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Opinion: India's government needs to take action on COVID

April 28, 2021

India's death toll has surpassed 200,000, according to official figures. Amidst underreporting and mismanagement the real numbers are much higher — and the Modi government needs to act now, says DW's Isha Bhatia Sanan.

A woman holding her head in her hands
India is mourning more than 200,000 COVID victimsImage: Ajit Solanki/AP Photo/picture alliance

The images coming from India over the past few days are gut wrenching – and I do not just mean metaphorically. Trails of pyres for as far as the eye can see, scores of people dying outside hospitals, family members desperately searching for oxygen cylinders for their loved ones. India looks like a war zone where people are losing their lives to the enemy. Things would have been different had the enemy's potential not been underestimated.

Just a couple of months back India had started to get back to normal. People were convinced that the deadly coronavirus had left the country. While some claimed Indians had great immunity, others mocked Western countries for not being able to contain something as small as a virus.

A woman receiving oxygen
India has been hit by an oxygen shortage for COVID patientsImage: AMIT DAVE/REUTERS

It was the end of the first wave. It was the time to take a deep breath. And it was also the time to get geared up for the second one. It was the time to take lessons from countries that were already dealing with the next wave of infections. Instead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw this as an opportunity to start his election campaign.  

Politics over everything else

While other countries were cancelling major events such as the Tokyo Olympics, India was getting ready for the country's biggest religious gathering, the Maha Kumbh, and for state elections. Like in any other election Modi's Hindu nationalistic party BJP did not want to leave any stone unturned this time as well. BJP made sure that it organized rallies bigger than any of the regional parties.

In fact, in one of his rallies in the state of West Bengal, Modi expressed gratitude by saying that he had "never before seen such huge crowds in a rally." These huge crowds should have been a matter of concern. And experts raised the alarm as well.

But India's Home Minister Amit Shah was quick to respond that there was no correlation between the rising number of coronavirus infections and the election campaign since "cases surged in states where there were no elections."

Isha Bhatia Sanan
Isha Bhatia Sanan works for DW's Hindi service

Denying the reality

It is not just the home minister who is in denial of reality. Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh, has recently claimed that there is no shortage of oxygen and that action will be taken against hospitals spreading such rumors. This claim comes at a time when hospitals are turning people away because of lack of oxygen.

COVID crisis: Desperation in Delhi

In Yogi's state, crematorium workers complain that space has run out as they are receiving at least 10 times more dead bodies than normal. In most cases, the sick died before reaching the hospital, and thus the cause of death was unknown. 

According to official figures, the virus has claimed more than 200,00 lives so far in India. But the mishandling and underreporting of cases clearly shows that the original numbers are much higher than this.

Waiting for the 'messiah'

India's middle class sees Narendra Modi as a messiah. Someone who is destined to take away their miseries. It is with this hope that the people of India voted for him in huge numbers not once but twice. The slogan "Modi hai to mumkin hai" ("If Modi is there, anything is possible") still resonates with the Indian middle class.

And so, last year, when Modi asked people to light diyas and beat thalis, the enthusiasm was unprecedented. People were convinced that Modi knew how to keep them safe. He asked them to come out in their balconies and clap for nine minutes and they followed. He asked them to hold a lit candle and they followed. He asked them to come to election rallies and they followed.

Censorship is not the way out

In democracies, governments are expected to take responsibility when actions go wrong. But the Modi government is setting a different precedent by censoring criticism on social media platforms. Twitter has pulled down dozens of posts that showed the mismanagement of the situation. Facebook and Instagram are expected to follow.

In times when people are losing their faith in the government, social media often remains their only hope. WhatsApp groups, Google docs, Facebook pages and Twitter fleets are being used to organize help. But even if this is taken away from them in the name of saving the country's "sovereignty and integrity" what other option would they be left with?

It is about time the Indian government came out of denial and took responsibility for the chaos. For the people of the country, every passing day is making it clearer that their Messiah has failed them.

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