On April 20, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the country following a surge in Covid-19 cases. People were expecting answers, a plan, something. Instead, Modi said he felt the pain of the nation but opted not to instate a nationwide lockdown, which several states had already initiated by the time of his address. He also encouraged young people to form neighborhood watch committees to ensure people were following Covid-19 protocols.
Other than that, there were no plans. Just more hollow words.
On Saturday, India reported more than 400,000 new cases, the highest single-day figure of any country. As images of mass cremation sites, overcrowded hospitals and people gasping for air continue to overwhelm our social media feeds and news, one thing became apparent: People are on their own like never before.
The lack of resources and personnel is palpable on social media. Desperate cries for medication and oxygen tanks abound on Twitter and Instagram, where posts read, “In need of ICU bed” or “Plasma urgently required for treatment of Covid patient in Max Hospital, Delhi.” One journalist live-tweeted his Covid-19 symptoms and died while waiting for help.
And these people are the “fortunate” ones — they have access to social media, smart phones and the internet. They have access to doctors, hospitals, diagnoses and information on specific medication. Many of those who are posting desperate pleas for supplies can afford the price gouging. In India, people are paying 20,000 to 25,000 rupees ($250-$330 US dollars) for an oxygen tank that previously cost 150 to 200 rupees (roughly $2 US dollars). This is taking place in a country in which the average monthly wage is just $437.
For the most part, social media is their only hope. But India’s government — which has increasingly cracked down on dissent — pressured social media companies to take down posts, many of which were critical of Modi’s handling of Covid-19. Volunteers who spend their time calling and verifying leads for oxygen, hospital beds and medication say they have been harassed in Delhi and purportedly told by the police to stop circulating leads. The police have vehemently denied this.
In Uttar Pradesh, a northern state, chief minister Yogi Adityanath asked officials to take action against “anti-social elements” who spread “rumors” and propaganda on social media. Subsequently, the Uttar Pradesh police registered a case against a young boy who had tweeted for help to get oxygen for his friend’s grandfather. More recently, Adityanath denied there was a shortage of oxygen in the state and blamed hoarding and sales on the black market instead. He also said action would be taken against private hospitals if they falsely report a shortage.
Despite all these threats, no one has been held accountable for the situation in India. Instead, Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been focused more on cultivating their image and staying in power than helping the people in India who are suffering from a devastating surge of Covid-19 infections.
For one, the ruling party has appeased its Hindu nationalist base. Modi didn’t say anything against the months-long Hindu festival Kumbh Mela until April 17, after it already became a super spreader event. And until Modi made an announcement last Thursday, election rallies from BJP, a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, were ongoing. Most participants, including the leaders, packed into huge crowds without wearing face masks.
As hospitals ran low on oxygen in Indore, the most populous city in the state of Madhya Pradesh, BJP ministers held up an oxygen tanker that had set out from the city of Jamnagar on two occasions before the oxygen could be unloaded, the Times of India reported. The driver said the tanker was held up for two hours, but the BJP denied there was a delay.
What sort of government is so cruel as to deny its constituents life-saving supplies of oxygen in order to burnish its own image?
Where is the accountability? One in two people in Kolkata, a city in the state of West Bengal, are now testing positive. Meanwhile, Dr. Vijay Chauthaiwale, who heads the department of foreign affairs, told the BBC, “High cases have nothing to do with religious or political gatherings.” The union health minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan tried to strike an optimistic tone and said Tuesday that India was “better prepared” to deal with Covid-19 in 2021 than it was last year. I’d never imagined this scale of denialism.
All this comes as journalists in India are sharing images of mass cremations and burial grounds, calling for accurate data on the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths. Most experts believe that India is underreporting both these figures. Some estimates suggest that numbers have been underreported by as much as two to five times the real figures.
It’s heartbreaking that more than 211,000 people have died from the coronavirus in India, and many more Covid-19 deaths are not even being acknowledged. In India, no one has apologized. No one has resigned. Nothing has changed, except the increasing numbers of cases and fatalities.
I would argue it’s not the media’s reporting that is disconcerting. What is disconcerting is the government’s failure to take action and accurately report the death toll. The anger that so many have aimed at journalists needs to be redirected at those in power. There might not be disturbing images of mass cremation grounds to publish if the government had instilled sufficient preventative measures against Covid-19.
I’m privileged that I get to stay at home, tweet, make calls on a voluntary basis and try to arrange hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and medication for people in the ICU without putting my life at risk. But I’ve mourned the deaths of so many, and there seems to be no end to this suffering.
So, yes, “disconcerting” is right. None of this is normal. None of this should be happening in a country that boasts about being the world’s largest democracy. And yet, here we are, in this dystopian Twilight Zone loop. It’s much too late for this government to make amends, and so many ministers in India seem complacent in the face of a dire emergency. Jordan’s health minister resigned after the country faced an oxygen shortage. Meanwhile, members of the Indian government have yet to acknowledge that the situation could have been handled differently. And while a BJP spokesperson told Christiane Amanpour, “It is our responsibility and we’re trying our very level best,” we’ve yet to hear an apology at home, much less a plan — something we, as citizens, are owed in this debacle.