The India Cable: When a Wannabe Vishwaguru Fumbles on Vaccines, the World Loses the Game

Plus: 11 states go hungry, positive PM seeks more positive cases, Centre abandons Disha Ravi case defence, Ahmedabad company seeks vaccine approval with opaque trial data, Tauktae rescue ops update

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
May 19, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

While new infections appeared to be declining, India has reported a record 4,529 coronavirus deaths in a single day, the highest ever in the world. Hopefully, this is because fatality data lags infections by a few weeks. In West Bengal, former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his wife have contracted Covid-19

The situation in UP remains grim and there are no plans to try and redeem it. The BBC finds that “feral dogs and crows (are) feasting” upon the dead, hastily buried on the banks of the Ganga. UP’s panchayat elections proved to be a death warrant for so many – 1621 at last count – but senior journalists say the newly elected pradhans in 96,000 villages are sitting at home and have not been given charge, 17 days after the results, as Covid-19 ravages the countryside. 

In a May 7 advisory, the Modi government told social media companies to curb misinformation and fake news, and content “that may affect public order and [be] unlawful in any way”. The advisory, published in full by MediaNama, tells social media companies to warn users to not spread misinformation, and to “issue warning to imposters who misuse your platform and indulge in such fraudulent activities.” 

There is no punishment for those in authority who misuse their position to tout questionable data or, worse, remedies like bovine excreta. The country’s numbers remain unreliable due to low levels of testing and a low proportion of RT-PCR tests. An example: in the village of Sultanpur Kheda in UP, 18 people have died in the past three weeks. But without COVID testing, the cause of death is often listed as ‘unknown’

Covid-19 has not spared even a single Indian family and still, the central government’s officers are living in “ivory towers”, oblivious to ground realities, observed the Delhi High Court, which was of the view that manufacturing of the Sputnik V vaccine in India would alleviate the shortage of vaccines. The bench said the collaboration of Panacea Biotec with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) for manufacturing Sputnik V should be seen as an opportunity to ensure its usage here. In such matters, instructions should flow from the highest authorities within 30 minutes. Panacea is in court to resolve a matter of outstanding dues  – money it says it needs to be able to ramp up production of the vaccine quickly.

Territorial battles about who owns the public health disaster continue. Singapore’s health ministry has dismissed Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal’s remarks about the new Coronavirus strain from Singapore. It says the strain prevalent in many Covid-19 cases in Singapore is the “B.1.617.2 variant, which originated in India”. Losing no opportunity to go after the Delhi CM, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said Kejriwal “does not speak for India”.

Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia questioned the live transmission of PM Modi's interaction with district magistrates (DMs)  and officials on COVID-19 and wondered about the protocol for such telecasts. The Prime Minister had been upset when Kejriwal broadcast his questions during a meeting with the PM last month. Sisodia wants to know which meetings can be telecast live. Given that DMs in India’s federal system report to their respective chief ministers, questions might also be raised about the protocols for PM’s meeting in the first place.

As Punjab ‘gasps for oxygen’, its repeated requests for permission to accept Pakistan’s offer to send supplies across the border have been turned down by the Centre. China has jumped in to help Nepal tide over its horrific surge, after India failed to meet its commitment to supply vaccines. Global Times reports, “China provides 2,000 oxygen cylinders to Nepal among other medical supplies.” As India’s Covid-19 surge has swept into Nepal, hospitals are reporting an overwhelming number of severe cases and the familiar shortages of beds, oxygen and ventilators. Higher vaccination rates go hand in hand with lower oxygen demand, data for most states shows. Health officials say vaccines are reducing the number of severe Covid-19 cases requiring medical oxygen. But critical shortages have slowed the vaccination drive, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

“I’m completely satisfied; the party made me a minister once. I tried to fulfill my duties as responsibly as I could. Now, when new ministers swear in, we are hopeful that they will do their responsibilities in a much better way,” KK Shailaja reacted with her usual calm composure amid the outrage against CPI(M) for not giving her a ministerial post in Pinarayai Vijayan’s new cabinet. The CPI(M) decision that Shailaja will not be in the cabinet has come as a shock for many, including party sympathisers. Shailaja, Kerala’s former Health Minister, shot to global fame with her efficient work during the Nipah outbreak and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

The unemployment rate in the country has more than doubled in the March to May period this year as the pandemic’s second wave flattened the economy, as per CMIE data. Tata Motors posted a $1 billion loss despite strong performance in the first quarter of 2021. Restructuring costs related to its British luxury brand Jaguar Land Rover hit the automaker’s bottom line.

