India’s Response to Covid-19 Pandemic: A Success Story?

By Avilasha Ghosh

On 24th March, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi announced a nation-wide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus in India. Overnight, all transportation services were discontinued, schools, colleges, and universities were shutdown, examinations of all sorts stood suspended, and all corporate offices and religious events were cancelled. A strict curfew was enforced on people’s movement outside of their homes, and stern punishments and warnings were issued against those flouting the rules. Everyone who wanted to step outdoors or access essential services such as groceries, medicines, hospitals, and banks (the only services that were allowed during lockdown) had to furnish documents such as medical prescriptions and bank passbooks to the police and patrol staff stationed at different localities. Although police officers and patrol staff are being praised for ensuring that the lockdown is being strictly followed, there are reports of police violence on vulnerable groups like domestic workers and manual labourers.

The first phase of India’s nation-wide lockdown was welcomed by all sections of the population, given the deep-seated mass paranoia around the outbreak of Covid-19. [1] This paranoia, however, was not simply a defense mechanism against coronavirus but also a result of the widespread circulation of misinformation about it on social media. The dangers of misinformation are evidenced in a shocking incident that took place in Kolkata on 29th March, in which a deceased Covid patient, Samir Kumar Maitra, was harshly accused on Facebook of “bringing the virus” into the city. His wife and son were also targeted on social media, and crowds battled with police for hours to stop Maitra’s cremation on the grounds that burning his body would spread coronavirus and endanger lives. On 20th March, the federal government issued an advisory to social media companies to clamp down the circulation of false information about Covid-19. Still, amid increasing paranoia Indians continued to use social media to share information (sometimes from unverified sources) and closely monitor people’s activities and movements (Ghoshal and Nagchoudhury 2020).

A few days before the lockdown announcement, several medical personnel in India shared horrific experiences of being exposed to risks inside hospitals, and their inability to conduct systematic testing and treatment of Covid-19 patients due to the shortage of trained staff, beds, testing kits, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The circulation of this information on social media added to the panic of already anxious Indians. A few days later, a tweet from the Serbian wing of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) confirmed that the Indian government had sanctioned and exported 90 tons of medical equipment and safety gear, including surgical gloves, masks, and coveralls to Serbia. While the Health Ministry denied any knowledge of the matter, the news enraged many Indians, especially doctors and nurses who were instructed to continue with coronavirus treatments without any protective gear.

It seems that the Indian government prioritized export earnings over the lives of its frontline workers. Instead of addressing the anger and frustration of the medical community over the shortage of medical equipment, PM Modi resorted to methods of populist symbolism to subdue emotions. A few days before India transported what may have been its only stock of protective gear and medical equipment at the time, PM Modi went live on primetime television and announced a “Janata Curfew,” requesting all Indians to stay indoors. In his 28-minute speech, he also asked Indians in home quarantine to come to their windows and balconies at 5pm on 22nd March to display their support for healthcare workers by clapping hands, beating plates, and ringing bells. Several Indians responded to his request with clapping, beating utensils, and some even went a step ahead to flout rules of social distancing by organizing street processions, mass gatherings, and bursting firecrackers in groups. What the PM failed to mention in his speech were his plans to eradicate the country of coronavirus, including whether the government was even making provisions for relief and protection for frontline personnel and migrant workers.

Although Modi’s spectacle-oriented politics were heavily critiqued by politicians, academics, media, and the larger community, this did not stop the BJP-led government from offering further political gimmicks. For instance, four weeks later, PM Modi tweeted about a “9 pm, 9 minute” appeal, asking Indians in lockdown to switch off all lights at home on April 5th and light candles and diyas (oil lamps), or wave the flashlights on their mobile phones to mark the national fight against the pandemic. Though Modi did not mention in his speech that the lockdown induced and amplified mental health illnesses such as loneliness, anxiety, and depression in many people, he emphasized that the “superpower of light” signified not only India’s “collective unity” against coronavirus but also that individuals were not alone. It is interesting to note here that the PM’s speech was addressed only to those who could afford to be inside their homes during the lockdown and therefore excluded vulnerable communities like street hawkers, the poor, migrants, and the homeless from the “collective national fight” against Covid-19.

