The Political Fix: As brutal Covid-19 second wave moves into rural India, Modi deploys spin doctors
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Welcome to The Political Fix by Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, a newsletter on Indian politics and policy. To get it in your inbox every week, sign up here. If you missed our Q&A last week, we spoke to Murali Neelakantan and Ashish Kulkarni on the mess that is India’s vaccine policy.
The Big Story: Askance
The graph of new Covid-19 cases tells us that India may be past the peak of its brutal second wave. The actual news, however, remains dire.
As University of Michigan’s Bhramar Mukherjee put it, “just because we registered 414000 cases, 350000 cases are coming as a relief... We are still reporting the largest number of daily new cases & deaths. Hospitals are overwhelmed & people are dying.”
Indeed, official records showed a death toll of more than 4,000 per day on four occasions in the last week. Despite the direct involvement of the prime minister and a Supreme court, which we wrote about last week, patients are still dying because of a lack of oxygen, with as many as 75 succumbing over the last four days at Goa’s largest Covid facility because of logistical issues.
The crisis is shifting from Delhi, where the positivity rate is steadily falling and it now seems possible to get a spot at a hospital – though there still isn’t a centralised system for triage – to cities like Imphal, where one facility ran out of oxygen and Chennai, where ICU beds are scarce and the demand for Remdesivir has skyrocketed.
If the scramble for oxygen cylinders and the overwhelmed crematoriums spoke of how gruesome things were over the last few weeks, the situation got even more disturbing in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
“The administration has information that bodies of those who have succumbed to Covid-19 or any other disease are being thrown into rivers instead of being disposed of as per proper ritual,” said an official letter from the Centre to district heads, according to Reuters. “As a result, bodies have been recovered from rivers in many places.”
“Days ago, the bodies were in scores, unclaimed, uncounted and unidentified. On Friday, at the Gahmar Ghat in Ghazipur, there were five. Two face down in the sand on the Ganga riverbank; one part submerged, the remaining two in fragments. Not far from here, in Unnao, again on the banks of the Ganga, an estimated 200 bodies were laid bare this week by the shifting sand after a heavy downpour.
These bodies, juxtaposed with images of overflowing cremation and burial grounds, frame a tragic rural postcard from UP and downstream Bihar touched by Covid...
“It was a sight that I have never seen before. We used boats to pull the bodies to the shore. The whole air was filled with the stench of death. The Gangaji turns here at Gahmar, so the bodies flowing downstream accumulate here. There could not have been fewer than 80 bodies,” says Kamla Devi Dom, who has worked at the Gahmar Ghat for many years.”
More distressing visuals and heartbreaking stories emerged of families without the money to cremate or fears about Covid contamination, of police allegedly helping some to do so, and in other places warning people not to dump bodies in the rivers.
The tragic development turned into something of a blame game between the administrations of UP and Bihar, both run by Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance governments. A minister from Bihar even announced that a net had been spread out across the Ganga at the border between the states to prevent bodies from flowing downstream.
Even as these stories were emerging, another development was taking place. We wrote a month ago of how Prime Minister Narendra Modi – still in the middle of the West Bengal campaign – seemed to be ignoring the Covid-19 second wave entirely. Two weeks ago, we wrote of how Modi and his team did appear to have woken up, and seemed to be putting their efforts into blaming the states and fighting narrative wars.
The last week offered even more examples of the BJP’s infamous IT Cell – its online propaganda army – firing on all cylinders. Here is the head of the party’s IT Cell suggesting we should not be shocked by the bodies turning up in the Ganga because it has happened before:
Indeed, with the graph having turned a bit and international coverage moving away from India’s disastrous scenes, the ruling party was already out in force attempting to revise the history of the last few months and convince you that the thing to do right now is – presumably no pun intended – spread positivity.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh literally held a conclave called ‘Positivity Unlimited’ in which it offered mild criticism of the government, while apportioning equal blame on the public.
Here were some of the other narrative plot points:
Modi’s doing his best
Even if it’s just a quirk of the website, the all-caps headline of this story – tweeted out by top ministers and BJP leaders – seemed to tell you all that you needed to know. The piece also drops a line encouraging conspiracy theorists by claiming “few are talking about China and the possibility that the virus has been unleashed to weaken India.”
Nearly a month after his last address to the nation, and after mostly turning up in photos of high-powered meetings, Modi finally did speak about the Covid-19 second wave – at minute 59 of an event primarily intended at demonstrating how much his government had done for farmers.
One of the principal arguments along these lines is that no one could have predicted a ferocious second wave, and the prime minister is now doing all he can to deal with it, as both advisors and ministers have claimed – even though the reporting suggests this is patently untrue.
