From Crisis To Catastrophe: India’s Covid Carnage

Dr. Paromita Chakrabarti

A virus becomes deadlier when it deepens inequality, widens social and economic divisions and exaggerates the already polarized labour markets. Our experience with Covid 19 has been nothing short of devastating. This is true across the globe and particularly in parts of the global south that was already grappling with scarcity, poverty, lack of proper sanitation and inadequate health services along with a rise in violent politics, rampant privatization and tightening of corporate control over natural resources and labour. A tragedy of breath-taking scale is unfolding before our eyes. Rising number of deaths, loss of income, lack of health care, discriminatory quarantine measures and draconian state policies for containment have led not just to massive number of deaths but a steady rise in precarity, the consequences of which will be far reaching and go beyond the time of the pandemic.
The Covid-19 catastrophe points to a humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the overt and covert operations of capital and power by the state and its agencies to brutalize, control, curb, extract and dispossess. The violence of the pandemic has been most viciously wrought upon those who are poor but it has not entirely spared even the rich. As Arundhati Roy, in a particularly pungent piece published in the Guardian, writes: “For now, among the sick and dying, there is a vestige of democracy. The rich have been felled, too.”i However, it would do us well to remember that it is the poor who have been treated as disposable commodities not just in death but even in life and this symbolic equality in death is nothing but a shroud over ugly social inequalities and cruelty that mark Indian society.
It has been more than a year since the country saw a hard lockdown followed by an inadequate response to the pandemic that has now entered its virulent second phase. Three haunting images comes to mind: returnee migrants being sprayed with disinfectant in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, by medical and fire department officials on 30th March 2020; mass funeral pyres that have been burning round the clock across the country since the third week of April 2021; at least 96 unidentified bodies, decomposed and bloated, washing up on the banks of the river Ganges first spotted on 9th May 2021 in the states of Bihar’s Buxar and Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur district, bodies of suspected Covid patients whose relatives were unable to find space to cremate or bury them.
A lot has already been written about how the Indian government rushed to pat themselves on the back once the first wave subsided, proclaiming the battle against Covid was won, and claiming the crown of glory for having saved billions from destruction and death. The Indian immunity system was touted as invincible, able to withstand the deathly sting of the virus. As soon as the numbers began sliding after the first lockdown, the prime minister prophetically declared that like the 18-day battle of Kurukshetra in the epic Mahabharat, our battle against Corona shall be won in 21 days. Invoking Hindu mythology and tying it to the propaganda machine, Mr. Modi injected a sense of false pride and faith in the populace that led to wide spread complacency and insouciance not just among ordinary citizens but also among the governing class and the administrative machinery.
What we now see is a deadly fall out of the negligence and nonchalance that marked the trajectory of the pandemic from March 2020 to May 2021. From fleeing inhospitable cities to being locked out of village homes, from salary cuts to job losses, from vaccine shortage to lack of oxygen; it has been a nightmare for all those who have had to bear the brunt of disastrous policies, slipshod planning and a crumbling health system that has blown up in our faces and left us reeling. Governments at the centre have repeatedly dug in their heels and inflated our military budgets; boosted personal/party image with ego-driven pet-projects such as giant statues, massive dams, central vistas; promoted corporate agendas for the takeover of public sector organisations; parcelled off lands, forests, rivers, hills, mountains for corporate plunder; driven the indigenous from their homes into the cities; and very successfully left the citizenry divided along lines of caste and religious identity.
Budget cuts to education, health care and sanitary infrastructure/public hygiene have been continuous and corrosive. More money has been channelled into the hands of the rich while the poor have become poorer. The urban, upwardly mobile and aspiring middle class now finds itself losing faith in the system that propped them up, their dreams of making it big fuelled on by free market reforms running out of steam. Facing massive job losses and precarity in the private employment sector, unable to secure jobs (with a near-total freeze on recruitment) in the public sector, the Indian middle class suddenly finds itself turned into just workers who are no longer insulated from the vagaries of a neoliberal regime. The pandemic making it sharply evident that all along they were just better paid workers who actually have no protection. What the Belgian philosopher Michel Feher terms the ‘neoliberal condition’: the economization and marketization of our social and personal lives, have resulted in tremendous hardship, impoverishment and vulnerability. Covid-19 has exacerbated the already existing conditions of precarity, leaving large parts of our population dispossessed and devastated.