Questions loom large over the BJP’s puzzling spectacle-oriented political strategy of dealing with the crisis: Are the clapping of hands and lighting of candles effective tools for combatting coronavirus? How does creating noise kindle the spirits of health workers and effectively guard them against the risks of infection better than protective gear? Can the “superpower of light” magically heal those struggling with chronic mental health issues? Unless high-quality protective equipment is distributed to all doctors and nurses, no amount of clapping and banging utensils can prevent the threat to their lives. As biological life and politics have become inextricably linked in contemporary times, it appears that the Indian government is using populist symbolism not only to deviate attention from its failure to address the crisis of the pandemic but at the same time, to garb a nuanced form of “necropolitics” (Mbembe 2003) that is at play here. In dialogue with Foucault’s notion of biopolitics and biopower, Mbembe introduced the concepts of necropolitics and necropower to highlight how modern forms of sovereignty while sustaining life simultaneously exposes citizens to conditions of death. Drawing from Mbembe’s reflections, I argue that by distributing low-quality protective equipment to frontline personnel, and exporting India’s limited stock of medical equipment to Serbia, the Indian government has been risking the lives its medical personnel, thereby partaking in necropolitics. This is also evidenced in the government’s apathy towards the medical needs and economic interests of vulnerable populations, such as the poor and migrant labourers.

Since its first official announcement on 24th March, the Indian central government has extended the nation-wide lockdown/curfew four times. What was initially supposed to be a 21-day nation-wide curfew has continued for a grueling 68 days, ending with lockdown 4.0 on 30th May. The continuation of a stringent country-wide lockdown for almost two and a half months has opened up a host of financial problems for the Indian economy. Small traders and migrant workers are the worst affected. With dwindling profits, salary cuts and unemployment, petty traders and the economically weaker sections of the population are increasingly finding it difficult to sustain themselves. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), an estimated 122 million Indians lost their jobs in April alone, and three-quarters of them were small traders and wage labourers. While salary cuts, unemployment, tenant evictions, and heavy losses in businesses and start-ups have adversely affected the daily lives of many Indians, the migrant daily wage earners like taxi-drivers, rickshaw pullers, factory labourers, and domestic workers, are the main victims of the lockdown and pandemic. India has a substantial working class population, including millions of people who have migrated from rural and agrarian regions like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Kolkata for employment and marriage opportunities. With the lockdown stripping them of their jobs and money, about forty million of India’s internal migrant workers have been left vulnerable to dislocation, poverty, and starvation. The Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) conducted a survey based on distress calls to a helpline number, in April. According to their findings, as many as 78 percent of India’s migrant workers have not been paid a salary for the entire lockdown period, 82 percent have not received any ration from the government, and 64 percent have less than Rs 100 of savings. [2]

While transportation services were discontinued, several news channels reported migrant workers walking hundreds of miles back to their home villages, some even dying in the journey due to accidents. On 18th May, nine migrant workers returning from West Bengal to their villages in Bihar were killed when the truck they were travelling in overturned at Naugachhia, near Bhagalpur. Ten days earlier, sixteen migrant workers while walking to Madhya Pradesh accidentally fell asleep on the train tracks, and were run over and killed by a cargo train in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. These tragedies are only a few of the many that have been reported so far.

It was not until recently that the government finally directed its attention to the suffering of migrant workers and has started building relief camps and running “Shramik (labourer) Special” trains to get them home. The central government has also requested states and Union Territories to ensure that migrant workers don’t resort to walking to reach their destinations. Since 4th May, public bus services in India have also resumed, helping migrants reach their homes. None of these facilities are free of cost, and migrants are expected to pay full fare if they want to utilize transportation services; additional charges apply for basic amenities like food. The government has completely ignored the fact that a majority of the migrants are without employment or money due to the lockdown, and will be unable to pay those costs. The death toll of migrant workers continues to rise. Reports suggest that over one hundred-fifty inter-state migrants have died in various accidents, and about eighty of them have died onboard Shramik Special trains due to reasons ranging from Covid-19 and co-morbidities to hunger and exhaustion.

