India’s Neoliberal State Brought It COVID Tragedy

Last year, right-wing Indian prime minister Narendra Modi boasted that he had COVID-19 under control. Now hundreds of thousands are dead. BJP misrule and years of social neglect and austerity are to blame.

An Indian patient suffering from COVID-19 is comforted by a relative while being treated in the emergency ward of a hospital in New Delhi. (Rebecca Conway / Getty Images)

A virus becomes deadlier when it deepens inequality and widens social divisions. The experience of COVID-19 has been devastating right across the globe, particularly in areas of the Global South that were already grappling with scarcity, poverty, the lack of proper sanitation, and inadequate health services. India has become one of the most disturbing examples.

A tragedy of breathtaking scale is unfolding before our eyes. Rising death rates, loss of income, lack of health care, discriminatory quarantine measures, and draconian state policies have also led to the growth of economic precarity. The far-reaching consequences of this will extend far beyond the duration of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 catastrophe is a humanitarian crisis that stems from the operations of capital and the state to brutalize, control, curb, extract, and dispossess ordinary people. The poor have suffered most from the violence of the pandemic, but the rich have not been spared either. As Arundhati Roy wrote in an article on India’s coronavirus disaster for the Guardian: “For now, among the sick and dying, there is a vestige of democracy. The rich have been felled, too.”

However, the fact remains that it is the poor who have been treated as disposable commodities, not just in death but also in life. The appearance of equality in death cannot conceal the ugly social inequalities and cruelty that mark Indian society. The suffering imposed on vast number of working-class people and migrant laborers is well known.

They had to undertake arduous journeys to their home districts after being left unemployed and destitute in the cities they helped build. The Indian middle class shunned them, displaying its paranoia and disgust by sacking drivers, cooks, cleaners, and servants. Those unfortunate people then found themselves locked out of their own villages for fear that they would spread the contagion. Their fate serves as a reminder of how India treats its poor.

Losing the Battle

It has been more than a year since the Indian government of Narendra Modi first imposed a hard lockdown. It followed this up with a completely inadequate response to a pandemic that has now entered its virulent second phase.

Mass funeral pyres have been burning round the clock since the third week of April this year. At least ninety-six unidentified bodies, decomposed and bloated, washed up on the banks of the river Ganges on May 9. They were suspected COVID-19 victims whose relatives had been unable to find space to cremate or bury them.

During the initial stages of the pandemic, Modi’s government rushed to pat itself on the back, claiming that the battle had already been won. As the infection rates began to fall after the first lockdown, Modi declared that India would see off COVID-19 in twenty-one days, comparing it to the eighteen-day battle of Kurukshetra in the epic Mahabharat. By invoking Hindu mythology and tying it to his government’s propaganda machine, Modi encouraged a sense of false pride and complacency, not just among ordinary citizens, but also within India’s governing class and its administrative machinery.

We are now seeing the deadly consequences of official negligence, from wage cuts and job losses to the shortage of vaccines and the lack of oxygen. It has been a nightmare for all those who have had to cope with disastrous policies, slipshod planning, and a crumbling health system.

The rot goes back a long way. For years, Indian governments have inflated our military budgets while depriving social services of the necessary funding. They have concentrated on ego-driven pet projects like giant statues and mega-dams; handed over lands, forests, rivers, hills, mountains to be used for corporate plunder; driven indigenous people from their homes; and divided the citizens of India along lines of identity.

Budget cuts to education, health care, and sanitary infrastructure have been deeply corrosive. The urban, upwardly mobile and aspiring Indian middle class now find themselves losing faith in the system. With massive job losses and growing precarity in the private sector, while a near-total freeze on public sector recruitment is in force, middle-class Indians are no longer insulated from the consequences of neoliberalism. The pandemic is reminding them of their true status as better paid workers who have no protection in a moment of crisis.

Failure of a Neoliberal State

On May 12, 2021, the official number of pandemic fatalities reached two hundred fifty thousand, with more than four thousand deaths on one day alone. The real figure is sure to be much higher. What could have been a crisis to be managed and contained has now become a full-blown catastrophe. This is the result of a deep crisis of leadership and years of social vandalism and neglect.

In a recent article, Tithi Bhattacharya has analyzed the way India’s state machinery abandoned its responsibilities toward the people it governs in a bid to woo capital and cut fiscal deficits. The austerity measures that have intensified over the last decade have had a grave impact on public health and education services, leading to a boom in private provision for those who can afford it. The majority of Indians cannot pay for treatment in private hospitals and nursing homes, or send their children to private schools without going into debt.

On top of this, the controversial farm laws passed by Modi’s government in September 2020 aim to facilitate the corporatization of agriculture. If put into effect as planned, they are likely to have a profound effect on food prices and exacerbate hunger and destitution.

The pandemic has exposed the deadly consequences of a neoliberal state that cheapens the value of human life. Ordinary people are forced to queue for rations, oxygen, hospital beds, medicines, or vaccines. They spent their time running from pillar to post in a bid to secure oxygen and life-saving drugs, in a country that is supposed to be a world leader in the production of vaccines.

