India’s Second COVID-19 Wave is a Global Issue
By Mahima Sharda
The COVID-19 pandemic has rippled through families, communities, metropolitans and states across India, leaving a trail of devastation, misery and death in its path. As the country sees its deadliest days of the pandemic with over 242,000 deaths thus far, these dire circumstances are a sharp contrast to my current home here in the East Village of New York City, which has left me with a confusing array of emotion.
Soon after I received my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio proclaimed this to be the “summer of New York City.” As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) modify their mask mandate when outdoors, bars and restaurants all across America begin to open up with increased capacity. However, this is a strong contrast to the heart wrenching news of my home country in India, which sees over 400,000 new COVID-19 cases a day. India is currently facing a severe medical supply shortage, including a lack of adequate oxygen cylinders, a shortage of hospital beds, antiviral drugs, coronavirus test kits, and personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers.
How did we get here? The Indian government had a year to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic to make smarter choices and implement reasonable policy decisions, instead, they were overly keen to ease lockdown measures. In January 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed to the virtual gathering of the World Economic Forum that “the country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing Corona effectively.” In addition, India’s Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan stated in March 2021 that “we are in the endgame of COVID-19 pandemic in India.” This hubris is directly responsible for the current outbreak and no amount of retribution at the ballot box will make up for the thousands of people who die everyday in India as a result.
The government also reopened the country in ways that served itself rather than the public health of the Indian population. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist organization, allowed larger religious gatherings of over 3 million people because it pleased their base of support, despite the increased rates of those contracting the coronavirus. Political rallies held in a number of battleground states with upcoming elections have continued even after the country surpassed 300,000 new cases per day. A complete lack of social distancing and mask-wearing at these events worsened the situation and the government assured people that the virus was nothing more than a small blur in India’s rear view mirror.
Even those who have not contracted the virus are struggling to find work due to intermittent lockdowns and lack of financial relief from the Government. In fact, women and girls are being married off quickly into wealthier families that could financially support them. People are borrowing more than they may ever be able to pay back in this lifetime simply to buy one tank of oxygen on the black market for their loved ones, only to see them succumb to the virus. Lastly, education has also taken a toll on school aged children due to a lack of access to broadband technology to attend school virtually.
Governments in richer countries that have already vaccinated substantial portions of their populations must stop stockpiling vaccines and transfer them to India, where the virus is spreading out of control. In particular, demand for the AstraZeneca vaccine has diminished in the United States and thus could be a potential avenue for sending vaccines to India without backlash from the American electorate. The US government should also take a more global approach to combating the virus by approving patent waivers and lifting the ban on the export of the raw materials needed to manufacture the vaccine. Other wealthier countries should also do their best to donate oxygen cylinders and other medical supplies.
But solutions cannot come solely from the international community. India’s current situation is by-in-large the fault of Prime Minister Modi’s government and its poor policymaking. The Indian government should immediately implement a federal lockdown and provide substantive financial assistance to those affected by the pandemic. This should include a ban on large gatherings including religious ones, and mandate wearing a mask during any public activities—restrictions should continue at a local level even after any such federal lockdown ends. Authorities should clamp down on the black market sale of medical supplies so that that can be fairly distributed through the hospital system, rather than only to those who can afford them.
The army should be mobilized across the nation to create and operate field hospitals, particularly in rural areas where access to care is limited. Finally, Modi’s government should agree to a full and complete audit of the PM CARES fund, which raised over $1.27 billion in order to mobilize resources in fighting the deadly virus. The fund, however, has been shrouded in secrecy and a lack of transparency—sparse records exist on what this money was, in fact, spent on. Some were said to have been spent on 162 new oxygen production plants.
Where the government has fallen short though individuals have stepped up. Modammad Javed Khan, a 34-year old in central Indian city of Bhopal, converted his auto-rickshaw into a small ambulance. He sold his wife’s jewelry to fit his rickshaw with an oxygen cylinder, an oximeter, and other medical supplies. Desperate pleas for oxygen, plasma and hospital beds on Whatsapp or Twitter are being answered by complete strangers. One man from a rural state drove 1,400kms overnight to deliver an oxygen cylinder he had scavenged in his home state to a friend in Delhi. These small acts are encouraging; they give us hope in a time when such an emotion can feel scarce.
As a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, I feel a sense of hyper-awareness of the government errors that led to this point. This wasn’t a matter of hindsight—it was egregious negligence. It’s hard to imagine us forgetting about this atrocity when we’re still in the thick of it, yet, in a country of a billion simultaneous stories, we move quickly to the next challenge. This trait is what makes us a resilient nation, and I believe we will bounce back stronger than ever. But, I hope we—as Indians—remember to hold accountable those responsible, and improve governance mechanisms to ensure this never happens again.
Originally from Jaipur, India, Mahima Sharda is an MPA-PNP student and Gallatin Global Fellow at NYU. She has worked at the United Nations Development Programme, the Afghan Mission to the UN, and is slated to start at the International Crisis Group this summer. At NYU Wagner, Mahima sits on the board of the Students for Criminal Justice Reform, works as a research assistant for the NYC 2025 Project, and will serve as the department’s representative on the Student Senate for the upcoming year.
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