While the government has been deploying low funds as a justification for its delay in provisioning help to migrant workers, it has allocated billions of rupees to Indian Railways to fulfill Modi’s dream project of building a bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. Near the end of March, the government started a Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund that attracted donations from millions of Indian residents of all socio-economic backgrounds, public sector enterprises, multinational corporations, and Non-resident Indians. While many hoped that the Fund would be used to improve healthcare facilities and provide relief to migrant workers, to date the total amount of donations has not been made public and neither has its spending chart. After receiving several appeals for transparency and RTIs [3] (that have been dismissed on the grounds that the PM Cares Fund does not fall within the ambit of Right To Information), the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement fifty days after the fund’s initiation, informing Indians that the trust has decided to spend Rs 20 billion to buy ventilators, Rs 10 billion to provide relief to migrant workers, and another Rs 1 billion in support of vaccine development. What the statement did not mention was how much of the fund’s money had already been mobilized and how other expenditures the Fund would be used for in the future. The lack of transparency and public accountability has led many Indians to look at the government with suspicion. Given that pandemics are an auspicious time for all kinds of political projects (Caduff  2020), some have also given in to hearsay that the PM Cares Fund has been absorbed into BJP’s upcoming election campaign. [4]

Amidst all the panic, poverty, suffering, and death, PM Modi in his monthly radio programme, “Mann ki Baat” (talk of the heart) on 31st May instructed Indians to become “atmanirbhar” or self-reliant not only in economic terms but also in matters of safety and health. Other than suggesting that individuals practice yoga and conform to norms of social distancing, the PM did not reveal any information on how the government planned to improve the harrowing conditions of hospitals and clinics. Although hospitals in India were already understaffed and underfunded, we now witness a pan-Indian phenomenon of hospitals being shut down due to Covid contamination, augmenting the shortage of beds in the quarantine facilities of hospitals that remain open. There is also an ongoing controversy over fake ventilators at the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital in Gujarat. In April, Chief Minister of Gujarat, Vijay Rupani approved the use of  Rajkot-based private company manufactured “Dhaman-1” machines at the civil hospital for treating Covid-19 patients in extreme conditions. Despite the doctors clearly stating that Dhaman-1 is not a ventilator but an AMBU (Artificial Manual Breathing Unit) bag, the CM continued to state the contrary. This not only highlights the harsh reality of India’s failing healthcare system but also sheds light on the current government’s sheer incapacity and unpreparedness to manage the pandemic.

While there are exceptions, many Indians have exhibited self-discipline and social responsibility in complying with social distancing norms, safety protocols, and lockdown instructions. Action groups and volunteers have also stepped forward to raise donations via social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp to assist the poor, homeless, and marginalized with essentials like groceries, masks, medical supplies, and funds. While it is true that majority of India’s rich and middle-class population continue to enjoy the comforts of home during isolation, keeping themselves busy with paid work-from-home assignments and other activities, a small fraction of them are indeed taking up social responsibility, spreading awareness, and volunteering to work with communities at risk. India’s lockdown renders highly visible the class disparity between the haves and the have-nots, but it also links the two via the common thread of the failed social contract.

When the first phase of lockdown was implemented, India reported approximately 500 confirmed coronavirus cases. On 30th May, at the end of the fourth phase of lockdown, India reported a total of 190,531 Covid-19 cases, including the highest single-day spike recorded so far (8237 confirmed cases) in the country. As I write, the count of confirmed cases in India stands at an alarming 191,356, with a reported death toll of 5413 persons. [5] Given that numbers can reveal information as well as conceal it (Caduff 2020), it must be kept in mind that the official numbers mentioned here may not adequately represent the actual numbers of infected persons and deaths linked to coronavirus in India, nor do they reveal that not everyone is at risk in the same way. In addition to the lack of systematic testing, contact tracing, and the obscuring of numbers by state governments, many people with suspected Covid symptoms have avoided getting themselves tested due to fear of hospital-acquired infections, and a handful have reportedly left quarantine facilities due to neglect. The unequal ratio of trained doctors to patients in quarantine wards has left several patients uncared for, with some being declared dead after several days of resting lifelessly in ventilation. [6]

