In India, daily cases of infection due to Covid-19 have passed a record number of 350 000, the pandemic killing officially about 2,500 people every day, including young men and women. This humanitarian disaster is partly due to the way the Covid-19 virus has mutated: the new "Indian variant" appears to be both more contagious and more deadly. But this catastrophe is also man-made and reflects trends which had already been pointed out during the first wave, one year ago. On March 31, 2020, I had called the Covid-19 pandemic a "global time bomb". Issues I highlighted then need to be revisited again.
The way the government of India dealt with the pandemic reflects three dimensions of India’s dysfunctional governance that were there before: the present crisis, like an acid test, accentuates existing features. It is revealing of the wandering of decision-makers and the grasp of Hindu nationalism over India’s politics and society, it shows that for the country’s rulers power can be pursued at any cost and that no institution can resist them, and finally, it highlights the crisis of federalism.
Erring leaders and misgovernance in the name of traditions
Across the world, Covid-19 has shown that heads of state and ministers were sometimes not competent enough, partly because they missed technical skills. India is no exception, but here, scientists’ advice was not acknowledged either.
On March 7, already fifteen days into the second wave, Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan declared: "We are in the end game of the Covid-19 pandemic in India". Vardhan also said that "Unlike most other countries, we have a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccines…" In fact, India lacked vaccines, so much so that two weeks later, the government announced that it would stop exporting them. By then, 111 million Indians (out of 1.3 billion people) had been vaccinated.
Vardhan’s discourse was peppered with references to traditional medicine in spite of scientists’ opposition. In February 2021, Baba Ramdev, a guru and co-founder of a flourishing company called Patanjali that sold Ayurvedic medicines, launched Coronil in the presence of Vardhan, whose ministry had certified it. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) immediately issued a communiqué challenging Vardhan: "Being Health Minister of the country, how justified is it to release such falsely fabricated unscientific product to people of the whole country...can you clarify the time frame, timeline for the so-called clinical trial of this said anti-corona product?". Meanwhile, the government of India endorsed many other pseudo-remedies.