India: the tragic cost of the pandemic

3 min
A worker in the Indian city of Calcutta, one of the places most affected by the strong wave of coronavirus in the country.

The recent drama experienced by the Indian population in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic has been widely covered by the international media. This has contributed to the mobilization of public opinion and to humanitarian intervention actions. The images of people dying at the doors of hospitals for lack of beds, medicine and oxygen is terrifying and a reminder of humanitarian catastrophes like Biafra and Darfur. During the past weeks, those of us who spend time in India and with Indians, have been witnessing heartbreaking images of a suffering people. We could hear continuously ambulance sirens carrying bodies. There were also images of crematoria, deliriously full and working from sunrise to sunset. One could smell the stench of charred bodies and hear the lamentations of grieving families. The shortage of oxygen and the disorganization of hospitals and ambulances are particularly visible and have taken tragic proportions for this miserable population which counts its deaths every minute of the day. As such, one can say that happy India has suddenly turned into an image of Judgement Day.

On April 27 India’s recorded Covid-19 death tally for one month crossed the number of 200,000. On the whole, the present situation of Covid-19 patients is much more catastrophic that what has been experienced in the past fifteen months in other parts of the world. We have not had a single country since this epidemic began in February 2020 that has experienced such a rapid acceleration of infection. Moved and speechless, the world public opinion starts to wonder about the causes of such a sudden tragedy in India.

Image of the mass crematoria for covid-19 victims in New Delhi.

Surprisingly, this new wave of coronavirus crisis in India is no more uniquely a plague of the poor. The Indian middle class and even the intellectual and political elites are also deeply ravaged by it. Last week, former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, one of India's finest legal minds, died of Covid-19. Several professors of famous universities have also passed away due to the complications of their sickness. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being blamed for mismanagement of this sudden new wave of the pandemic and he was forced to acknowledge on April 25 that the epidemic is a "storm that shakes the nation". He has also been accused of focusing only on the elections in several states, but especially in West Bengal, where his party, BJP, had to face one of its main political rivals.  Consequently, Modi's ruling party lost the key election in West Bengal, but managed to retain power in northeastern Assam state despite India's Covid crisis. According to many political analysts in India, the other main factor of the recent contamination has been the great festival of Kumbh Mela, at the source of the Ganges, which brought together millions of pilgrims and which should have been kept at the date it was supposed to take place, in 2022.

Whether in terms of political populism or socio-economic inequality, India continues to be an extremely vulnerable country to an epidemic of this kind. The population density in the country, the promiscuity in which poor families live, the hygiene problems, and finally the existence of a particularly large number of high risk populations, translates by a massive influx of patients that the public health services do not have the means or the energy to treat. Last but not least, the human toll of the epidemic is likely to be very heavy. If it is too early to say how big the crisis will be in India, which is only just beginning, there is little doubt that this country will be one of the most affected in the world. India's vaccination campaign, the largest in the world, began on January 2021 and aims to cover 250 million people by July. So far, about 150 million vaccines have been administered, representing 11.5% of the population, and just 25 million Indians have received their two doses. Sooner or later, Indian population will be vaccinated against Covid-19, but for the time being one should think of those Indian lives that can be saved through international solidarity..

Ramin Jahanbegloo is director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace at Jindal Global University