The pandemic has resulted not just in severe economic consequences but also in rising number of fatalities crossing 258,000 with 4120 daily deaths as on 13th May 2021; and these are just official figures. There is no doubt that the actual numbers on the ground are much higher. What could have been a crisis to be managed and contained has now become a full-blown catastrophe. This is the result of a deep crisis of leadership, collapse of health care infrastructure from years of neglect and underfunding, widespread corruption in administration and governance, relentless profiteering by giant corporations and private organisations, a gradual destruction of India’s social support system and repeated attacks on organised labour through disinvestment and deregulation.
In her particularly fiery article Turning a Profit from Death: On Modi’s Pandemic Response in Neoliberal Indiaii Tithi Bhattacharya analyses how the Indian neoliberal state machinery has been directly welded to the project of capital accumulation since 1991; first gradually, and now under the current dispensation frenetically, leading to austerity and a withdrawal of the state from life-making projects and ventures. She shows that in its bid to reduce fiscal deficit and woo capital, the state has abandoned its responsibilities towards its people by slashing spending on health care, education and food. The austerity measures that have intensified over the last decade have had a serious impact on health and education. It has led to a boom in private health care that is expensive and exclusive, for-profit education and a thriving parallel tuition industry in primary, secondary, higher and professional education. The majority cannot afford medical treatment in private hospitals and nursing homes, nor can they pay for their children’s education without going into debt. To top it all, controversial farm laws that have been hurriedly passed in September 2020 to corporatise agriculture if enacted, may have a crippling effect on food prices and escalate hunger and destitution.
The pandemic has clearly brought out the deadly connections between a neoliberal state and capitalism, the key organising principle of which is to lower the value of human life. We see how common people are made to queue up for rations, oxygen, hospital beds, medicines, vaccines, that may or may not be available. We are watching with anguish people running from pillar to post to secure oxygen and life-saving drugs, in a country which is the vaccine capital of the world. On almost a daily basis we receive news of our colleagues, friends, family dying because they couldn’t secure a hospital bed or ran out of breath without oxygen. We know children are being orphaned, families watching with agony their loved ones struggling for life or succumbing to death. We have witnessed horrific scenes at the hospitals, graveyards, crematoriums; bodies are piling up, bloating the ground or burning the skies, like something straight out of a dystopian novel. These macabre images are not just images of death they also indicate how ordinary human beings are gradually turned into an abject populace whose life and dignity are being stripped away. Given the current conditions of governance and the state’s commitment to neoliberalism, the long-term consequences of the pandemic will be a reinforcement of economic and social inequalities, right wing populism, hyper-militarisation of insurgent spaces, rise in communal violence and caste discrimination. Pre-existing social vulnerabilities will exacerbate and sharpen as we continue being pulverized by the pandemic.
The most distressing aspect about the second wave of the pandemic is that both in urban and rural India rising number of deaths have come about because of a basic lack in healthcare facilities. Lack of medical oxygen and antiviral drugs such as Remedsivir being the main causes. Vaccine exports has been linked to the glaring vaccine shortage that the country is facing now. Nearly 66 million vaccines were sold to 93 countries where Covid was much less severe than in India. The Ministry of External Affairs sent these under the friendship scheme as a goodwill gesture ignoring the fact that over 60% of vaccine stocks were sent overseas even when there was clear indication that the second wave of the pandemic had already begun to hit home. Until March 30, when national case count was above 70,000 and rising, the government was shipping out more doses than it had used for domestic inoculation. On March 17th the minister for External Affairs went on record to praise the stellar leadership of the prime minister and how at a policy level, vaccine imports have contributed to India’s prestige in the world. Just 10 days earlier, the Union Health Minister had said: “Unlike most countries, we have a steady supply of vaccines…We are fortunate to have a global leader…who insisted that vaccines should be provided (to other countries).”iii This quote from the highest echelons of the establishment clearly show how the prime minister was at the centre of this boastful, gloating vaccine diplomacy.