And in a significant departure from newspaper tradition, the Kolkata Telegraph has given over half its front page to a Gujarati poet to explore what urged Parul Khakhar, who is not anti-establishment, to pen the viral elegy ‘Shav-Vahini Ganga’. The poem has gone global. A German translation, ‘Ganges Leichenbahre’, will appear in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung shortly.


Positive is negative, and vice versa

Hold your breath. The government has claimed that its containment efforts against the coronavirus have been successful because it has been able “to contain the spread to under 2% of the population”.  This “positive” message was reiterated by the Union health minister, who is otherwise busy trolling his political opponents. Meanwhile, PM Narendra Modi told district magistrates that “the number of positive cases should increase rapidly”. An understandable slip of the tongue, when you are all determined to not use the word ‘negative’. Journalists who are reporting on the pandemic say, “What positivity do we seek in people’s suffering?” They haven’t seen this cartoon, perhaps. 

More galling is the lack of sympathy or a word of condolence from the government, though lakhs have lost their loved ones to its mismanagement. A straight question in yesterday’s press briefing about accepting mistakes in government policies that led to this disaster, and calls for an expression of sympathy for those suffering, got the usual evasive and dishonest answer, starting with the familiar whataboutery: “What about other countries?” The answer is that they have been far more human. 


Modi’s ministers tweet, but not to help

Dainik Bhaskar has analysed 1,110 tweets of 10 top cabinet ministers of the Modi government in the period May 1-14. None of these ministers had issued a single tweet to help those suffering from the pandemic, while Piyush Goyal and Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ did tweet a lot in praise of Modi. Out of 51 tweets by Amit Shah, only one was about preparations for the pandemic, while 10 were condolence messages. Other ministers did only slightly less worse. 


With opaque trial data, Ahmedabad company seeks vaccine approval

In days, Ahmedabad-based Zydus Cadila will apply for emergency use authorisation of its Covid vaccine candidate, still under Phase 3 efficacy trials, and it could become the fourth vaccine available against coronavirus in India. If regulatory approvals come through, ZyCoV-D would be the first DNA vaccine to be licensed for use in humans.

The company has not released results from its phase 1 and 2 trials showing safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine, though it was submitted to the drug regulator before the last stage trials were started last month.  The vaccine, which is to be administered intradermally and in three doses, is being tested in over 28,000 volunteers, aged 12-99.


Pharma companies’ supply chain broken

India’s medicine manufacturers are in a logistical ‘mess’ as the coronavirus crisis has disrupted the pharmaceutical supply chain, affecting production, imports and exports. The world’s largest provider of generic drugs ― accounting for 40% of US generic drug imports ― is seeing its pharmaceutical companies stagger shifts as factory workers fall ill and supplies from China are delayed. Nearly a third of Indian factories that make active pharmaceutical ingredients are located in areas that were recently locked down. As of July, India was importing 68% of its APIs and reaction intermediates from China. Some imports which used to arrive in about six weeks now take six months.  


The Long Cable

COVAX fiasco: When a wannabe Vishwaguru drops the ball

Seema Chishti 

For those still not inoculated against shock, the Serum Institute of India’s latest statement would have dealt a nasty blow. SII said in a press statement that it will resume supplies to the COVAX scheme by the end of the year. All developing countries depend on COVAX, a WHO-backed global vaccine programme that aims to provide 2 billion doses to them this year, and which relies heavily on India’s production capacity for the vaccines. Meanwhile, the COVAX vaccine shortfall due to Serum Institute’s inability to meet commitments will be 140 million doses by the end of May and 190 million doses by the end of June

Under initial supply forecasts published in February, SII was to produce 240 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine for Covax by July, but only a fraction of these have been shipped. Gavi, the vaccine alliance, said in response to SII’s statement, “We remain in regular and close contact with both the government and SII and remain hopeful that deliveries could resume, in reduced quantity, in the third quarter.”

For India, which was the “world’s pharmacy” scant months ago, the mismanagement of the pandemic and mishandling of the vaccine situation have grave implications for its stature as a dependable supplier of medicines to the world. 

