The Political Fix: Why India needs to be wary of Covid triumphalism – even after 1 billion vaccines
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Welcome to The Political Fix by Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, a newsletter on Indian politics and policy. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Big Story: Blighty
Prime Minister Narendra Modi might find it useful to pay attention to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 trajectory over the past year or so.
Johnson infamously mismanaged his country’s response to the novel coronavirus in 2020, leaving the United Kingdom with one of the highest per capita death tolls globally. But, aided by a successful homegrown vaccine rollout, a woeful Opposition and a favourable electoral calendar – which his “good friend” in the United States, Donald Trump, did not have – Johnson appeared to have turned the ship around.
In July, with 87% of adults having received one dose of the vaccine and more than 68% fully vaccinated, the UK declared a triumphant ‘freedom day’, dropping most Covid restrictions and essentially announcing that life would be back to normal. Covid concerns seemed to recede, with Johnson instead focusing on the new ‘Global Britain’ and continued squabbling with the European Union.
Where do things stand today?
It is important to note, the surge in new cases is coming with a far lower number of hospitalisations then during earlier peaks, and the vast majority of those turning up at hospital are unvaccinated.
About 80% of those over-12 in the country have been vaccinated with two doses, which was earlier believed to be the best defense against the virus. The UK is now rolling out ‘booster’ third doses to the most vulnerable in the country, with many believing that these will eventually be mandatory for all.
The UK’s example is an important one, not least because only about three months after ‘freedom day’ and despite a quick and large-scale vaccine rollout, the British government is now preparing to bring in a host of restrictions to prevent further spread of the virus over the winter months.
Now listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech last week, on the occasion of India having delivered one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to its citizens:
“The 100 crore vaccines is not just a number. It is the reflection of the potential of the country; it is a new chapter of history. This is the picture of that new India which knows how to set difficult goals and achieve them. This is the picture of that new India which strives hard for the fulfillment of its resolutions…
Today there is belief, enthusiasm and zeal all around. There is optimism all around in every section from society to economy.”
India’s 1 billion doses mark is incredibly impressive, though of course Modi’s speech featured plenty of standard narrative-building sophistry:
While claiming that “today many people are comparing India's vaccination program with other countries of the world,” Modi chose to ignore the mess his government made of vaccine policy early in the year, after which it was forced into several embarrassing U-turns.
As has been the case in the propaganda push over the last month, the prime minister offered no acknowledgment of the huge number of lives lost to the virus because of his government’s mismanagement during India’s devastating second wave.
Modi insisted that India’s approach to Covid has been “been science-born, science-driven and science-based”, ignoring the former Union Health Minister’s endorsement of a untested traditional medicine as a cure for the virus, or the manner in which an otherwise inspirational indigenous Covid vaccine was rushed for blatantly political aims.
And while Modi made much of the vaccines being ‘Made in India’, he skipped over the fact that nearly 90% of the doses are an Indian-manufactured version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, developed in the UK.
But maybe the most important note of caution is the one that factors in experiences like that of the UK’s. Remember, Britain is experiencing its surge despite nearly 80% of all over-12 having received the vaccine, according to the BBC.
In India, with more than 1 billion doses delivered, about 70% of the adult population has received one doses, and only about 30% of the currently eligible population has been given two. India has not yet opened up vaccinations the 12-18 bracket, meaning those proportions would come down even further if we were to consider those who have yet to receive their doses.
And worryingly, within the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, there are still millions of those in the more vulnerable upper age brackets.
Of course, given India’s massive population, looking at things proportionally will always be somewhat unfair.
From a purely administrative point of view, the delivery of more than 1 billion doses is a tremendous achievement, not least because of the Modi government’s completely confused vaccine policy in the middle of the year. It is a sign less of determined leadership, as the prime minister claimed, than of the administration’s ability to – eventually – take criticism on board and self-correct.
But, from the health perspective, the proportion is all that matters. As long as there are hundreds of millions unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated, India cannot let its guard down.
That is exactly what the country did at the start of 2021, when Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party declared victory over the virus, and actively encouraged citizens to head out and gather in lare numbers at election rallies and the Kumbh Mela. The consequences of such misguided triumphalism were utterly devastating, as the tragic second wave in April and May showed us.
This may be why Modi remembered to strike a cautionary note.
“We have to celebrate our festivals with utmost caution. And as far as mask is concerned, now that designer masks are also there, we have to wear masks in the same way as we wear shoes when we step out. Those who have not been vaccinated should give it a top priority. Those who have been vaccinated should inspire others.”
But, of course, that is likely to be the part of the speech that receives the least coverage, with BJP ministers and leaders back to chest-thumping and triumphalist readings of India’s Covid management that send the message that Modi has conquered Corona.
Finally, there is one note on which India is very pointedly not following the UK’s trajectory. From the Guardian:
Britain’s early handling of the coronavirus pandemic was one of the worst public health failures in UK history, with ministers and scientists taking a “fatalistic” approach that exacerbated the death toll, a landmark inquiry has found.
“Groupthink”, evidence of British exceptionalism and a deliberately “slow and gradualist” approach meant the UK fared “significantly worse” than other countries, according to the 151-page “Coronavirus: lessons learned to date” report led by two former Conservative ministers.
Although everyone from the Supreme Court to certain Parliament committees are supposed to be looking into Modi’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis and the devastation that the country witnessed earlier in the year, does anyone expect a formal institution to speak in the plain language that the UK Parliamentary inquiry put forward?
Has Akhilesh Yadav found a way to bridge the Samajwadi Party’s grand divide, asks Arunabh Saikia.
Tabassum Barnagarwala documents the shattered lives of the pandemic’s orphans.
Shoaib Daniyal explains why Bangladesh warned India over anti-Hindu riots, even as Modi government praised Dhaka’s response.
Smitha Nair examines what parents need to know about vaccinating children against Covid-19.
The supply of COVID-19 vaccines has improved, but has demand for it saturated in India? ask Samir Saran and Oomen C Kurian.
Murad Banaji explains why an IIT Kanpur report praising UP’s COVID-19 crisis management was dishonest.
In an internal document, “called Adversarial Harmful Networks: India Case Study, Facebook researchers wrote that there were groups and pages ‘replete with inflammatory and misleading anti-Muslim content’ on Facebook,” report Sheera Frenkel and Davey Alba.
Shankkar Aiyar on the Reserve Bank of India’s new rules on auto-debit transactions, and the mess this has caused.
Can’t make this up
Astute economic thinking on display: