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Modi’s India Isn’t Prepared for the Coronavirus

New Delhi’s lockdown has stalled the spread of the pandemic but a lack of planning has led to hunger, uncertainty, and panic.

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People in need stand in queue as volunteers distribute free food packets in Guwahati, India, during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown against the spread of the coronavirus on April 10., Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images

The largest lockdown in history arrived with a four-hour notice. At 8 p.m. on March 24, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, appeared on television for the second time in a week to announce that starting at midnight the entire country was going to be effectively curfewed to slow the spread of COVID-19. A land as populous and tightly peopled as India can become a feast for a disease that thrives on human proximity. Modi’s decision was necessitated by mounting casualties in countries with health care vastly superior to India’s and proliferating warnings of impending calamity by experts at home.

His decisiveness appears to have yielded some success: As of April 10, there were 6,039 active cases of COVID-19 and 206 fatalities. (Although since there is no mass testing—fewer than 43,000 samples were tested by the end of March—and because the symptoms of the disease are not often apparent, there may be many more unreported cases.) This success, however, is braided together with a great deal of misery that could, with some preparation, have been mitigated—if not averted altogether. The sudden exodus of millions of Indians eking out an existence in the cities to distant villages across India bespeaks the malign incompetence of a prime minister who, despite being in command of enormous resources, squandered crucial weeks.

Consider the sequence of events. The first COVID-19 case in India was reported on Jan. 30. Yet as late as March 13—two days after the World Health Organization had declared the outbreak a pandemic—a senior official in the health ministry was assuring Indians that coronavirus is not a health emergency. India was one of the first countries to ban flights and bar travelers from China. But the appearance of alertness concealed inertia: It wasn’t until March 19 that the government ordered a halt on most exports of lifesaving equipment. An inventory of what was available, made public three days later, revealed the extent of the government’s negligence in the crucial weeks when the global march of the virus had become unstoppable. There were only 40,000 respiratory systems in a country of more than 1.3 billion people, one isolation bed for every 84,000 people, one doctor for every 11,600 patients, and one hospital bed for every 1,826 Indians.

Modi’s response was mystifyingly relaxed even as the perils of delaying action were becoming apparent in the tragic experiences of other countries. In the last week of February, he hosted a state visit for U.S. President Donald Trump. Its wasteful extravagance was worthy of the Kims of North Korea: Dozens of families living in shanties were served eviction notices and a wall was hastily erected to conceal them from presidential view. In March, Modi devoted his energies to toppling the government of Madhya Pradesh, the central Indian state governed by the opposition Indian National Congress party. Because the prime minister does not take questions from the press—he has not held a single real press conference in his six years as prime minister—it is impossible for those outside his impenetrable circle of confidants to ascertain his thinking. When it was announced finally that Modi was going to address the nation at 8 p.m. on March 19, panic swept through a country that was still recovering from the prime minister’s previous big 8 p.m. speech—in 2016—when he abolished 86 percent of all currency notes in circulation, plunging the country into chaos and precipitating the worst unemployment crisis in decades.

This time, however, Modi was soberer. He asked Indians to observe a “people’s curfew” during the day on Sunday, March 22, and applaud those working in front-line services—doctors, nurses, security personnel—in the evening. Most Indians obeyed his request and remained indoors. In the evening, however, many poured into the streets to celebrate. There were fireworks and festivities in some cities. Celebrities with large fan bases applauded Modi’s “masterstroke” and spread the myth that the virus was going to be vaporized by the “reverberations” of mass clapping. In 2014, the year Modi first entered office, India had placed a satellite in Mars’ orbit. The existence now of a market for the risibly anti-scientific piffle peddled by Modi’s admirers speaks to the depressing intellectual decline of the country. The curfew culminated in a farce. Still, given the unprecedented nature of the crisis, it was possible to give the benefit of the doubt to Modi: He was perhaps taking stock, buying time, and utilizing that time to mobilise India.

It was only after Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on the evening of March 24 that it began to dawn upon Indians that there was no plan. Modi was repeating what he had done in 2016. He was improvising, gambling, performing the French art of on s’engage, et puis on voit: first engage, then figure things out. Modi told Indians on March 19 that he had already created a special task force to mitigate the economic distress that the coronavirus would invariably provoke. He had done no such thing: Among those who had not heard of the task force’s existence until that moment was India’s finance minister—the person who, according to Modi, was supposedly chairing it. The first budgetary allocation for all of India’s emergency health care needs—$2 billion, or roughly $1.50 for every Indian—was also announced on March 24, 54 days after the first case was detected in the country. The first orders for the production of personal protective equipment for front-line health care workers were made hours before the announcement of the lockdown. The economic stimulus and relief package promised by Modi did not arrive for another two days. And when it did, it was the paltriest of all the big economies in the world: $22.6 billion—less than 1 percent of India’s gross domestic product—more or less the same amount earmarked by Modi to remodel the capitol in New Delhi. Rather than scrap this vanity project, the prime minister who spent more than $640 million in taxpayer money on publicity in his first term in office cleared it days before the lockdown.

