The roots of India’s hubris-driven second wave

Nachikethan Srinivasan ’21

In a speech, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi once referred to the war from an ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, saying the war against the coronavirus would be won in 21 days compared to the epic’s 18 days. That was the 25th of March, last year.

    Hit the fast-forward button, and the country has been hit hard by the second wave of cases from the COVID-19 pandemic, spawning horrifying new images of illness and death. As reports from the BBC depict scenes of the withering elderly awaiting precious oxygen and rest away from the glare of the sun while makeshift funeral pyres line the Delhi skyline with smoke pillars, the country is reporting numbers of deaths reaching 3,500 on a daily basis, with one person dying every four minutes in Delhi alone. Many people stateside with family in India—myself included—are checking in on each other, hearing the news reports inside the country and the updates on relatives who have fallen victim to the outbreak. 

    This relapse could only be described as a blow in the face for the prime minister and for much of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But for a government with a rickety track record for lockdown implementation, and having just months ago passed a resolution that praised the government’s “defeat” of COVID-19 while investing its focus on vaccine diplomacy, it’s hard to empathize with governmental ambition when it has culminated into irresponsibility.

    So, where to begin?

    This irresponsibility could be sensed from the very beginning, when the government’s insistence on running disaster management straight from the top in Delhi through a last-minute lockdown, leading to patchy results instead of delegating to state governments to prepare in time for safe and secure repatriation, shutdown and quarantine. Crowds of migrant workers were left to fend for themselves in finding transport, taking long periods to catch rides home, sometimes days at a time. 

A line outside a medical shop in India, May 13, 2020 – ChocolateLr18 via Wikimedia Commons

    As the pandemic raged on, India began to establish itself as one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines worldwide. The “Vaccine Maitri” program, which helped supply affordable vaccines to lower-income regions elsewhere in the world, has helped supply over 60 million vaccines for exportation. But the government was not seen taking any major steps to scale up production for the two available vaccines they purchased, as they were not enough to inoculate even a fifth of their population.  

     Foreign vaccines were allowed to be imported by the government, but none of these vaccine makers could apply for emergency use licenses, leading the country into a nationwide shortage. Patients who register for appointments (if they’re lucky) may receive cancellations due to the shortage faced. 

        Yet amongst all the cries and the shortages, the antics of Modi and his own party continue. Mahabharata references aside, the BJP has been criticized rightfully for exacerbating religious tensions in some way or another. In Bangalore, a BJP member of Parliament made headlines for insinuating that Muslims recruited by civil services were accepting bribes in exchange for hospital beds. 

     Meanwhile, the government fell silent at the continuation of mass Hindu celebrations including the Kumbh Mela, a major pilgrimage festival that has been recently been marked as a “super-spreader” event, contributing to the already high case figures in the country. 

There’s an old Turkish proverb that goes, “the forest was shrinking, but the trees kept voting for the axe, as its handle was made of wood and they thought it was one of them.” 

    Combined with continuing mass rallies, attacking political opponents, and cracking down on social media, the BJP has found itself in the same corrupt position of Indian governments past, even paying the price by losing out in legislative assembly elections in the state of West Bengal despite making good gains. 

    There’s an old Turkish proverb that goes, “the forest was shrinking, but the trees kept voting for the axe, as its handle was made of wood and they thought it was one of them.” 

     If there is anything that has happened during this pandemic where this old saying applies, look no further. For in India, the axe seems to get a thrill from its swings while the trees must bear the pain that is felt from it.

Author: Nachikethan Srinivasan '21

Nachikethan Srinivasan ‘21 is the current Arts Editor for the Index and a student in the Journalism seminar. He is a believer in the importance of the press and its ability to not just inform, but to enlighten others about topics unknown to others. Srinivasan also serves on the editing staff for the school literary magazine, Pegasus. Outside of writing, he is the current Vice-Chair of the Diversity Alliance, Co-Head of the Pan-Asian Alliance, and member of the Notables.