The India Cable: India Flattens Vaccination Curve; Egypt Gets Rafales Dirt Cheap

Plus: Jaishankar quarantined, TRIPS waiver may not help, BJP faithful question Modi, Goa tops infection charts, 230 million pushed into poverty, and is it Srinivas's India or Tejasvi Surya's

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
May 6, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Public Health England got the Indian contingent led by Foreign Minister S Jaishankar to isolate after two of his delegates visiting for bilateral meetings tested positive. India’s attempts to use the event as a forum for publicity on handling the virus suffered a setback, and there were concerns why a physical trip was undertaken at all, in the circumstances. India is currently on the UK’s ‘red list’, meaning that travel from here is banned. But representatives of a foreign country are exempt.

Goa has the highest rate of Covid-19 infections in the country, with up to one in every two people testing positive in recent weeks. In the past 24 hours, India’s Health Ministry reported 412,262 new infections and 3,980 deaths. Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, an influential leader from western UP, former Union minister and son of stalwart and former PM Charan Singh, died this morning of Covid-19

Thirteen patients died at Chengalpattu Government Hospital in Tamil Nadu after the oxygen supply was apparently disrupted. A video from the locked ICU, with dead bodies within and the staff in hiding, is shocking. Six Covid patients died on Friday night at Kriti Hospital in Gurgaon, reportedly due to an oxygen shortage. In Lucknow, the UP police has filed a criminal case against a hospital that announced it had no oxygen. The charge: spreading rumours.

During a hearing in the Supreme Court on the contempt notice against the Centre over its inability to supply oxygen, a bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah yesterday suggested that Delhi should emulate the model adopted by the Bombay Municipal Corporation. After weeks in crisis, neither the Centre nor Delhi state have a helpline or triaging protocol. Social media and networks are a poor substitute, but private attempts are being made now to record oxygen deaths. Disappointingly, the Delhi High Court’s contempt notice is now meaningless, though the Centre had completely ignored its orders. 

The Allahabad High Court has exposed the UP state government’s claims about the reliability of its Covid information system by demonstrating a mismatch between the helpline and portal on the availability of hospital beds. It did so by asking an advocate, Anuj Singh, to call up the Covid helpline number during a virtual hearing on Tuesday.

Last night, the Delhi Government centralised oxygen refilling, but bookings are entirely online and a Covid-positive certificate is required. Testing is reduced, so this can be a lethal hurdle. and anyway what if you don’t have Covid, but need oxygen?

‘Wanted: A Commission of Inquiry into the Government’s Disastrous Handling of Covid Crisis’. As evidence mounts that the situation was preventable, The Wire articulates a widely-felt need.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has requested the central government to provide at least 1,000 tonnes of imported Liquid Medical Oxygen, 50 lakh doses of Covishield and 25 lakh doses of Covaxin to the state. The state has used the extra volume of vaccine in each vial to compensate for wastage, to administer 74 lakh shots with 73 lakh vaccine doses. The entire state is to be in lockdown May 8-16.

Punjab finance minister Manpreet Badal demands immediate convening of a GST Council meeting. He said the GST revenues constitute nearly 50% of the tax revenues of states. The Assam BJP has dissolved all its minority ‘morchas’, saying, “Muslims did not vote for us.”

Obstinacy about holding religious gatherings continues to threaten public health. Thousands thronged a religious festival in Sanand without masks and social distancing in the midst of the Gujarat government’s mini-lockdown till May 12. More than 100 Church of South India priests were reportedly infected with Covid-19 after they attended the annual retreat at Munnar last month. Two have died and five are seriously ill. Guest teachers in Karnataka are forced into daily wage work as Covid-19 ends teaching careers. Normally, their contracts are renewed every academic year. 

While India struggles to provide a single dose of vaccine to all, everyone aged over 50 in Britain will be offered a third jab in the autumn in an attempt to eradicate the threat of infection entirely by Christmas. And the US Trade Representative has announced a change of heart in the Biden-Harris administration, which had formerly held out at the WTO against suspending patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines. Once the licensing paperwork is agreed upon, the availability of vaccines should increase. 

A small-scale study of 113 healthcare workers who had received at least one vaccine dose at a private hospital in Delhi found that 18 tested positive for Covid but all except one had mild symptoms. Of the 113 in the study, 107 had received the second dose as well.

Vaccination rates are at their lowest

The Economic Times leads with the vaccine policy tweak resulting in a fall in the daily rate of vaccination, which can spell disaster in the middle of a surge. Hindustan Times calculates that on May 4, the 14-day average of daily doses, 1.81 lakh, is the lowest since the drive was expanded to include people 45 and up on April 1.