What passed for the emergency aid package was for the most part a rescheduling of preexisting cash and food grant arrangements to poorer citizens. The union government in New Delhi will pay only a small share of the expense; much of the money will come from state governments. Left out altogether from its purview are the estimated 45 million migrant workers: the men and women who serve the needs of first-world India’s inhabitants as chauffeurs, servants, cleaners, cooks, and construction hands. This oversight may have been the result of carelessness rather than callousness. But that distinction means nothing to the millions of Indians who find themselves abandoned by the state and left to starve. All of India’s entrenched inequities—of caste, of wealth, of religion—have been on vivid display since the lockdown was announced. The chief justice of India, petitioned by activists urging him to direct the government to pay the wages of stranded migrants, wondered why they needed wages when they were being fed. The lack of thought has led to chaos and severe shortages. Trucks have piled up on the roads. Even the supply chain of medicines has been disrupted.

Contrast the feeble planning that preceded the enforced isolation of 1.3 billion people with the attention that went into burnishing the cult of Modi once the lockdown came into effect. Even though a disaster relief scheme to collect donations from the public has existed for decades, the prime minister created an opaque new charitable trust—christened the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund to create the abbreviation “PM-CARES”—on March 28 and began soliciting contributions for it. Emergency supplies have been glazed with Modi’s face. And the prime minister’s office proceeded to produce a series of slick short films in dozens of languages—including Italian, Russian, and Mandarin—in which a slim, animated avatar of Modi is shown performing yogic calisthenics. Staff at foreign embassies in New Delhi have been invited to relieve stress by doing “Yoga with Modi.” This isn’t the first time Modi has deployed crude propaganda in a moment of mass panic. In 2013, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, his office publicized the “rescue and relief operation” supervised personally by Modi to evacuate 15,000 pilgrims stranded in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Times of India eulogized Modi as India’s “Rambo” and praised his “trademark style of micro-management.” The entire story was a fabrication.

The coronavirus has struck India at a time when social cohesion is at its weakest in decades. The reservoirs of inner strength societies draw from in times of crisis were depleted in India on surviving the crises engineered gratuitously by Modi over the past six years. India’s minorities, especially its Muslim community, have every reason to look askance at a sectarian establishment that has sought to portray them as a fifth column and pushed legislation they fear could render them stateless. The civic conditions necessary to mount a public-spirited campaign have been shredded by the exclusionary policies pursued by Modi’s Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The tragedy unfolding in India is inseparable from the pulverization of democratic norms under Modi. The opposition Congress party rang the alarm bells on COVID-19 as early as February. Its former leader, Rahul Gandhi, spent weeks warning the prime minister of the impending devastation. But Modi operates not as an elected leader accountable to people but as a potentate; his thinking is always shrouded in secrecy, and his disdain for information that might contradict him is apparent from his methodical subversion of institutions—from independent media to the judiciary—that might serve as a check on his power. Parliament, the elected sovereign of India, no longer debates ideas and policies. It exists as a forum for the promulgation of the prime minister’s vision. Congress leaders, unsurprisingly, were not granted an audience. But now that they have been vindicated, the BJP has begun vilifying them for apparently “playing petty politics.”

In 2009, when swine flu flared up, the Congress-led government of the time stockpiled 30 million tablets of oseltamivir (Tamiflu), imposed targeted social distancing, shuttered malls, and banned gatherings. New Delhi’s response was criticized at the time—including by me—as disproportionate to the disease. But if most Indians do not remember any of it, it is because those precautions were successful.

A decade later, facing a killer virus without a remedy, Modi did nothing to multiply India’s health care capacity. The most serious public health crisis in more than a century has not been able to force the prime minister to take a question from the press—not even remotely. Modi will not supply lifesaving equipment to Indian doctors. He will not interact with journalists who might ask him why he isn’t supplying lifesaving equipment to Indian doctors. Instead, it has energized him to seek to muzzle the media and curtail the free flow of information when it is most needed. Anger, confusion, and frustration are accumulating everywhere in India. Millions of Indians don’t know where their next meal will come from. Yet there are no regular briefings by the prime minister. What Indians got most recently was a short video posted on Friday in which Modi invited them to light candles for nine minutes at 9 p.m. on Sunday. His admirers then spread the rumor that the heat generated from the candles would melt away the virus.

Reproval of national leadership can seem inappropriate in a pandemic that has ravaged hundreds of countries. Modi is being tested as none of his predecessors was, and the natural impulse is to rally behind him. Yet it would be a dereliction of citizenly duty to sidestep discomfiting realities. And the most blinding reality is this: Modi is uniquely unsuited to this moment. His presence in India’s highest political office has, if anything, worsened the country’s predicament. India, in desperate need of expert disaster management, is paying the cost of electing a self-enamored image manager.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.