The Politics of COVID-19
How COVID-19 has affected India’s political landscape
First, the good news: The deadly second wave of COVID-19 that began in April seems to be recedingamong the Indian population. The country is not out of the woods yet but the situation seems more manageable than a month ago.
The second wave arrived during a busy election and religious season; the situation contributed to the rise in infections as people moved freely about the country after months of low COVID numbers. India’s public and private health systems were swamped, many people passed away from lack of oxygen, and crematorium furnaces melted from overuse. Questions are being raised about who’s accountable for the mismanagement of the crisis. The blame game began as soon as cases spiked, with opposition figures and numerous state leaders blaming everything on the centre, and the centre dishing it back out. An ironic development has been many of the same people who have called for federalism and stronger states rights suddenly seeing the value of a strong central government and vice versa.
Prime Minister Modi’s opposition has been continually unable to do themselves any favors due to conflicting and muddled messaging during the crisis. Their behavior throughout can be summarized by comedian Groucho Marx’s song ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it’. In 2020 they opposed lockdowns, promoted anti-mask messaging, and mocked India’s vaccine efforts. When the second wave arrived in April 2021 they made a convenient U-turn and took the government to task for not instituting lockdowns, condemned BJP rallies while ignoring their own, and demanded a free supply of the same vaccine they had mocked. Make no mistake - the crisis has dented the Prime Minister’s image but he remains significantly popular as a national figure, especially compared to the main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi.
International coverage of how India and the Modi government handled the crisis has also left a lot to be desired. Reports had predicted a huge wave in 2020 which failed to materialize, insinuated Modi’s government was fudging the numbers, and even wondered why more Indians weren’t dying in huge numbers.
Can the government’s numbers be doubted? Sure they can - however, this is not unique to the central government. There isn’t a betting man in India who would be willing to put money on the numbers from West Bengal, Punjab, or Chattisgarh being completely authentic. The fact of the matter is that politicians will hide things that make them look bad and in a place where medical record keeping is not great, that goal is made much simpler. The same entities who condemn the healthcare infrastructure of India’s most populous state have nothing to say about COVID numbers in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu while they report the highest COVID numbers in the country. International media is arife with stories blaming the Kumbh Mela for being a superspreader event that led to the second wave, but the farmers protests that began in Winter 2020 and have continued through the second wave have been ignored in most coverage if not outright praised.
There is a discussion to be had about how badly the crisis was handled in India and who should be held accountable and the answer is unlikely to appease partisans of any stripe. Electorally speaking, it is hard to predict how much COVID ends up affecting a general election that is 3 years away. Two points are worth noting: First, responsibility in any crisis does lie at the top and the Prime Minister will have to answer to the voters eventually. Second, Modi has maintained north of a 30 percent net approval rating during the worst of the crisis and is currently sitting at around +30. For comparison’s sake, Biden is at +15 at the moment and COVID is all but addressed in the United States. No matter how many op-eds are written about the second wave being the downfall of Modi the reality on the ground is a lot different.
On the vaccine front, the Indian government has waived the requirement that foreign vaccines conduct local trials. Pfizer was one of the first companies to apply to the Indian government for approval, but pulled out in early 2021 after the Indian government refused their request for immunity (requests accepted by other countries around the world) and insisted foreign vaccine makers conduct localized trials. As a result of the spike in India, Pfizer has restarted negotiations with the government, and it’s expected the vaccine will come to India by July.
Keeping foreign vaccines out of India while promoting India’s home-grown vaccine efforts sounded like a great idea when India’s COVID numbers were low, and a sense of triumphalism had set in that perhaps the crisis was truly over. Some commentators went so far as to suggest that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were dangerous or incompatible with Indian genetics, and amplified unconfirmed rumors such as Pfizer was demanding military bases as collateral. This disdain for foreign-made goods is not new. It has gone hand-in-hand with Indian nationalism since Mahatma Gandhi publicly burned british-textiles to protest British rule during the Indian freedom struggle. Spurning foreign cloth is one thing, it’s a whole other ballgame to reject foreign made vaccines out of misplaced nationalism.
This isn’t to say that India has had no domestic programs - Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN has been used across the nation and will undoubtedly play a significant role in the eventual global vaccination campaign. They recently submitted data and testing for WHO approval, and have received praise from President Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Fauci. However, it is unlikely that the domestic products will be able to vaccinate the entire population which is why the recent developments from international partners were such good news.
The last big issue that’s been on our minds deals with the new social media rules from the IT ministry. We want to make sure to carefully consider all its angles so we look forward to sharing our thoughts in the next issue.
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