The India Cable: World Media Savages ‘Vainglorious’ Modi; No Policy on Vaccine Sharing

Plus: Poonawalla waxes ‘philanthropic’, gets Y-category security, govt prepares ground to cede territory to China, Opposition slams Central Vista obsession, teacher drives 1,400 km to deliver oxygen

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
April 29, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

“India’s populist and vainglorious Prime Minister Narendra Modi should stop counting votes and count the bodies instead,” said the London Times earlier this week. The tone indicates that after the crisis of the pandemic is past, India will face a crisis of confidence. And the world’s faith in the integrity of India, and of its data, cannot be restored while the present regime remains at the helm. An editorial in Le Monde is withering about Modi’s “arrogance and demagogy”, and says that “the Indian drama illustrates the ravages of populism, where dream merchants thriving on inequalities can sell voters promises of salvation which are actually based on nationalism and ignorance.” 

When such transgressions happen in India, the government knows what to do about it. Facebook, with which it has had a cloyingly chummy relationship, temporarily censored all posts by angry citizens with the hashtag #ResignModi

Facebook later restored the posts, claiming that they were blocked by “mistake” and not at the behest of the government.  

Over 3,79,000 cases and 3,645 deaths were recorded in the last 24 hours. The central government denied that the CoWIN portal crashed yesterday, though Aarogya Setu and Umang went down too, as vaccination was opened up to the entire adult population. Over 1.2 crore registered, but many more could not as OTPs failed. Those who got in were denied appointments, because the Centre had only announced expansion of the vaccine programme, without expanding vaccine stocks. It’s a colossal exercise in the very bumbledom which is forcing India to live from crisis to crisis through the pandemic. In contrast, in the US, the Uber app will enable users to book Covid-19 vaccines along with rental cars. In Jordan, the health minister had resigned following the death of six patients due an oxygen outage. Last night, the US State Department advised all its citizens in India to leave immediately, since access to hospitals, oxygen and medicines is limited. In Fiji, an outbreak of the Indian variant has forced the capital into lockdown after the island nation had avoided infections for a year. Health officials fear a “tsunami” of cases. 

The Guardian reports that organisations like the Sant Shiv Sewa foundation, which has been assisting people with cremations in Delhi for free during the pandemic, said the number of bodies had gone from one every few days to 40 every day in recent weeks. It is now seeing families leaving bodies of coronavirus patients with them and simply disappearing, without attending the last rites of their loved ones. 

Excess deaths offer a simple way to assess the level of undercounting of the dead due to the pandemic. Around 28,000 Indians were dying per day before the pandemic, and the official figure of around 3,000 deaths per day due to Covid-19 would add 10% to the load on crematoriums and burial grounds. Now, look at all the reports of waiting time at crematoriums, new platforms, new crematoriums, the use of parking lots and public parks as crematoriums and even a crematorium for pet dogs being used for humans. Does it look like a 10% increase? That the authorities are themselves rapidly expanding cremation and burial facilities in several cities is revealing. The undercounting could be by a factor of 5-10, or even more.

A man carrying an oxygen concentrator for his sick father on an Indigo flight from Bangalore to New Delhi was preempted on landing by IPL team CSK, which picked it up from the carousel by mistake. The concentrator was retrieved after 36 hours. A teacher scoured the steel city of Bokaro for a filled oxygen cylinder and drove 1,400 km to the rescue of a friend in Noida, an IT worker who could not find oxygen. 

Adar Poonawalla reduced the price of the Covishield vaccine for states to Rs 300 in a “philanthropic” move, and got Y-category security across India. His company’s capacity expansion is being bankrolled by the taxpayer, to whom he will sell vaccines at a reasonable profit. This is business at scale, not philanthropy. The surge in India is disrupting the supply of vaccines to neighbouring Bangladesh, as local distributor Beximco warned that 23 of the 30 million doses it expected to receive from SII were held up.

Mexico is waiving a shipment of vaccines from India as “a way of expressing our solidarity” during the surge, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said. In February, India supplied Mexico with 870,000 doses of the AstraZeneca jab made in India and was due to deliver as many more, “but we told them we don’t need them, that we understand what they’re going through”, the president told his daily news conference.

WHO has redeployed over 2,000 staff to support India’s response on the ground and is helping authorities with efforts including vaccination. Among the supplies WHO has sent India are prefabricated mobile field hospitals and lab supplies.

Opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi and Sitaram Yechury have slammed the Modi government for classifying the construction work of its ambitious Central Vista redevelopment project as “essential services” during the ongoing lockdown in Delhi.

Stating that it is an “open secret” that the BJP government in UP had been complacent about Covid-19, the Allahabad High Court has ordered all deaths due to the disease to be reported to a judicial officer every day. It noted the “chaotic situation” in the state’s big cities, amid reports that UP is under-testing and failing to capture the true number of cases and deaths.

