Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is considered a storyteller among the world’s autocratic populists. With the help of Allied newspapers and television networks, as well as on Twitter, where he has sixty-eight million followers and a phalanx of trolls, he offers haunting accounts of Hindu identity and Indian greatness. When the pandemic broke out last year, Modi called on his loyal media barons and editors who, according to the prime minister’s website, promised “inspirational and positive stories” about his government’s fight against the coronavirus. The country suffered tens of thousands of Covid-19 deaths in 2020, but no predictions of even worse results were made. In January, Modi boasted in Davos that India “saved mankind from a great catastrophe by effectively containing the corona”. He relaxed the restrictions and invited worshipers to the Kumbh Mela, a week-long Hindu festival that attracted millions of people. When spring came, he held mass rallies during an election campaign in West Bengal, a state of one hundred million people. At a meeting on April 17th, he held out his arms and announced, “Everywhere I look there are crowds as far as I can see.”
The coronavirus lives off complacent politicians. At the time of that rally, new infections in India had exploded to two hundred and fifty thousand a day, according to official figures, a number that hit four hundred thousand last week. The lack of oxygen and hospital beds has led desperate citizens – and even hospital directors – to seek help on social media. State police have charged or filed criminal charges against some of those seeking help because the “rumors” they generate could “spoil” the atmosphere, as Yogi Adityanath, an ally of the Modi and prime minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Leg es. According to the Hindu, an English-language daily newspaper, he called for prosecution under the National Security Act. On April 30, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that there should be no “crackdown” on those who use social media to advocate for oxygen or beds. Crematoriums are overwhelmed; Photographs of makeshift pyres have become icons of an unspeakable tragedy. Last week at least 150 people died from Covid every hour in India. The increase reflects many factors, including the fragility of the underfunded healthcare system. But, as Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asian director of Human Rights Watch wrote last week, Modi’s government appears “obsessed with managing the narrative” rather than responding to urgent needs.
The Biden Administration and other governments have sent planeloads of small oxygen producing plants and vaccine ingredients to New Delhi to bolster India’s vaccine industry. The help is needed, but it cannot cope with the extent of India’s suffering on its own. The pandemic has exposed the contours of global inequality – and exacerbated it. The conditions for the Indian outbreak also exist in other emerging economies such as Brazil and Argentina, where thousands are killed every day. In the US and some other rich countries, around half of all adults have now received at least one dose of vaccine, and economies are reopening, while in much of the world it will take many months – maybe a year or two. before the vaccination rate will likely rise enough to suppress the virus. The crisis in India will prolong this campaign as New Delhi has suspended vaccine exports to COVAX, a World Health Organization project set up to ensure equitable access to vaccines in low-income countries, in response to its own emergency.
Both India and South Africa have asked the World Trade Organization to waive patent protection for coronavirus vaccines on the grounds that doing so will boost global production and accelerate global recovery. American and European pharmaceutical companies are protesting that waivers don’t work because the manufacture of the vaccines is too complex to scale quickly. Last Wednesday, the Biden administration passed years of precedent to announce support for a temporary waiver of some patent protection measures. “The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” said Katherine Tai, the US trade representative. However, it is not clear whether Biden’s decision can overcome European opposition at the WTO to change existing treaty arrangements. In April, in a signal of political opinion on the continent, the European Parliament voted firmly against the renunciation of intellectual property.
The moral and health rationale for prioritizing rapid global vaccination over corporate profits is undeniable. (Last week Pfizer reported that sales of its Covid-19 vaccine raised $ 3.5 billion in the first three months of the year.) The patent dispute, however, lies in the area of ”vaccine diplomacy,” a phrase that describes the use of supplies in order to Gaining influence, and that aptly evokes the cynical maneuvers of great power politics. While we are right to celebrate the heroic service of individuals during the pandemic – nurses, doctors, delivery workers, bus drivers – our governments have often acted with apologetic selfishness to protect national interests. Like the climate emergency, the coronavirus has urged political leaders to discover new models of collective survival that could overcome threats that even the toughest borders cannot hold back. The previous record is not encouraging.
India’s death toll from Covid-19 has now officially exceeded two hundred thousand, a number that experts say is almost certainly an undercount. Even so, the Modi government continues to devote energy to censorship. The Wire, an independent news agency, reported that Sun Hospital in Lucknow posted an emergency notice on social media on May 3 that it was “unable to get enough oxygen” despite repeated requests to the government. State police appeared to disregard the Supreme Court’s decision to protect such appeals three days earlier, claiming the hospital did not really need oxygen. “No rumors should be spread that cause panic among the people,” said a police statement.
Last year, Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winner best known for his work on the causes of the famine and now eighty-seven, wrote in the Guardian about his country’s descent towards tyranny. “The priority of freedom seems to have lost some of its luster for many people,” he said, “and yet the rise of authoritarianism in India requires determined resistance.” However, by gathering supporters and suppressing disagreements, Modi has overcome many previous challenges and is unlikely to face further national elections for several years. The history of independent India has been marked by a political and humanitarian crisis followed by self-renewal, and the country’s eventual recovery from Covid-19 can hardly be doubted. Whether his democracy can also regenerate seems to be a less certain prospect in this dark hour. ♦