Strive Masiyiwa, the African Union’s special envoy on vaccines, said that he was “beyond anger” with the Indian manufacturer. “We met Serum three, four times. At the end I said: ‘I don’t think we should do business with these guys. They’re not reliable.’ We cut off negotiations after that.” He said he warned Covax in January “not to put all its eggs in one basket” and that it should spread the risk. “They said no, we know Serum Institute and they’re reliable.”

If the developing countries suffer from a major wave of Covid-19, the blame will lie squarely with the Modi government. In January, Modi proclaimed that India was ready to “save humanity” with its vaccines after containing its coronavirus pandemic and began exports to burnish his diplomatic credentials. The case of neighbouring Nepal is among the worst. In February, its cabinet made an exception to existing laws to permit making an advance of 80% of Serum’s asking price, and now India is not able to supply them.

And what about the patent waivers that India is fighting for? Even with US support, the patent waivers will mean little without technology transfer. And even if big multinational pharmaceutical companies agree to transfer technology, Indian manufacturers will need to redesign their supply chains, retrain their workforce and strengthen quality control. This will take many months, and we are still nowhere near getting the patent waivers approved at WTO.

The so-called ‘Vaccine Maitri’ programme, which the Minister for External Affairs made much of when Parliament was in session, was, within weeks, turned on its head and declared to be ‘contractual commitments’ in the face of relentless criticism of India’s policy of pushing for vaccine maitri as part of the plan to play Vishwaguru, and thereby imperilling the lives of its own 1.4 billion people. 

Because the government had ordered vaccine doses for just 4% of its own people (according to Bloomberg) or at most 15-18% (based on the official claim of 35.6 crore doses out of a total requirement of 190 crore for all Indians above the age of 18), its domestic vaccination programme has sputtered to a halt. It is up for review in the Supreme Court, which has found the government to be in contravention of at least two fundamental rights, to life (Article 21 of the Constitution) and to equality (Article 14). Typically, the Centre has decided to not acknowledge that a problem exists. 

But setting perceptions aside, the truth is that despite India having exported over 64 million doses last year at great cost to its own citizens, the world is not toasting the Indian PM for global leadership in jabs. Instead, there is deep anxiety worldwide not only about India’s inability to meet its international commitments, but also about its actions accelerating the second wave, which could set back global efforts to resume normal life.

When India drops the ball, it can cost the world its game. In a dark way, that’s somewhat Vishwaguru-like.


Reportedly

On Independence Day, PM Narendra Modi announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort that vaccine production in the country was in full swing and the shot would reach all Indians in the shortest time. He claimed that he had all plans in order, and all systems were go. The reality is that India was at the peak of its vaccination drive on April 12, when daily vaccinations stood at 36 lakh. Yesterday, the seven-day average of vaccinations was 16.8 lakhs, the lowest figure since March 17. And China, which has an even bigger population than India, vaccinated more than 150 lakh yesterday. In any case, the Modi government has placed firm orders for vaccines to cover only 4% of the population, by one media account, or at best 15-18%, when other countries have ordered enough to cover their population several times over. The results of policy paralysis and planning failure are painfully visible.


Mosque demolished despite High Court stay

The local administration in Uttar Pradesh has defied a state High Court order and bulldozed a mosque, The Guardian reports, in one of the most inflammatory actions taken against a Muslim place of worship since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The mosque, in the town of Ram Sanehi Ghat in Barabanki district, had stood since the time of British rule, according to documents held by its committee. On Monday, police and security services moved into the area and cleared it of people, then brought in bulldozers and demolished the mosque buildings. The debris was then thrown into a river, , and security deployed to keep people away from the spot where the mosque stood.


Prime Number: 37
The number of doctors in Uttar Pradesh hospitals who have died in the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Indian Medical Association. Another 54 doctors had died in UP in the first wave.

Centre misses last and final opportunity in Disha Ravi case

The central government was rapped by the Delhi High Court for not filing its response to a plea by climate activist Disha Ravi for restraining the police from leaking to the media any probe material in relation to the FIR lodged against her in the ‘toolkit’ case, despite granting a last and final opportunity to it in March this year. “For the Union of India, is there no last and final opportunity? This is very bad. Then what is the meaning of the court saying ‘last opportunity’, I cannot understand that. What is the sanctity of (the court saying) last and final opportunity,” Justice Rekha Palli said. 


Deep Dive

Your fortnightly dose of all you need to know on the environment of India ― news, views and policy. As the ongoing pandemic has shown, ignoring weak social infrastructure, at a time when crises are becoming increasingly global and costly, is a dangerous strategy.


India is going hungry

A study on hunger conducted in October 2020 confirms public fears of widespread hunger across 11 states. Relief measures are urgently required, since the situation must be much worse since then. Of 3,994 households over 11 states chosen to cover weaker sections, 79% of respondents having a household income of less than Rs 7,000) reported falling income, only 6% reported their income unchanged, and 4% could not say. About 27% of households had no income at all from the lockdown to October 2020, while for another 24%, income had halved. Income declines of this severity are catastrophic.


Tauktae rescue operations continue

More than 660 people were rescued in five separate operations in the Arabian Sea, even as a search is on for 90 more men, who were on board a barge that sank near the Bombay High offshore oil rigs in the early hours of Tuesday. Those saved were on six vessels which had been adrift at sea since Monday. All were connected with oil-drilling work or new projects at Bombay High. Ships or barges of this size, when adrift at sea, pose a threat to other shipping, shore-based installations and oil rigs.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • A country of India’s complexity with myriad moving parts cannot dance to just one piper’s tune, no matter how alluring this may seem for some time. India’s problem today is too little democracy rather than too much of it, writes Shyam Saran.

  • As the curve of COVID-19 deaths continues to rise at escape velocity, we continue to deep dig deeper into our grief, writes Shah Alam Khan, a doctor at AIIMS.

  • James Borton writes in the South China Morning Postthat Western vaccine nationalism is opening the door for China to lead the global recovery. This has implications for India, which claims to be the world’s pharmacy.

  • Usama Khilji writes in Dawn: “Let the pandemic be a lesson on the need for South Asia to invest more in healthcare rather than bombs that cannot help us breathe.” Instead, it is time for Saarc — whose progress is obstructed by tense Pakistan-India ties — to be revitalised.

  • The chances are that the economy will experience no growth, if not negative growth in 2021-22, writes Arun Kumar. It would depend on whether the government can ramp up vaccination and health infrastructure by mobilising on a war footing.

  • While the pandemic with its uncertain nature is certainly responsible, the blame must equally lie with the government, at the state and central levels, for the failure to anticipate and prevent the thousands of deaths, writes Himanshu.

  • The pandemic should force a recalibration in Delhi’s foreign policy, writes Mohamed Zeeshan. India should now focus on building its national power and state capacity, and Indian foreign policy should look to make the world a partner in that effort rather than denying these challenges for the sake of empty posturing and one-upmanship.

  • Inequality leads to an uneven distribution of gains, of growth and limited upward mobility. The pandemic has exacerbated that unevenness dangerously, writes Maitreesh Ghatak.


Listen Up

The enduring persistence, resurgence and mutation of many epidemic diseases made apparent the problematic nature of the ‘epidemic disease narrative’ in the 21st century. Through the lens of the history of polio vaccination and treatment from a seemingly peripheral, Eastern European perspective, Dora Vargha and Jahnavi Phalke ask what, when, and for whom is the end of an epidemic ‘the end’, and what happens after.


Watch Out

In a hard-hitting episode of his show, Ravish Kumar takes stock of the culprits who weren’t jailed, despite people dying due to their callousness and for lack of oxygen, and those who were, for putting up posters asking for accountability from the government.


Over and Out

A letter to the editor in The Financial Times reminds us of the injustice of the Bengal famine of 1943, which kept food on Britons’ plates. Sean O’Connor of London writes: “I think it would serve us all well to remember that one of the reasons Britons didn’t starve was Churchill’s policy of continuing to forcibly transfer food supplies to the UK from Bengal, then a British empire dominion, in the teeth of a devastating famine when 2-3 million died of starvation. They starved so that ‘we’ didn’t have to.”

Girish Karnad’s memoir was to be translated from Kannada into English by the playwright and actor himself, but his death in 2019 interrupted the project. It will be out today, with a little help from award-winning translator Srinath Perur.

And yesterday, on the birthday of West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar, a man protested against his awful role in the tussle between the Centre and Mamata Banerjee at the gates of Raj Bhavan in Kolkata. To defeat Covid-19 restrictions, which apply only to humans, he deployed a flock of sheep. 


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.