As Indians’ social media feeds were filling up with pleas for oxygen and hospital beds last month, thirty-two-year-old Asad Ashraf, a journalist, emailed me a link to his tweet: “My mother’s condition is very critical and I need a bed in Patna.” A few days earlier, he was in Delhi. But as his mother’s COVID-19 infection worsened, he traveled 674 miles to reach home. Both his parents were infected.
“I bought an oximeter from Delhi before boarding a flight,” he told me later. “My mother’s condition was critical and needed immediate hospitalization, while my father was still doing well. I decided to shift my mother to Patna city the same night.”
For over eight hours, he roamed the city, the capital of Bihar state in northeastern India, using all social media platforms and his network with only one aim: finding a hospital bed for his mother. After a long struggle, he managed to get one bed at a private hospital for his mother — but, as he told me later, care for his mother was subpar. “The nurses would miss giving critical medications on time.”
India was fighting the second wave of the pandemic, with over a million new cases every three days and more than three thousand deaths daily. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi had no real plans to fight the virus. Health care facilities across the country were collapsing. Dead bodies outside crematoriums were piling up. In many cities, parking lots and footpaths had bodies being cremated. Dozens had died due to a lack of oxygen. Yet the government couldn’t come up with any plan — after all, it had been two months since Modi declared victory over the virus.
People like Ashraf were left on their own.
After four days at a hospital, his mother was discharged, even though she hadn’t recovered. By then his father’s condition had worsened, and now he needed a bed: “Urgently need an ICU bed for my father in Patna. My mother is still struggling to live with her Oxygen without support being at 85-88, it’s now my father whose oxygen saturation level has started to dip to 88-90,” Ashraf tweeted on the evening of April 27. He found one, but it wasn’t enough to prevent his father from dying on April 29.
At the hospital, despite mentioning he was a diabetic patient, the doctors gave him steroids, dangerous for diabetics. “The government hospital didn’t have equipment to check his sugar levels,” said Ashraf. “When his condition worsened, I decided to shift him to another hospital, but we couldn’t find anyone to help us. The driver helped me in putting him inside an ambulance, but by the time we arrived at a private hospital, where we had secured a bed through some reference, he had already succumbed to his illness.”
Ashraf told his mother about his father’s demise on the same day because he wasn’t sure if she would survive. “I didn’t want to take a chance with her not knowing about her husband’s death,” he told me. His mother had to spend over a week at another hospital until she recovered. He believes his father died because of a lack of proper health care in India — just one of the hundreds of thousands who couldn’t survive due to the Indian government’s failure to provide basic health care to millions.
Making of a Crisis
In January, Modi declared victory over COVID-19, bragging that he had proven wrong the global experts who predicted that India would face a tsunami of COVID-19 cases. “But with the use of public participation and technology . . . we not only solved our problems but also helped the world fight the pandemic,” he said, during his virtual speech to World Economic Forum’s Davos Summit, on January 28. Less than two months later, the country was engulfed in the second wave of the pandemic, witnessing a rise in daily cases from 11,107 on February 15, 2021, to 72,000 on March 31.
Modi came to power in 2014 with a massive majority. He gained the support of India’s middle class through raging attacks on his opponents over corruption. Modi emerged as a strong representative of this class, but his inspiration comes from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu supremacist organization of which he has been a member for decades.
During his years in office, Modi has worked to bring the RSS’s Hindu rashtra (“nation”) dream into reality. India has been turned into a Hindu supremacist country, where opposing Modi’s BJP is a sin. While Modi told Indians that the fight against COVID-19 was won and India was a great power to even show a path of victory to the world, the pandemic had engulfed the country. Few questioned his declarations except a few liberal Indians and BJP’s rival party, the Indian National Congress.
In Delhi, India’s capital city, I recently witnessed dozens of bodies arriving at crematoriums, where every space would be covered under the ashes of pyres. Many died at home, as hospitals had no space for new patients. “We get calls from people who have someone dead at home. They don’t find beds or support, so they call us to pick up the body and cremate,” Jitender Singh Shunty, who runs the Seemapuri cremation grounds in Delhi, told me. Similarly, on other such grounds, workers said bodies never stop arriving.
