At the beginning of the year, when the lockdown was lifted after the first wave of COVID-19 in India, life seemed to go back to normal. Citizens returned to markets, businesses, and the daily hustle of life, which had become disrupted because of the pandemic. However, from March until June, the nation with one of history’s oldest democracies left the world in shock, anger, and anguish. Millions of people watched as India’s healthcare system fell to its knees and thousands of people died each day, many of them preventable deaths. In a series of four episodes called “Context India,” South Asian journalist and television news anchor Faye D’Souza investigated and examined what went horribly wrong during the second wave of COVID-19 and the role of the Indian government in contemporary history’s most ghastly and defeating wave of the virus. The first episode features expert insight from Dr. Shahid Jameel, director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, professor at the Christian Medical College (Vellore), and Anila Singh, a spokeswoman for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Additionally, the episode also analyzes the issues of accountability, crisis management, and why India suffered from losing thousands of people daily.
“In each of the four episodes in this series, we’ll be taking a close look at a specific facet of what has perhaps been the biggest crisis India has faced since its independence,” D’Souza said. “COVID devastated numerous countries, but India’s experience, especially during the second wave that began in April 2021, was one of the most shocking pandemic ordeals. The COVID impact, both in the short and the long term, will be significant, and that is why it is the focus of this series.”
After the lockdown was lifted, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to the media to state that India had become a ray of hope of what life could look like after tackling a pandemic.
“On behalf of more than 1.3 billion Indians, I have a message for the world,” Modi said on the 28th of January. “A message of faith, solidarity, and hope.” However, just a couple of months after Modi would promote his hope and blessings, life in India quickly turned insidious and turbulent. As a new variant of the virus, the Delta variant, spread like wildfire in big cities, neighbourhoods, and rural villages, screams of anguish and wails of heartbreak began to emerge from hundreds of homes as families lost loved ones left and right.
According to the government of India, at one point, daily cases were averaging nearly 400,000 and 4,000 deaths a day. In a report from Al Jazeera, more than 800 deaths were recorded in 24 hours. However, numerous statistical studies that emerged during this time also indicated that these figures could be highly underestimated. In total, India has had approximately 30.45 million cases since the start of the pandemic last year, leaving it in place behind the U.S. as the second-most affected country. Hospitals were collapsing. There was a massive shortage of ICU beds, ventilators, oxygen tanks, which left citizens of India laying outside medical facilities fighting for their lives while relatives begged for help.
“But the Delta variant alone doesn’t explain the magnitude of what was unfolding. The actions of the Indian state requires some scrutiny,” D’Souza said.
Twitter had also become a public health directory of sorts as each morning and night were filled with tweets of neighbors, volunteers, and activists pleading for help for medical supplies.
On the 7th of March, Harshvardhan Goel, former Health Minister of India, said at the 62nd Delhi State Annual Medical Conference, “I personally feel that COVID – if all of us remain together and if the country has the right approach, COVID is already on its way out.”
While Goel may have been convinced that COVID-19 was reaching its end, a group of scientists accumulated data that they sent to the Ministry of Health, warning them of a potentially rapidly contagious variant that had a high probability of emerging, according to D’Souza. Singh, a spokeswoman for the BJP, pointed out that, if anything, it was up to the regional and state governments to figure out how to control the variant, and she further placed blame on the fact that they did not “heed” these reports, thus resulting in the widespread outbreak.
If it’s the state governments that we should blame, according to Singh, for not exhausting all options in protecting their people, who are we to hold accountable for the superspreader events such as the Kumbh Mela and the regional election campaigns in places such as West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamilnadu? The Kumbh Mela is a major pilgrimage and festival in Hinduism, and as a result of this religious event, 160,000 new cases emerged each day. In fact, according to Modi himself, he mentioned during one of his political rallies that it was the largest gathering he had ever seen.
On the 17th of April, Modi said, “Today, in every direction, I see a gathering larger than any I have seen before.” And not a mask in sight.
But the harrowing reality of COVID-19 wasn’t just confined to the four walls of a hospital. In crematoriums, bodies were burned upon bodies and washed up to the shore of the Ganges River.
In a CNN report, Jitender Singh Shunty, head of the Seemapuri crematorium in Eastern New Delhi said, “Before the pandemic, we used to cremate 8 to 10 people (daily). Now, we are cremating 100 to 120 a day.” Aerial footage of crematoriums and photographs uploaded to social media platforms sparked fury at the sheer ignorance of the Indian government. Singh believes that such media is all a part of a “conspiracy.”
“When we see the [optics] of dead bodies in river Ganges, or we see the Hindu crematorium ground, then I will say this is a conspiracy because we never saw any picture of Shamshant, that is, Muslim graveyards. Only Hindus, why? So because we have got a monk who is heading Uttar Pradesh,” Singh said.
But by the 22nd of April, when the Supreme Court of India urged “beg, borrow, and steal” to control cases of the virus, it was too late. Simultaneously, while the Indian government tried to control the narrative of the virus, it was also too late. Citizens of India had become journalists overnight as they went into hospitals themselves, capturing video footage of the scene and demanding answers from doctors before sending it out to reporters on the ground.
The damage that the Indian government has caused can never be repaired because no amount of policy changes and implementations will bring back the men, women and children that households lost. At a diplomatic level, world leaders need to continue calling out the prime minister of India and the government for their negligence on the severity of the variant, the desecration of India’s healthcare system, the censorship of free speech, the unlawful detainment of scholars, journalists and activists, and the lack of empathy to label actual media footage as “conspiracies.” To help at a grassroots level, you can donate to Doctors Without Borders, World Vision’s Coronavirus Emergency Response, Oxygen for India, and Hemkunt Foundation.
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