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T here was an air of inevitability about Indiaâs unfolding Covid disaster. Watching from afar in London, I had long feared the worst for the country of my birth. Since India has decades of underfunded health infrastructure and no cohesive national strategy, I often discussed with family and friends back home that the virus would hit its 1.4 billion people harder when the inevitable second wave came round, even with its young population and available vaccines.
By late last year, my loved ones were going about their daily lives believing the pandemic had been conquered, alongside many others who attended cricket matches, weddings and religious festivals. Indiaâs road to Covid hell was paved with delusions of grandeur â a fanciful idea that the virus had been vanquished by sheer might of will, superhuman immunity, faith in an almighty God, and piecemeal restrictions. By January, Indiaâs prime minister, Narendra Modi, had declared India had defeated the virus. In the months that followed, the government â and by extension citizens â acted as if it had. Between January and mid-April 2021, Indiaâs national scientific taskforce on Covid-19 did not hold a single meeting.
Meanwhile, as Europe buckled under its own second wave, I received commiserations from family in Delhi about the UKâs latest lockdown. Now, as my home city disintegrates into chaos, my Indian heart breaks as my British husband asks why. Why my social media is replete with desperate pleas for supplies, but the government is unabashedly censoring public criticism of its culpability. Why election rallies spearheaded by the Hindu-nationalist party in power and a Hindu religious gathering attended by millions was permitted in recent months â but a Muslim missionary movement in March 2020 was vilified for fanning the flames of the pandemic. Why there isnât a national lockdown in place.How many more images of Covid disaster does it take to jolt rich countries into action? | Nesrine Malik Read more
There are few simple answers. Protracted lockdowns arenât feasible when large swathes of the country donât know where their next meal is coming from. Social distancing is a privilege that millions who dwell in slums just cannot afford. India spends roughly 1% of GDP on health, among the lowest for any major economy â so regardless of the gross mismanagement of the ruling BJP, the patchwork healthcare system would probably have been strained with even a relatively small rise in cases. It has long been difficult to carry out any actions that benefit the public as a whole â we may take pride in our homes being immaculate, but our roads and historical buildings are stained with the stench of litter and negligence.
I explain to my husband that although the country is democratic on paper, its media ecosystem is not free from the tentacles of government. When I make desperate attempts to get family to pay attention to news reports that offer a glimpse of reality, that advice takes a back seat to WhatsApp groups that regurgitate misinformation. Everyday Indians havenât been able to avail themselves of coherent regular briefings by public health experts on the dire situation.
Indians understand that they must beg, borrow and steal to get by in crisis â because the central government isnât equipped to help and local administrations scramble to survive the onslaught. Just days ago, Modi practically confirmed it was each man for himself in his first national broadcast to address the second wave, urging people to create small taskforces within their communities to ensure Covid discipline so that his government does not have to impose a national lockdown. It may seem hard to fathom that people are hoarding oxygen cylinders in their homes, but when you know thereâs no chance the national government will step in to help â when no government really has in your lifetime â you take care of your own. If my loved ones were gasping for breath, Iâd be in alleyways selling family jewellery for oxygen.
Yes, the BJP has sleepwalked through this pandemic. By actively undermining public health to secure its political future, it is in large part responsible for the horrific surge of cases and deaths. But the country elected this prime minister â twice â largely on the promise of economic prosperity above all else. Indians have not only empowered this party, but rewarded it with blind faith in the face of gross incompetence at best and atrocious authoritarianism at worst. Still, the BJP is a symptom of an existing disease in Indian politics. We have a house of parliament in which close to half the elected members have faced criminal cases, and a trifling political opposition that has barely whimpered in the face of the BJPâs egregious breaches of constitutional rights.
Some Indians abroad have expressed survivorâs guilt about the hopelessness of it all. I am devastated, but I am equally enraged. Enraged by the slow, brutal, formulaic predictability of it all. When itâs time to vote again in 2024, and the smoke of the Covid pyres fades into memory, I wouldnât be surprised if the air is thick again with murmurs that the BJP is the lesser of two evils. And the government of wilful neglect gets another chance.
Natalie Grover is a Guardian science correspondent