Almost every hospital in Delhi had put up large screens giving numbers of hospital beds and patients. Most were full. Amid all this, Modi was campaigning for state elections in the state of West Bengal. Hospital administrations were putting out SOS messages on social media, pleading for oxygen supply and medicines. Modi seemed unmoved. At an election rally, he said, “I have never ever seen such huge crowds at a rally. . . . Today you have shown such a force, such power. . . wherever I see, I just see people.”
As the campaign for Bengal elections came to an end, Modi had little to say about the country’s devastated health care system. Indians expected him to lay out a plan, but he had none. Still, his fellow party leaders continued praising him for being a warrior — even in his supposed fight against the pandemic. One BJP state chief said, “Those who have died will not come back by creating a furor.”
Modi’s Flawed Policy
Since Modi came to power, his government has demeaned scientific expertise and insisted that solutions to every problem can be found through Hindutva. Last year, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had to turn down the Modi government’s request to conduct research into whether Gangajal, the water from the Ganga river considered holy by some Hindus, could cure COVID-19.
Such initiatives have been frequent in this government. With each passing day, the country was drifting toward apocalypse, fueled by Modi’s policies, which currently include India spending only 0.34 percent of its GDP on public health.
The country’s health minister, who had a job to make sure health care facilities were available after the second wave hit the country this spring, suggested that “significant progress needs to be made on the cow science front,” seeking “research projects that aim to scientifically validate the uniqueness of indigenous cows”; the “covid-19 pandemic cannot be used as an excuse for this delay.” In India, cows are sacred for Hindus. Many ruling BJP leaders have suggested that drinking cow urine and showering in cow dung helps fight the virus. This policy of cow protection, led by the government, has led to hundreds of Muslims’ lynchings by cow vigilantes since 2014. One of the state governments even supplied oximeters and thermal scanners for cows.
Such equipment has not been sufficiently available to the general public, even though Modi’s coterie continuously declared that India was in the endgame of COVID-19. Unlike most other countries, the health minister said that India has “a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccines that are safe with proven immunogenicity and efficacy.”
Yet such vaccines have not been available for Indians. Until May 18, 2021, only 13 percent of the population was vaccinated, and the supply of new doses was shrunk. “Modi ji, why did you send vaccines meant for our children to foreign countries?” read posters in Delhi. The government responded by arresting nearly two dozen people accused of putting up the posters — another incident of the Modi government’s crackdown on criticism of its policies.
India is known as an “electoral autocracy” for snatching freedoms a democracy should offer. Yet it is also the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines generally and has successfully led large public vaccination programs. That was before Modi, however.
The country’s scientists warned government officials in early March of a new and more contagious variant of the virus. But the government paid no heed to these warnings. “On April 30, over 800 Indian scientists appealed to the prime minister, demanding access to the data that could help them further study, predict, and curb this virus,” said a senior virologist, Shahid Jameel, who recently resigned from a forum of scientific advisers set up by the government to detect variants of the coronavirus.
Modi’s policies are vehemently supported and celebrated as a victory by his army of trolls, known as bhakts, or worshippers. Among these are many of his own party leaders, including a strong social media cell run by Amit Malviya, the national in-charge of BJP’s information and technology department. One national daily called Malviya the “ringleader of BJP’s propaganda machinery.”
Since the failure of tackling the second wave, the government has been cautious of its party image, which was dented mainly by global media. One of Modi’s colleagues told a national daily that the government should have been more alert to the second wave.” One BJP-ruled state ordered the property of individuals “who spread rumours and propaganda on social media” about oxygen shortage be seized.
India has failed her citizens on all human rights, in particular the right to health care. Instead, Modi has continued his mission to build Hindu supremacy in India. For him, nothing has changed, as he still looks for ideas to curb the virus that has left bodies floating over rivers, crematoriums filled with pyres, graveyards full, and no hope of countrywide vaccination anytime soon.