There was an air of inevitability about India’s unfolding Covid disaster. Watching from afar in London, I had long feared the worst for the country of my birth. Since India has decades of underfunded health infrastructure and no cohesive national strategy, I often discussed with family and friends back home that the virus would hit its 1.4 billion people harder when the inevitable second wave came round, even with its young population and available vaccines.
By late last year, my loved ones were going about their daily lives believing the pandemic had been conquered, alongside many others who attended cricket matches, weddings and religious festivals. India’s road to Covid hell was paved with delusions of grandeur – a fanciful idea that the virus had been vanquished by sheer might of will, superhuman immunity, faith in an almighty God, and piecemeal restrictions. By January, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, had declared India had defeated the virus. In the months that followed, the government – and by extension citizens – acted as if it had. Between January and mid-April 2021, India’s national scientific taskforce on Covid-19 did not hold a single meeting.
Indians understand that they must beg, borrow and steal to get by in crisis – because the central government isn’t equipped to help and local administrations scramble to survive the onslaught. Just days ago, Modi practically confirmed it was each man for himself in his first national broadcast to address the second wave, urging people to create small taskforces within their communities to ensure Covid discipline so that his government does not have to impose a national lockdown. It may seem hard to fathom that people are hoarding oxygen cylinders in their homes, but when you know there’s no chance the national government will step in to help – when no government really has in your lifetime – you take care of your own. If my loved ones were gasping for breath, I’d be in alleyways selling family jewellery for oxygen.
Yes, the BJP has sleepwalked through this pandemic. By actively undermining public health to secure its political future, it is in large part responsible for the horrific surge of cases and deaths.