A medieval disaster is playing out in modern India

The after-effects of India’s lethargic COVID-19 response has resulted in a social fracture

Anil AnandChina first reported the detection of an unknown strain of virus in Wuhan to the World Health Organization (WHO) on Dec. 31, 2019. That event changed the world.

Eleven million residents of Wuhan city were placed under an unprecedented quarantine. Soon thereafter, Italy quarantined around 16 million people in the country’s Lombardy region. Within days, the quarantine was extended to the entire country.

On March 11, WHO declared the outbreak to be a pandemic, and Europe was the new epicentre with more COVID-19 reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined, beyond China.

By March 14, Spain recorded a spike of nearly 2,000 new cases with more than 3,800 confirmed cases and 84 deaths, resulting in a partial lockdown. Germany sealed its borders with France, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Denmark.

By March 16, Canada announced plans to close the border to non-citizens, as the country’s number of confirmed cases rose to 339, with one death.

The Indian government finally placed the country under a 21-day lockdown on March 24, 84 days after China reported the outbreak and 54 days after India’s first reported case on Jan. 30.

India temporarily suspended almost all visas and closed the land border starting on March 13, 71 days after China reported the spread of COVID-19 and 25 days after its own first case of COVID-19.

India is now the global epicentre.

India was well-positioned with technological capabilities and the capacity to respond to the pandemic. For example, the Serum Institute of India has been the largest producer of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and India has a large network of private and government hospitals and well-trained doctors. However, Indian authorities could have done much better, given the scope and potentially catastrophic results.

It would appear that India’s self-confidence in responding to the virus was misplaced and perhaps negligent. With a fifth of the global population and perhaps the worst slums and marginalized populations, India should have been far more concerned, anticipating and preparing for the pandemic.

Instead, there has been a societal failure to rein in religious and social gatherings, the exodus of people from urban to rural areas, and a total failure of political leaders to influence and curb social behaviour. Except for the periods of lockdowns, the markets and bazaars have been bustling with shoppers, trains and buses, without any attempts to socially distance, and movement across the country has been unrestricted.

In April, the Kumbh Mela religious festival in the northern city of Haridwar attracted millions of Hindu pilgrims from across India to the banks of the holy Ganges River, crowded shoulder to shoulder and with few wearing masks. This wasn’t a super-spreader event; it was a juggernaut spreader.

This was a far cry from the government’s arrests and stigmatization of Indian Muslims, who were blamed for a surge in infections after about 8,000 people in the Tablighi Jamaat congregated at the group’s compound in New Delhi in March 2020. Then, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government arrested 29 people, including 16 foreigners, who participated in the missionary meeting.

Also in March 2020, Indian authorities in the northern state of Punjab quarantined about 40,000 residents from 20 villages following a COVID-19 outbreak linked to a Sikh preacher who had ignored advice to self-quarantine and attended a religious gathering.

India is a country with enormous potential, but it’s also heavily shackled. India suffers from systemic biases based on religion, caste, politics and class; each faction blaming the other for the challenges they face.

In the weeks and months following the emergence of the virus, India did almost nothing to systematically prepare its vulnerable populations for the ensuing onslaught of COVID-19. There was much sophistry in the political decision to airlift 15 tonnes of medical supplies to China or COVID-19 vaccines to 15 other countries, including Canada.

Domestically, however, there was almost no observable change in the public’s behaviour. Initial media reports focused on the challenges in China, blaming foreign tourists for importing the virus to the nation rather than focusing on curbing, educating and informing on substantive matters.

Religion, superstition and astrology have figured prominently in the failure to respond to the pandemic. Too many believe in faith over science.

Homeopathic remedies and superstitious beliefs abounded as a means for fending off the virus, with several popular Indian news stations touted India’s capacity to respond to the virus as being superior. The absurdity of the response included weird cures advanced by political leaders and leading public personalities like Amitabh Bachchan, a popular actor and former politician, suggesting that people blow into conch shells to ward off the virus.

There were no restrictions at congested wholesale markets, technology centres or hospitals. Delhi’s central public hospital was lined with dying and sick patients. Their families slept on the lawns and beside the walkways leading to the hospital entrance, not to mention the halls and corridors, days and weeks before the initial lockdown. The impending catastrophe was inevitable.

The after-effects of this lethargic response have resulted in a social fracture, the widespread lack of hospital capacity and even a shortage of oxygen. Earlier, there were reports of medical staff being evicted from their residences for fear they may transmit the virus, chaos at bus terminals caused by migrant workers attempting to flee to their villages, and the ostracization of foreigners.

The citizens of India deserved a well-thought-out response and mobilization; instead, they got reflexive, draconian lockdowns followed by free-for-all super-spreader events. India’s lockdowns merely provided a reprieve for the government to figure ways out of its mismanagement, a fact confirmed by Modi’s apology to the nation last year.

Lockdowns set in motion potentially catastrophic mass migrations transporting COVID-19 across the nation and, in the long run, they have been nothing more than temporary window dressing in what should have been a sustained response to the pandemic.

India has failed its citizens, especially the majority of vulnerable and destitute who lack a voice and who will inevitably fade away without the government’s sympathy or empathy. As a result, a medieval disaster is playing out in modern India.

A similar tragedy is unfolding in Brazil. However, Brazil has a population of approximately 211 million compared to India’s 1.366 billion; the potential of the catastrophe is simply not comparable.

According to official reports, more than 2,000 people are dying every day in India from COVID-19; however, experts within the Indian health-care system believe that number is a dramatic underestimate and has already passed 10,000 a day.

At the month-long festival, Kumbh Mela, as many as 2,167 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the last five days, confirming fears that one of the world’s largest religious gatherings may contribute further to the rapid rise in infections. Yet despite the unfolding catastrophe, the super-spreader event continued until the end of April.

On April 21, 2021, British Columbia confirmed 39 cases of the B.1.617 variant, while Quebec reported its first known case of the new variant.

In response to growing concerns, the Canadian government announced a 30-day ban on passenger flights from India and Pakistan.

The ban instituted by Canada and several other countries on travellers from India couldn’t have come soon enough. The ban is necessary to both contain what’s potentially a petri dish for increasing numbers of viral mutations and to put on notice leaders who haven’t been willing to institute the difficult and crippling controls necessary for global security.

This is also a global battle for the control, if not eradication, of this virus. And eradication is possible because several jurisdictions have been able to control virus spread effectively – New Zealand and Israel as examples.

Countries that fail to do their part in controlling this pandemic are not only failing their citizens; they’re culpable for the consequences of their perfidious responses: the global tally of human casualties and economic damage.

Canada’s ban on travel from India is an important message that goes beyond just our safety; it’s a message to India and others, including Brazil, to get their houses in order.

Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Anil is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.


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