“Wherever I see, I can see only people and nothing else,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised thousands of his supporters gathered on 17 April as he campaigned for his party in the West Bengal elections. “Kya karam kar diya aap logon ne. You have all done well.”
Even as Indians gasped for breath as hospitals ran out of oxygen amid a terrifying surge of cases of COVID-19, Modi continued to invite crowds. In a tweet on the same day, he called upon citizens to “vote in record numbers and strengthen the festival of democracy.”
Graveyards and cremation grounds across the country buried and cremated the dead round the clock, Indians couldn’t breathe but seizing power remained on top of Modi’s priorities. His Bharatiya Janata Party continued to hold rallies and politicising vaccination.
Just a day after Modi’s rally at a time of critical oxygen shortages was criticised, a minister in his cabinet, Piyush Goyal, tweeted a video in which he said: “Patients should be given oxygen only as much is needed. There are reports of wastage of oxygen and in many places of oxygen being given even when it is not needed.”
The managing director of New Delhi’s Batra Hospital, SCL Gupta, told ANI that “there is total panic and total emergency in the hospital and we are not able to sustain. We are requesting our patients, please take your patients wherever there is oxygen available.”
Gupta broke down during the interview — like many other doctors, patients, and those witnessing the devastation around them.
Modi’s shortsightedness in declaring a premature victory over the pandemic and his misplaced priorities during a public health emergency has led to a situation where health workers struggle to keep patients alive as hospitals race against time – each time oxygen is replenished is just another countdown before supplies run out and patients die.
Still, few in the country’s mainstream media dare question, Modi.
He who must not be named
India is home to one of the world’s largest pharma manufacturers where a vaccine for COVID-19 is also being manufactured. Yet, there is a shortage of vaccines and it is also paying the highest price per dose anywhere in the world.
The failure of the Modi government in handling the pandemic has also led to questions over hopes pinned on the country’s pharma industry. Back home, the myth of victory over the pandemic was furthered by prominent journalists and when the sandcastle they built began to crumble, they still dare not question Modi.
“If our political class hadn’t been so obsessed with the assembly elections and had woken up to the enormity of the challenge earlier, patients wouldn’t be gasping for breath,” tweeted India Today anchor Rahul Kanwal.
Responding to Kanwal, prominent sociologist Nandini Sundar tweeted: “You too have blood on your hands rahul. For supporting this government all through. And what’s worse you will go back to the comfy godi where you are well looked after as soon as the pandemic dies down a bit.”
After the outbreak of the pandemic last year, much of the Indian media was fixated on the Tablighi Jamaat last year. The India Today group infamously resorted to Islamophobic depictions alluding to the virus as a Muslim problem. Kanwal, who describes himself as “fake news slyer”, carried out a “sting operation” alleging that children were “hiding” in a madrassa during the nationwide lockdown; an investigation by Newslaundry stated that they were instead stuck due to the lockdown.
The Jamaat were the subject of a coordinated campaign by various Indian television networks. Islamophobic drivel fuelled paranoia and hate crimes against Muslims in general in India. It wasn’t until Modi’s image was dented that he stepped in. But instead of his usual style of televised, painfully slow and hyperbolic speeches, Modi merely tweeted – in English – against profiling of Muslims as the pandemic spread.
This year as the Kumbh and Modi’s rallies became superspreaders, no journalist that hounded Muslims last year dared ask questions.
Amish Devgan, who is an anchor on News18, also sought to discredit outrage over government lapses. “Some ppl are out there just to create negativity & promote depression. Best to keep them at bay by unfollowing. Let’s spread hope & positivity,” he tweeted.
His colleague Anand Narasimhan, who anchors “The Right Perspective” on the English channel of the same network, also tweeted: “Interesting how states create the problem, Ignore advisories, don’t enforce Covid SOPs, underestimate surge, get stuck in bottlenecks & then want Centre (PM Modi and Amit Shah) to offer the solutions…Jitna bhi kos len…Vipaksh ka bharosa bhi @narendramodi ji pe hee hai.”
Among the most prominent and widely recognised television channels in India, Republic compared the course of pandemic in India with the United States to state that “what took 18 days for India, took 70 days for America – the worst affected country due to COVID-19.”
The channel accused the opposition Congress of engaging in “vaccine politics” and as oxygen supply became a matter of national concern, it examined the case of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led Kerala. “Can Kerala Govt Take Sole Credit For Being An Oxygen Surplus State During COVID Wave?” it asked.
M for megalomania
The current crisis is so severe that hospitals are forced to approach the High Courts to have their oxygen reserves replenished as states act like pirates to spar for supplies of oxygen. Several states in India’s cow belt have deployed government officials to scuttle the supply of oxygen to other regions.
Six High courts across the country have taken note of the failure in India’s response to the pandemic, particularly the politics and quarrelling over supply of oxygen. The Delhi High Court has warned that “we will hang that man” that obstructs the supply of oxygen and it directed the federal government to ensure supplies.
But on 22 April, the outgoing Chief Justice of India sought to take the matter away from the High Courts and deferred hearings into the issue of oxygen shortages by a week giving time to the Modi government.
Modi has announced measures to boost oxygen supply but continue to falter. On 24 April, Gupta of the Batra hospital, in another interview with ANI, said that “We have received only 500 litres of oxygen after pleading for 12 hours. Our daily requirement is 8000 litres.” Shortly thereafter the hospital — with 350 patients admitted — received another 1500 litres, still 6000 short of its requirement.
Modi has sought to position himself as being on top of the crisis, at times pushing the responsibility onto the states and at other times onto the hapless public itself. A nation of more than a billion has never been gaslighted so brazenly.
Indian citizens continue to die. If experts are believed – and there is every reason to – the pandemic will reach its peak in the middle of May. If India’s healthcare collapsed at the beginning of a wave, what are we to expect when the peak occurs?
Already, there are reports of health workers swindling medication from patients; strongmen monetising deaths, demanding hefty sum from the kin of the victims of COVID-19 to allow cremations; oxygen tankers looted by hapless patients or hijacked by regional governments, prompting them to be guarded by police escorts.
Today India seems to be on the verge of collapsing into a failed state. The national obsession with being the “largest” at everything—democracy, the lack of democracy, the vaccination programme—perhaps, Modi’s leadership (or the lack of it) will ensure India will have the world’s largest COVID-19 death toll.