Over a short period of time, it has become evident that the Indian government neither strategically planned the nation-wide lockdown before implementing it nor acknowledged that the lockdown would have different meanings for and effects on different people. It did not account for the dynamics of its own population and economy and was therefore unable to foresee the adverse socio-economic implications that a lockdown of this scale and duration would bring forth in a developing country, where a significant proportion of the population lives below the poverty line. As India embarks on lockdown 5.0 (officially billed as “Unlock 1”), which is expected to extend until 30th June, there are extensive relaxations in domestic travel services, opening up of businesses providing both essential and non-essential services, including shopping malls and religious places. Educational institutions and recreational centres like movie theaters, bars, gyms, and amusement parks continue to remain shut until further notice, but small gatherings have been allowed for weddings and funerals. While state governments have been vested with the power to issue their own guidelines in this regard, the ongoing State vs. Centre debates over lockdown relaxations and restrictions has created a lot of confusion among the public.

Although the strategy to slowly open up the economy may relieve some individuals of their financial difficulties, it has also increased people’s mobility and contact with one another, which in turn has heightened the possibility of contamination and put millions of lives at risk. The opening up of interstate travel has resulted in a surge in the number of Covid cases, even in states like Kerela, Sikkim, Tripura and the rest of Northeast India, which had thus far successfully managed the Covid-19 outbreak. As cases continue to rise in India, certain things remain uncertain: Is a lockdown/curfew an effective response to fighting the pandemic? What are the long-term effects of the pandemic and lockdown on people’s daily lives and mental health? What are the long-term effects of the pandemic and the lockdown on India’s economy and development goals? If the vaccine against Covid-19 is invented and made available, which countries will become its prime beneficiaries? Will all citizens have equal access to the vaccine once it is available in India? Will India take a lesson from the pandemic and finally work on improving its healthcare system, making it accessible to all? Will the end of the pandemic also put an end to existing paranoia and anxieties? It is difficult to answer these questions at the moment, and we will have to wait and see how future events unfold. However, I am confident that it will take a long time for India to recover from the horrors of the pandemic. The unprecedented deaths, suffering, and the daily struggles of living in a constant state of paranoia will continue to haunt us for years.

Avilasha Ghosh is a PhD Research Scholar in the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Her research is situated at the intersections between anthropology, bioethics, gender and body politics, in the context of healthcare in India.

Acknowledgments: My sincerest thanks to Professor Vincanne Adams, Dr. Carlo Caduff, and Dr. Alex M. Nading, for their helpful suggestions and support.

References:

  1. Caduff, Carlo (2020) “What Went Wrong: Corona and the World after the Full Stop.” academia.edu website. 
  2. Mbembe, Achille (2003) “Necropolitics, ” Public Culture. Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 11-40.

[1]  See “Lack of Education, erosion of science has fueled paranoia constructed around COVID-19,” Indian Express, 26th May, 2020. Accessed 29.05.2020.

[2] See published report, “32 Days and Counting: COVID-19 Lockdown, Migrant Workers, and the Inadequacy of Welfare Measures in India,” Stranded Workers Action Network, May 1st, 2020.

[3] The Right to Information (RTI) is a fundamental right granted to all Indian citizens (except residents of Jammu and Kashmir) by the Constitution of India. It enables citizens to access information held by a public authority. The Act was enacted on 15th June, 2005 and is enforced since 12th October, 2005.

[4] I argue this based on public posts on Facebook and private group conversations on WhatsApp.

[5] The number of Covid cases in India is speculated to be higher than what is being officially reported. States like West Bengal have been accused by the central government and national media of hiding the actual figures of infected persons and the deceased.  

[6] Based on my conversations with two doctors working in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Apollo Gleneagles Hospital, Kolkata.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email