The Madras High Court has observed that an educational session with a psychologist is necessary for it to understand same-sex relationships before writing an order on two women who fled their homes in Madurai. “I honestly feel… it will pave the way for my evolution. Ultimately in this case, the words must come from my heart and not from my head, and the same will not be possible if I am not fully “woke” on this aspect,” Judge Anand Venkatesh said.

In a chilling and apt if unintended comment on Modi’s new India, a business daily leads with ‘What you need to know about preparing a will’ on its flap, before the front page. It’s the most important business news you can use now. The only good news: the Chardham Yatra has been cancelled.  


World media reports from Covid hell

The cover of TIME magazine is stark: ‘This is hell’.

Al Jazeera asks why oxygen is not available.Deutsche Welle is asking why the surge is so intense in India, and why the government recklessly allowed rallies and congregations to feed the spiralling death graph. BBC gets to the heart of the matter: “We’re getting nothing from the government, no support. They only come to us when they want a vote, now where are they?” The Japan Times writes: “World’s biggest Covid-19 crisis threatens Modi’s grip on India.” The Sydney Morning Herald reports that “Indians turn to black market as health system buckles under outbreak”. The Daily Telegraph says, “Cases have increased five-fold since the start of April, with no sign of levelling off.” El Pais has an evocative photo feature on the catastrophe in India. 

As the last flight from India landed at Fiumicino airport in Rome, Corriere Della Sera has ‎the‎‎ story of an Italian working in a paper mill here: “I am fine, now I will go into quarantine.” Many  passengers on the last flight work in the agricultural supply chain‎ in Italy. Al Ahram writes that India battles a raging new wave of the pandemic, while the US, UK and some European nations are taking tentative steps back towards normal life. China Daily writes: “Long lines form at hospitals, but supplies quickly run out. India is clamouring for oxygen, with the number of Covid-19 cases in the country rising to record levels.” Khaleej Times has a video report on the “terrifying phase”. The Los Angeles Times has a report sombrely titled, “Funeral pyres burn. Gravediggers know no rest. India’s Covid-19 crisis is a ‘nightmare’.” 


States’ vaccine prospects uncertain

The vaccination drive opens to people 18 and up on Saturday. Most state governments are concerned about getting supplies from the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. Nineteen states have sought 340 million doses from SII, but most of its production in May will go to meet the Centre’s 50% quota. This means that this quota at Rs 150 per dose is now non-negotiable, while supplies to states, at higher rates, remain negotiable. The Centre’s demand would come down by August, and no major supply expansion is expected from SII or BB in the interim. Small imports of Sputnik V may begin in May or June, which won’t make a difference.

As most states start placing orders with private companies, how will they distribute the vaccines? State governments say that no sharing formula is now used by the Centre to distribute vaccines to the states. When private vaccine firms have full discretion to allocate scarce vaccines to various states, inequalities could worsen. The Modi government must address the Supreme Court’s concern in an affidavit tomorrow: “How the supplies of vaccines will be allocated between various states if each state is to negotiate with vaccine producers and the steps taken and proposed for ensuring the procurement of other vaccines apart from Covishield and Covaxin and the time frame for implementation.” It also sought the “rationale and basis” for a differential pricing policy.

The government of Kerala has authorised the purchase of 1 crore jabs for three months ― 70 lakh doses of Covishield and 30 lakh of Covaxin. Maharashtra will provide free vaccinations to 5.71 crore people aged 18-44, over six months.


Chinese help, but Ladakh border problem persists

The Chinese ambassador to India has announced that more than 25,000 oxygen concentrators and other life-saving supplies from China will arrive soon in India. These will be dispatched via cargo planes as regular flights have been suspended by China. Meanwhile, former Ladakh Corps Commander Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma (retd) has taken strong objection to reports attributed to “sources” in a section of the Indian media stating that Depsang plains was a legacy issue, patrolled by Indians since 2013. This follows similar arguments in recent days by two former northern army commanders, Lt Gen DS Hooda and Lt Gen HS Panag. The latter contends that such stories are being given to Indian media to prepare the ground to concede Indian territory to China. Another former army officer has said that this hypothesis “puts each and every citizen in an excruciatingly difficult position of having to come to terms with this very real possibility of having conceded defeat without a fight, something that we did not do even in the darkest days of 1962.”


US dithers on surplus vaccine transfer to India

Will India get AstraZeneca vaccines from the US? The conversation between Biden and Modi notwithstanding, top Biden officials in the White House and National Security Council are opposing the US government’s plan to reduce its stock of Covid vaccine doses, especially AstraZeneca, to help India, Politico reports. They worry that the US is now too reliant on Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and urged the President to wait until the US authorises more manufacturers. AstraZeneca is not approved for use and is in storage. Officials supporting the transfer to India are concentrated in the US State Department, USAID, CDC, and Health and Human Services. 

The US government was willing to release up to 60 million AstraZeneca shots to other countries, including India, but that would also take weeks. As per US officials, India had not requested the transfer of vaccines. Details of the first consignment of US aid are still being worked out. It is expected to be a mix of equipment and supplies, partly sourced from US military bases all over the world, and will reach tomorrow. 