Modi warned us all along
Somehow, despite claiming that no one could have predicted a ferocious second wave, the government has also sought to convey that Modi knew it was coming – and had been warning states all along.
Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, in an Op-Ed, insisted that, “anticipating the current wave, the Centre sent special teams to the worst-affected states and districts” and that “contrary to the misinformation, the central government was simultaneously dealing with all these aspects of pandemic management.”
If it is unclear how those two arguments square up, it is also truly incredible that a central minister claimed the government was “simultaneous dealing” with all aspects of the pandemic, even as people are dying due to lack of oxygen and bodies are turning up in the Ganga.
Don’t ask about vaccines
Two weeks, we told you about the Ministry of External Affairs picking a fight with foreign missions in Delhi over their attempts to get medical supplies. This week, the centrally controlled Delhi Police decided that one of its priorities was arresting 25 people – including a daily wage worker and an auto rickhshaw driver – for putting up posters asking a simple question: ‘Modiji, why did you send our children’s vaccines abroad?’
The answer to that question is complex. We’ve written before about the convoluted, baffling calculations of India’s vaccine programme, which we discussed on this weekend’s Q&A, and also of the Centre’s nervousness whenever questioned on the 66 million doses exported and what they tell us about the current vaccine shortages. Some of the developments are also collected on this thread.
The BJP attempted a U-turn last week. For months, the official line and party propaganda insisted India was the ‘vishwaguru’, teaching the world how to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis. Now the party claims that 84% of exported vaccines were part of ‘commercial and licencing liabilities’, seeking to portray India’s manufacturing capacity as little more than outsourced contract work that it has no power over.
But put aside the nuances of vaccine strategy. Should the police be arresting people for asking the prime minister questions about his policy?
Naturally, the arrests prompted many Opposition leaders to put up the posters themselves:
Don’t ask about undercounting
Undercounting – of cases and deaths – is one of the big storylines of India’s Covid-19 crisis. It is why the government likes to insist that its fatality count is still lower than the other countries hit hard by the virus.
The Economist, for example, estimates that 10 lakh, that is 1 million, people may have died in India of Covid-19 this year alone. The official overall death toll for the entire pandemic is 2,70,000. Others have also sought to estimate what the actual numbers may end up being as well as explain how to try and get around the problem of inadequate data.
The Gujarat government offers a glimpse of what they are up against. Journalists in the state have been doggedly attempting to count the number of deaths that have taken place, even as official numbers seem to bear no resemblance to reality. Divya Bhaskar revealed that the state had issued 1,23,871 death certificates between March 1 and May 10, 2021, more than double the 58,000 it had issued in the same period the previous year. When asked about it, however, the government’s response was that confused families may be registering the same death multiple times.
Modi, at least in his most recent interaction with states, reportedly urged them to not undercount.
Pointing out the government and the BJP’s constant turn to narrative propaganda may seem futile. That is, after all, what political parties do – and the current administration more so than most. It surprises no one, so why focus on it at all?
The answer to that comes from those analysing what led to the second wave. Much has been written about the Kumbh and election rallies, which are indeed an important part of the story.
But, as Ashoka University’s Gautam Menon points out in a sharp piece, the policymakers seemed to buy into their own propaganda that India’s experience was somehow exceptional. It wasn’t just that they decided political victories and religious pandering was more important than virus containment. It was that the country’s leadership believed that the virus had been defeated, and they could move on.
Mathematician and disease modeller Murad Banaji makes a similar point in an equally incisive essay:
“As the first wave of disease wound down, there were some unknowns. The first was how widely the disease had spread in different parts of the country... The second unknown was how many had died of the disease in different parts of the country... The third unknown was what led to the winding down of the first wave...
The breathing space between India’s COVID-19 waves could have been used to try and shed light on some of these questions. Instead, there was self-congratulation and spurious analysis....
All said and done, weak science and compromised scientific institutions were at least partly responsible for the complacency and mistakes that allowed the second wave to take off so dramatically and tragically.”
If the administration continues to lean on the same approach of self-mythologising as soon as it has the breathing space to push propaganda and asserting, even illogically, that it did everything that was needed to be done, how will it make the adjustments necessary not just to see off this wave but prepare for the next one?
How will it be able to hear to its own current and former advisors calling its vaccine policy a mistake? How will it acknowledge a need to course-correct, if doing so would be an admission of guilt or error?
As if to underline that concern, days after writing in the New York Times that Indian scientists are facing “stubborn resistance to evidence-based policymaking”, Shahid Jameel – one of the country’s top virologists – quit the government’s official forum to research variants of the virus. Although Jameel didn’t give a reason for his resignation, it behooves the government to heed his warning that among the many casualties India has dealt with in this tragic time, it can also count “decision-making based on data” among them.
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