The Serum Institute of India (SII), a private company, the world’s largest vaccine maker and the chief manufacturer of the Covishield vaccine (AstraZeneca) in India sold a staggering 80% of their stocks for a huge profit while domestic supply continued to be adversely impacted till the government finally imposed a ban on exports as the death count steeped. While the vaccine is available and administered free of charge in most countries of the world, India has set up a two-tier pricing system for inoculation. The government has thus monetized the pandemic by allowing vaccine makers to sell 50% of their stock directly to the federal states and in the open market for a differential pricing from those that will be procured by the central government. Meanwhile stock market value of oxygen manufacturers and vaccine producers have doubled. While the pandemic was raging, the government also revealed an insatiable urge for personal image building; went about arresting, harassing and transferring activists, political dissidents and bureaucratic officers; tolerating medical quackery; holding massive election rallies to secure electoral gains; pandering to the Hindu vote bank by allowing the Kumbh mela where more than 9 million of devout Hindu pilgrims congregated to take a dip in the Ganges.
However, we have seen how where the state has failed totally and spectacularly, ordinary citizens have shared their meagre resources and helped each other. Great personal sacrifices have been made to save lives and restore dignity. Teams of volunteers – young and old – have come together to provide networks of aid, relief and succour to devastated communities; working tirelessly, lovingly, to bring back people from the brink of destruction and destitution. Gurudwaras have started providing free oxygen cylinders to patients; NGO’s, citizens groups, local political workers and volunteers have sprung into action setting up helplines, monitoring availability of hospital beds, arranging ambulances, providing counselling.
These acts of humanity in the face of depravity, shameless profiteering in ration and food, black marketing in health products, hoarding of life saving drugs and vaccines, remind us that there is still hope for a ravaged and broken country like ours today. Such acts of kindness, co-operation, solidarity provide a glimpse of an alternative future that can be built without having to cling to the exploitative, hyper-competitive, oppressive structures of a neoliberal socio-economic order. However promising that future is, the present situation demands that the government step up and shoulder responsibility of the catastrophe and take adequate steps to stem the tide of death and destitution.
Some of the steps that can be taken involve invoking the Essential Commodities Act for equitable distribution of food and medicines; clamping down on hoarders and black marketeers; opening more centrally-funded public hospitals and medical institutions, recruiting more doctors and health care professionals by ensuring fair pay and good working conditions; using hotels and other large venues as Covid care centres and for housing the homeless; ban on religious and social gatherings and political rallies; offering furlough schemes for those who have lost jobs; stimulus package for those in need and a robust social security network for all. These cannot be done through personal charity or corporate philanthropy. This is the job of an elected government.
For all people of the country to participate in the life of the nation fully, willingly and wholeheartedly, the state has to undo the division between itself and its people, sever its murderous ties with profit mongers, halt the juggernaut of divisive politics and militarization. It has to make available vaccines for all and for free, fight against vaccine imperialism, open up public funds such as the PM-CARES for audit and for once, put its ears to the ground and listen, instead of just demanding to be heard.

The author is Associate Professor and Head, Department of English, HR College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai

i Roy, Arundhati: ‘We are witnessing a crime against humanity: India’s Covid catastrophe’, Guardian, April, 2021.
ii Bhattacharya, Tithi: ‘Turning a Profit from Death: On Modi’s Pandemic Response in Neoliberal India’, Spectre, May 5, 2021.
iii Vaccine Maitri: The Second Surge, The Indian Express, pp. 7, 12 May, 2021