Source: Twitter/@GargiRawat

So even as the TRIPS waiver on the Covid-19 vaccines is now supported by the US, brightening chances of it going through WTO, its immediate impact on India’s prospects might be negligible. India needs to immediately invoke compulsory licensing, allowing many more companies, public and private, to produce vaccines, and quickly make the ICMR-Bharat Biotech vaccine patent-free.

Is this Srinivas’s India, or Surya’s?

Critics of the Congress are confounded by the stellar support to Covid victims offered by Youth Congress head BV Srinivas and his team. His counterpart in the BJP has made his presence felt in his own unique way ― Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha president Tejasvi Surya asked why 16 Muslims were employed in Bengaluru’s Covid control apparatus, which has a strength of 205. Scenes reminiscent of Nazi profiling and segregation of those found to be unfit to be counted as equal citizens marked a new low, even by BJP’s standards. In a video, Surya rattles off the names of 16 Muslims to a BBMP South Zone official, asking on what basis they were hired. Surya’s uncle and MLA Ravi Subramanya thundered, “Is this a madrassa?” The official explained that people who applied were recruited. But he faced accusations of a bed scam, and then hate WhatsApp forwards circulated. The people whom Surya targeted have lost their jobs, with no enquiry or investigation. The incident provides an opportunity to ask what kind of India we want to live in, one peopled by the likes of Srinivas, who is also from Karnataka, or the likes of Surya?

Boffins failed to anticipate second wave but say third wave certain

Having failed to predict and plan for the disastrous second Covid wave underway, India’s official scientific establishment now says it foresees a third wave. Principal Scientific Advisor K VijayRaghavan said that a “third wave” of the pandemic is “inevitable”, although a time-frame for it could not be predicted. Hit by unrelenting criticism for sleeping on the job until the second wave turned into a tsunami, VijayRaghavan mysteriously said the second wave was not predicted, but the third is, “given the higher levels of circulating virus”. “So, the second wave was not anticipated but a third wave is inevitable? This mortgaging of scientific judgement to political considerations should be a matter of lasting shame,” says historian Srinath Raghavan.

230 million Indians pushed below minimum wage in 2020

Covid-19 and the Centre’s bungling in 2020 pushed 230 million Indians below the national minimum wage threshold of Rs 375 per day, as recommended by the Anoop Satpathy committee, as per a survey report by Azim Premji University. This corresponds to an increase in the income poverty rate by 15% in rural areas and nearly 20% in urban areas. The survey said that over an eight-month period (March-October 2020), an average household in the bottom 10% of the income group lost Rs 15,700, or just over two months of income.

BJP workers, voters question Modi

BJP workers and supporters are questioning the party and PM Narendra Modi about their handling of the pandemic. Mint reports that the “frustration resonates with a growing number of workers, voters and followers of the BJP, cutting a wide swathe through the party’s support base. They include rural and urban residents, truck drivers and businessmen, first-time voters and lifelong supporters. Many of them have publicly blamed the party and the prime minister over the past few weeks as Covid-19 threatens them and their families… Diehard supporters [are] questioning decisions to hold election rallies, export vaccines and invite millions to gather at Kumbh Mela well into India’s second wave.”

The Long Cable

Arrogance, apathy, moral atrophy: Jaishankar and Modi’s aid distribution debacle

Sushant Singh

Only last week, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar was exhorting all his diplomats to counter the “one-sided narrative” in the international media. Perhaps they didn’t try hard enough, for the headlines have only become harsher, blunter and tougher in the global press, and they – unlike legacy media in India – have no qualms about holding Modi responsible for a preventable disaster. 

Jaishankar is now in London for a preparatory meeting of the G7 foreign ministers (India is not a member of the seven richest countries, but among those invited to the London meeting, with– Brunei, South Africa, Australia and South Africa), from where he spoke to ANI and surprisingly, struggled to tell a coherent and convincing story to a government mouthpiece. Elsewhere, he sought to pin the blame on earlier governments.

News that the entire Indian delegation, led by Jaishankar, had been “asked to self-isolate by Public Health England” followed. It is believed that two members of the delegation had tested positive in daily testing, and the minister could also have contracted the virus. With foreign ministers of the world’s most powerful countries involved, this was global news. And not of the type that would bolster the narrative and image Jaishankar wanted to set out globally for his master, Narendra Modi. “It is a law of optics that image cannot be better than reality. Best concentrate on dealing with the crisis. The world has a stake in our success. Image will follow deeds and success,” said former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, quoting former foreign secretary AP Venkateswaran.

The reality is bad on many counts. The author Tony Joseph put it rather succinctly:

“How many years have we slipped?

1. 17 years, when we last took foreign aid
2. 74 years, when we had similar mass casualties
3. 77 years, when deaths of this scale happened due to scarcity (of food, rather than oxygen, medicine...)
4. 103 years, when we were laid low by Spanish Flu.”

