has been a factor in the background. Delhi’s willingness to export vaccines to the world has also been compared positively with a lack of exports from the United States and the United Kingdom. But the Indian government has now banned the export of vaccines. It is also expediting the approval of foreign vaccines.
Modi has plunged into this crisis with high ratings in opinion polls, but he is clearly vulnerable to backlash. Since he worked to centralize power for many years, he now appears to be shifting the burden of responsibility for dealing with COVID-19 to state governments.
India’s plight has global implications. There is still a trend in the West to treat the pandemic as a series of national crises in which countries compete to see who can handle the virus best. But this is an interconnected global crisis. In the words of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, Covid-19 is an international fire, and “if only part of it submerges in water, the rest will still burn.” Ultimately, the fire will likely spread again, returning to the places where it was believed to have been extinguished.
There is indeed cause for concern that the UK has been too slow in enforcing strict quarantine measures for passengers arriving from India. This is especially dangerous, given the emergence of new types of the virus in India that may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines.
Getting medical assistance to India has now become a humanitarian and practical necessity for the outside world, which has begun to respond. For the United States, this may also be a geopolitical imperative, given that America considers India an important ally in its growing rivalry with China. The Biden administration’s refusal, so far, to allow the emergency export of vaccines to India fuels anti-American sentiment in the country, which may not be compensated by sending planes to quickly transport ventilators and other equipment.
The outside world should also beware of the complacency of the kind that had prevailed in India until recently. The fact that case numbers are declining and that vaccination rates are rising in Britain could easily cause a dangerous case of indolence, similar to the one India experienced two months ago. A recent article in The Times declared that “Britain can look like heaven this summer.”
A lesson from India is to guard against premature celebration or arrogance. Any improvement in the coronavirus situation should be used as an opportunity to prepare for future waves and to assist international efforts to combat the epidemic. India will not be the last country to see the tragic comeback of COVID-19.





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