India and Russia to have 2+2 dialogue

Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke to PM Modi yesterday evening and extended his support. They discussed the Sputnik V vaccine, which has been approved for production in India. The first Russian consignment of supplies and materials is expected to arrive today and the vaccine will be delivered by the end of the month. The two nations will also establish a 2+2 ministerial dialogue between foreign and defence ministers, which India has conducted only with the US and Japan so far, and a process with Australia is proposed. 

Along with Russia, Bhutan, China, the US, UK, Canada, Germany, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, UAE and EU have extended their support to India. Britain has however clarified that it has no surplus of vaccines to give to India as it faces a wave of coronavirus that puts intense pressure on hospitals. It has given ventilators and oxygen concentrators. 


Reportedly

Facing public panic, the Centre, instead of trying to fix the cause, is focused on fixing its image, which has taken a sound beating. Social media platforms were asked to take down posts that asked questions. A coordinated effort followed on social media, raising ‘cultural’ issues and sensitivities to smother horrific pictures from crematoria. When even that failed to deter global media and a small section of Indian media, a letter by four ‘mental health professionals’ [the lead is an RSS member] claimed that it would ‘scar’ Indians psychologically and demoralise them. When a Mumbai film actor died last year, BJP leaders furiously shared graphic images and messages to whip up passions. But when millions of Indians are left atmanirbhar in this pandemic, it is all about deflecting attention from the facts. It’s not working, though.


Deep Dive

Between 1975 and 1977, India witnessed a national Emergency, when democracy was effectively suspended. Dissenting civil society leaders, marginalised communities, political opposition, the intelligentsia and the freedom of the press, were targeted. The Shah Commission, led by retired chief justice of India JC Shah, was convened by the successor Janta party government to inquire into the transgressions. Read the findings.


Prime Number: Tending to infinity
India’s vaccination booking networks failed as they were opened up to the entire adult population without prior planning. During the crash, the CoWin system apparently spat out OTPs at an epic rate ― passwords to nowhere. People have been left holding impressive OTP collections, which some are threatening to publish in book form. The system was embarrassed. After it recovered, it stopped issuing OTPs altogether. 

Shipbreaking stalled by O2 shortage

India’s ship demolition industry, among the world’s largest, is having to scale back the dismantling of obsolete vessels to help the nation cope with the Covid-19 surge. Oxyacetylene torches are being put away as it joins other industries in conserving oxygen for hospitals.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • “We are witnessing a crime against humanity,” writes Arundhati Roy in The Guardian and The Wire on India’s Covid catastrophe.

  • Showing images of cremations does not break a sacred taboo, writes Mrinal Pande. There is nothing guhya (hidden) or segregationist here, for society bears witness to every birth and death.

  • The people of India are entitled to a full and honest account of what led more than a billion people into a catastrophe, writes Vikram Patel.

  • After living down a host of decisions it took without regard for consequences, the Modi government may have finally met its Waterloo, writes Sumit Ganguly in the Washington Post. Despite efforts to squelch the bad press, everyone knows who is to blame for the fatal disaster unfolding today. 

  • The health disaster is a hybrid of a natural disaster compounded by complacency, misgovernance and power play, writes Ravi Velloor in The Straits Times.

  • Aspirational India is bearing the brunt of this wave after being fed myths that India had overcome the virus under Modi’s “dynamic” leadership, and their anger and frustration would be very high, writes Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

  • Radha Gopalan on food security and the balance between livelihoods and the environment. 


Listen Up

Is India obsessed with IT and engineering courses, and are we ignoring investment in pure science education? Should we focus on immediate issues or invest in long-term scientific breakthroughs? Nobel Laureate ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan, Jyotsna Dhawan, S ‘Rams’ Ramaswamy and Pankaj Chandra thrash it out. 


Watch Out

London-based anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee speaks on France 24 about “complete incompetence” leading to India’s current Covid mess.

https://www.france24.com/en/video/20210428-coronavirus-in-india-this-second-wave-is-the-result-of-complete-incompetence?ref=tw


Over and Out

A reporter for the New York Post has resigned after she was allegedly “ordered” to write an “incorrect article” about Vice President Kamala Harris. Splashed across the Saturday cover of the New York Post was an article claiming that Ms Harris was providing a “welcome kit” to unaccompanied migrant children at a shelter in Long Beach, California, that included a copy of her book. This was not completely true. But it is a small matter, compared to the flagrant crimes against the truth in India.  

Rajinikanth may have ducked fighting the Tamil Nadu Assembly polls and quickly aborted his political career, but he is back on the sets in Hyderabad, at Ramoji Rao’s film city, shooting Annaatthe. Khushboo, a recent defector to the BJP and its candidate from Thousand Lights, is also acting in the film, a family entertainer with a rural backdrop.


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.