If that seems historically remote, the current reality is that India is unable to handle the aid that it is getting from overseas. CNN headlines it thus: “The world sent India millions in Covid aid. Why is it not reaching those who need it most?” An embattled Jaishankar wants to label ‘aid’ as ‘friendship’ – in tune with his party colleague Adityanath, chief minister of UP, who has a penchant for renaming stuff

The government did not move to distribute aid material till a Scroll investigation found that not an ounce of the 300 tonnes of relief material had moved from Delhi airport even after five days. Then the Centre claimed it had promptly distributed all the supplies, but Scroll again found that it was only on the evening of May 3 (the day the first investigation was published, after questions were sent to the government) that NITI Aayog, a government think tank, held a meeting with state officials. The government issued a statement naming states which were informed of their allocation, but actually, they had not been informed. The aid distributed had only gone to central institutions. Besides, it was soon public that all those institutions had not actually received the aid. States are angry and seek aid directly from donors.

It also took the government seven days to create an SOP to distribute supplies to states, the Health Ministry said in its press release on Tuesday. In those seven days, more than 23,000 Indians died of Covid-19, as per deeply under-reported official figures. Some of those lives could have been saved but for gross mismanagement and apathy, compounded by the lack of political leadership which seems to characterise the Modi government. 

The solicitor general had said that the prime minister was personally monitoring the supply of oxygen, but after over a week, states continue to be short of their allocated quota and patients are still dying. Courts threaten the government with contempt proceedings and give it tongue-lashings every day. Now, Modi’s choreographed images from meetings on oxygen supplies are no longer being circulated. He may be preoccupied with the construction of a new residence for himself, an “essential service” which should, by his logic, take priority over ensuring oxygen for dying citizens.

As for Jaishankar, after his social media bluster, media reports confirmed that foreign diplomats in New Delhi were suffering because his ministry gave them no support. Though it lacks the moral courage to own up officially,‘sources’ in his ministry have now conceded: “It’s a little difficult situation, we don’t have easy answers.” The arrogance, apathy and moral atrophy on display epitomises everything that is wrong with this government, its prime minister and his chosen ministers.

Airport tariffs burn airlines and passengers

In 2017, the Modi government changed how airport tariffs are calculated in India in order to attract private investment. An analysis of tariff orders since then shows that passengers and airlines are paying a steep price.

Prime Number: €3.75 billion
That's the value of the contract signed by Egypt with France for buying 30 Rafale fighter jets. In contrast, India had bought 36 Rafale in a contract worth 7.87 billion Euro, which was signed in 2016 and that the opposition says was overpriced. The Indian deal included 'India specific enhancements' but one has to assume they cost roughly as much as the planes did for the Rafale's price to be comparable to Egypt's. 

Deep Dive

In June 2020, days after the murder of George Floyd in the US, a distinct group of activists emerged in the Black Lives Matter movement ― Malayalees for Black Lives Matter (MBLM). But in 2021, MBLM rebranded itself to Malayalees for Social Justice, since the cause they were fighting for is much larger than the Floyd case – it is about racial discrimination but also about casteism in their homeland of Kerala, and how casteism informs anti-Blackness. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • India’s reputation as the “pharmacy of the developing world” is taking a beating thanks to its vaccine heist and rickety regulatory capacity, writes Dinesh Thakur in STAT.

  • The Bengal experience has demonstrated that the BJP is not invincible, that all Indians are not attracted to the idea of a majoritarian Hindu state and that Modi and Shah are not the master election strategists they are made out to be, writes Mahua Moitra in The New York Times.

  • Amid the calamitous second Covid wave, the ruling BJP tried and failed to win the coveted West Bengal elections. It shows that Modi is not invincible, writes Amit Chaudhuri in The Guardian.

  • Unlike unforeseeable incidents, the second wave has been with us for weeks, imprinting burning pyres on emotional memory. What will this do to emotional memory, asks Biju Dominic, and can it ever be back to business as usual?

Listen Up

This podcast features Brenda Beck’s lifelong work on the Tamil folk epic Ponnivala. In addition to her forthcoming new English translation of the epic (Land of the Golden River), this interview discusses the significance of folk traditions in understanding Indian religions, along with the power of narrative to encapsulate religious themes.

Watch Out

India’s “invisible and unwanted” will suffer most from Covid ― the sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor speaks to Channel 4.

Over and Out

A segment of Indian influencers want you to “choose happiness” and “be positive” in the midst of a humanitarian crisis brought on by human error. Here’s why it’s problematic.

Mountaineers and authorities at Everest base camp in Nepal have told the BBC they are seeing rising numbers of climbers with Covid-19 symptoms, and a rising incidence of positive tests, raising fears of a serious outbreak at the mountain.

And a newspaper memorialises its artist lost to Covid-19 with an empty canvas.

That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.