We hear daily reports of colleagues, friends, or family members dying because they couldn’t secure a hospital bed or simply ran out of breath without oxygen. Children lose their parents. Families watch with anguish as their loved ones struggle for life or succumb to the virus. There have been horrific scenes at the hospitals, graveyards, and crematoriums, as bodies pile up, like something from a dystopian novel.

The long-term consequences of the pandemic will be a reinforcement of economic and social inequalities, right-wing populism, the hyper-militarization of insurgent spaces, and a rise in communal violence and caste discrimination. Low-income households have to take greater risks to secure their livelihoods, exposing themselves to the possibility of contracting the virus, while also increasing the chances that it will spread more widely.

The poor are much more likely to suffer from pre-existing chronic health conditions thanks to poor nutrition, unhygienic living conditions, and the lamentable state of public health care. This means that they are also more likely to die of the virus than the affluent. In rural India, the virus has been especially deadly because medical facilities are practically nonexistent.

In both urban and rural areas, the inadequacy of health care has been a key factor behind the rising death rates of the pandemic’s second wave. The lack of medical oxygen and antiviral drugs such as Remdesivir are the main causes. The rich may still be able to procure the oxygen and drugs they need. The rest of the population has to endure a time of waiting that is most likely to end in agony, despair, and death.

Modi’s Mismanagement

India has exported nearly sixty-six million vaccine doses from its own production to ninety-three countries around the world. In most of those countries, the impact of the pandemic is much less severe than in India today. The Ministry of External Affairs sanctioned these exports as part of a friendship scheme known as Vaccine Maitri. More than 60 percent of India’s vaccine stocks left the country, with exports continuing even when there were clear indications that the second wave had begun.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, 2021. (Biju Boro / AFP via Getty Images)

Until March 30 of this year, when the daily national case count had risen above seventy thousand, the government was still shipping out more doses than it was using for domestic inoculation. On March 17, the minister for external affairs, S. Jaishankar, praised Modi’s stellar leadership and claimed that vaccine exports had boosted India’s prestige in the world.

The Serum Institute of India (SII), a private company and the world’s largest vaccine maker, is the chief manufacturer of AstraZeneca’s Covishield vaccine in India. SII sold a staggering 80 percent of their stocks for a huge profit while domestic supplies were inadequate. The government finally imposed a ban on exports as the death count rose steeply.

The Indian authorities have set up a two-tier pricing system for inoculation, allowing vaccine makers to sell 50 percent of their stock directly to the federal states and in the open market for a different price than they will receive from the central government. The share prices of oxygen manufacturers and vaccine producers have soared.

Modi’s government has also worsened the situation in many other ways. It has continued to clamp down on dissent, harassing, and arresting activists who challenge its policies. It has indulged medical quackery, held massive election rallies in the midst of the pandemic, and allowed the Kumbh Mela festival to go ahead in order to appease its Hindu supporters. This religious gathering brought together more than nine million pilgrims to take a dip in the Ganges, further accelerating the spread of the virus.

Humanity Against Adversity

When superstition trumps science, mythology replaces truth, and self-aggrandizement stands in for the collective good, it can seem as if the last vestiges of humanity are coming apart. But there have also been many examples of great courage in the face of adversity during this time. Confronted with the abject failure of the state to tend to their needs, ordinary citizens have come together and shared their meager resources. People have made great personal sacrifices in order to save lives and restore basic dignity.

Teams of volunteers, young and old, have come together to provide networks of aid, relief, and succor to devastated communities. They have worked tirelessly to bring back people from the brink of destruction. Gurudwaras have started providing free oxygen cylinders to patients. NGOs, citizen groups, local political activists, and countless volunteers have sprung into action, setting up helplines, monitoring the availability of hospital beds, arranging ambulances, and providing counseling.

These acts of humanity in the face of depravity and shameless black market profiteering remind us that there is still hope for a ravaged, broken country like India today. Such acts of kindness, cooperation, and solidarity provide a glimpse of an alternative future that we can build. At present, the situation demands that the Indian government step up, take responsibility for the catastrophe, and do what is necessary to stem the tide of death and destitution.

There are some obvious steps that can be taken. The authorities must invoke the Essential Commodities Act for equitable distribution of food and medicines and clamp down on hoarders and black marketeers. They must open more public hospitals and recruit doctors and other health care professionals by offering them fair pay and good working conditions. They must press hotels and other large buildings into service as care centers, and for housing the homeless.

There should be a comprehensive ban on social events, religious gatherings, and political rallies. People who have lost their jobs must be supported through furlough schemes. In order to compensate for the economic devastation of the pandemic, India needs a stimulus package and a robust social security system.

None of this can be done through personal charity or corporate philanthropy. It is the job of an elected government to carry out such tasks. In the face of this unfolding disaster, what we need above all is a state that is willing to put its ears to the ground and listen, instead of just demanding to be heard.