Empty Gestures, Full Hospitals: India Under Covid-19 Lockdown

Empty Gestures, Full Hospitals: India Under Covid-19 Lockdown
Photo Credit: Reuters/TPG Images

What you need to know

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invoked religious symbolism to distract from the health and economic catastrophe that awaits in India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a nationwide candlelit vigil on April 5. He implored the country’s 1.3 billion citizens to stay home, light diyas, and observe nine minutes without electricity to “challenge the darkness” of Covid-19.

The religious-infused performative symbolism, mixed with tepid policy, epitomizes the Hindutva government’s approach to the ongoing pandemic. Modi’s critics suggest that the gesture of lighting diya is in itself grim. The spectacle of summoning a spiritual, communal sense of solidarity against the virus masks the harsh reality: India is simply unprepared to deal with a pandemic, let alone one with as many unknown variables as the coronavirus.

Modi ordered a 21-day nationwide lockdown on March 24, almost two months after India’s first confirmed Covid-19 case. Initial rumors alleged that India’s high temperature and humidity would be inhospitable to a widespread outbreak of the virus.

The current numbers paint a different picture. Nearly 6,000 cases and just over 500 deaths have been confirmed. But because India has one of the lowest testing rates in the world, the true case count could be much higher. An initial New York Times model anticipated that anywhere from 300 to 500 million Indians could contract the coronavirus by the end of July, a tenth of which would likely be severe.

If the lockdown is effective, the number of infections at the pandemic’s peak in early May could drop by seventy or eighty percent, but approximately a million people will likely still need critical care. Further, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions are known to be additional risk factors for serious Covid-19 cases: roughly a third of India’s adults are hypertensive and a tenth are diabetic.

印度;火車病床
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
A worker paints beds to be used at a railway hospital to accommodate people suffering from coronavirus disease (Covid-19) amid concerns about the spread of the disease, in Chennai, India, March 30, 2020.

Healthcare Disparities

The coronavirus poses a massive threat to the country. Access to healthcare is limited (less than 100,000 intensive-care unit beds and 20,000 ventilators are available) and there is a shortage of healthcare workers. Further, the many other diseases that already occupy health resources, like tuberculosis and pneumonia, portend to be far more dangerous given the health system’s primary focus on the new threat.

The lack of protective equipment betrays a cruel sense of irony given that India has based its economic growth on being a destination for outsourced manufacturing jobs. Yet as doctors don raincoats, largely devoid of the necessary protective equipment, the emptiness undergirding Modi’s “Make in India” slogan is revealed.

The healthcare system in India varies tremendously across state lines, and access to it also tracks with income. The concentration of wealth in the upper-percentiles has only increased in the past few years. Coupled with a lack of investment in public healthcare, and doctors resigning or staying home because of infection, those who will receive adequate care in the midst of crisis are the wealthiest in society, while the poorest are neglected.

Things used to be slightly better. At the swan song of India’s era of Nehruvian socialism 20 years ago, 31 percent of medicine in inpatient treatments were available for free in public hospitals. Now, given the increasing privatization of healthcare, it’s less than nine percent. When Modi promotes desh bhakti — the need for civilians to do their duty in service of the nation — he effaces the real material disparities in India that will only further differentiate the virus’s reach.

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
National Disaster Response Force soldiers disinfect an area during lockdown to prevent the spread of new coronavirus in Hyderabad, India, Thursday, April 9, 2020.

Feeble Economy as Fertile Soil for Catastrophe

India will suffer economically because of the virus. National economic growth is already at a six-year low. Over half a billion Indians work for daily wages and have virtually no savings; Modi has urged employers to treat workers with “empathy and humanity” by continuing to pay their wages, but this request seems vacuous with limited federal support.

The government has suggested that some loans and mortgages can be put on hold for three months, and a few state governments — including those of Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu — announced plans for minimum allowances and rations to stem a potential hunger crisis; more state governments might follow suit.

Right before the lockdown was announced, India announced a roughly US $22 billion support package, aimed to soften the economic blow with initiatives for greater food security and wage support, but still woefully inadequate to address the population’s dire financial needs. Over half the Indian economy depends on agriculture, and farmers unable to sell their crops may spark a large hunger crisis.

Worse still will be the plight of migrant workers, as tens of millions have been left suddenly unemployed. Migrant workers often work in the cities and send wages back to their villages, but following the rushed implementation of the lockdown, many were stranded in their states; some attempted to return home on foot. Footage shared online depicted migrants brutally hosed down with chemicals. By virtue of migrants’ status, without government support, they will be particularly vulnerable to infection, or outright privation.

On April 2, the World Bank approved a US $1 billion emergency response project to help India strengthen its public health preparedness, set up isolation wards, increase testing numbers, control the infection, and obtain necessary equipment, including ventilators and medicine. But if the Bank’s history in Indian development projects is a guide, this will likely only serve to increase India’s national debt while stunting the nation’s autonomous development.

The World Bank Country Director for India Junaid Ahmad said, of the effort, that the operation would “enhance surveillance capacities, strengthen diagnostic systems, and expand the capacity of laboratories. But Covid-19 is not only a health challenge. It has deep social and economic implications.” That the World Bank is paying attention to the social and economic fallout raises the possibility of another round of loan-making, or perhaps what economic historian Michael Hudson calls “killing the host.”

A Hungarian Future?

The pandemic has catalyzed the religious polarization that has marked Modi’s Hindu chauvinist government. An event held at a Delhi mosque which saw an outbreak of coronavirus cases linked to attendees has heightened Islamophobic rhetoric seen on national media. The lockdown measures, announced without warning and administered with an iron fist by the police, have drawn criticism from the UN rights office.

We have already seen the response to the coronavirus appropriated in service of increasing authoritarianism in countries like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, where Orbán and his party have used the virus to consolidate power: canceling elections, suspending legislation, and giving Orbán the right to indefinitely rule by decree. Is such a future unimaginable for India?

As India’s Hindutva government has already displayed an eagerness to restrict freedom of movement, particularly on its borders and in territories like Kashmir, what incentive to return to “normalcy” would there be? Public health may be of utmost concern, but we must stay vigilant that it is not exploited to serve underlying nationalist aims.

READ NEXT: Covid-19 Lockdown In Kashmir Further Imperils Mental Health

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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