A health worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) carries a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outside the casualty ward at Guru Teg Bahadur hospital, in New Delhi, India, April 24, 2021.

Horror Without End: India’s COVID Catastrophe

A brutal second wave of COVID-19 is ravaging India, with 350,000 new infections registered daily—although this official number barely scratches the surface. The situation across the entire country is nightmarish. But for those in the poorest strata of society, it is a vision of hell.

The healthcare system is totally overrun. Pyres burn every night on the banks of the Ganges as patients die by the hundreds for want of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders.

The dying lie in hospital corridors, parking lots, on the streets and in their homes, begging for medical attention that will never come. In one case, 22 bodies were crammed into a single ambulance en route to a crematorium in Beed, Maharashtra.

Responsibility for this avertable catastrophe, in the “world’s pharmacy,” lies squarely with the reactionary Modi regime, and the self-interested imperialist powers.

Time and again, the representatives of the capitalist system have prioritized profits, private property and narrow nationalist concerns over human lives. The Indian working class and poor are now reaping the bitter rewards.

Criminal complacency

Up until recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was bragging about containing the initial COVID-19 outbreak (which he blamed on Muslim pilgrims), while playing up India’s leading role in global vaccine manufacture, claiming in January that India had “saved the world from disaster.”

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As this deadly second wave was brewing, Modi and his cronies from the leading Hindu nationalist BJP party displayed incredible hubris / Image: Satish

As this deadly second wave was brewing, Modi and his cronies from the leading Hindu nationalist BJP party displayed incredible hubris. For weeks, they have been attending mass rallies for big elections in India’s largest states, openly flouting public health rules.

In March, National Health Minister Harsh Vardhan assured the public the pandemic was “under control,” while the health minister of Assam claimed “there is no COVID in Assam … [so there is] no need to wear a facemask.”

In an ironic twist, the Benhal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh contracted the disease a month after declaring West Bengal COVID–free, and claiming people blessed by the Gods would not be infected. It seems the Gods forsook him.

Additionally, the Kumbh Mela religious festival, attended by millions, was allowed to proceed in April, to appeal to Modi’s Hindu chauvinist base, doubtlessly contributing to the virus’ spread.

This criminal complacency came despite a worrying new COVID-19 variant (B.1.617) being identified last month. This “double mutant” contains significant mutations from two other major strains, the first dominant in California and the other in South Africa and Brazil. It is more transmissible than early variants and potentially vaccine resistant.

In consequence, India’s crumbling healthcare sector has been hit by an explosion of cases.

“Health systems weren’t better prepared for it this time around,” said K. Srinath Reddy, president of the charitable Public Health Foundation of India.

Many people in the administration across the country did not expect that there would be a “this time around,” It was somehow presumed that we had passed the pandemic.

Having already placed an embargo on vaccine exports to control India’s supply, Modi has now been forced to admit that, “after successfully combating the first wave, the country was filled with confidence, but this storm has shaken the nation.”

This storm was long forecast, and no preparations were made for it. The wreckage was tragically predictable.

A living nightmare

Essential medical supplies are scarce, and ICUs are well beyond capacity. Delhi is considered to have the best healthcare in the country, but hundreds of people are nevertheless dying in the city’s hospitals for lack of oxygen, including 25 at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital last week.

In another widely reported incident in Nashik city last week, an interruption of the oxygen supply killed 22 COVID patients. These horrific sights are the outcome of a critical, nationwide oxygen shortage, which is currently the single greatest cause of preventable deaths.

An Indian doctor interviewed by the BBC spoke of desperate families driving around the whole of Delhi, hunting in vain for hospital beds and oxygen, with doctors at overflowing hospitals forced to send them away. The death toll is so severe that a public park in the south-east was turned into a makeshift crematorium to cope with the mounting corpses.

For the poor, who are forced to rely on state hospitals, the situation is the worst of all. In Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh, and one of the poorest parts of the country, there are queues of 50 COVID patients for a single hospital bed.

The level of suffering is indescribable. Seema Shukla, a nurse at the state Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Lucknow stated that: “The condition [of hospitals] is so horrible that so many people are dying on the street, in their houses, before they can see a doctor or even have a test.”

From early morning to midnight my phone keeps ringing. Desperate relatives and friends are calling for help: “Please help me find a ventilator, bed, a nurse, oxygen cylinder, medicine.”

The official death toll of 195,000 is a woeful underestimation. A Financial Times report calculated that, over a period of several days in April, only 228 out of 1,833 COVID deaths in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar were actually reported, based on the number of cremations.

The Economist made an even more drastic assessment:

India’s soaring official COVID-19 count represents the tip of an iceberg. Because of low testing rates outside big cities… the actual caseload could be anything from ten to 30 times higher.

A national serological survey conducted in December found 21% of Indians were carrying COVID-19 antibodies, compared with an official tally which suggested that only about 1% of India’s people had been infected by that time.

More recently, local journalists who have cross-checked hospital and funeral records against government numbers have found similar, gaping discrepancies across the country…

This suggests that India could be facing not 2,000 deaths a day, as the current official count shows, but something much higher (Our emphasis).

Pain, grief, and rage

viral video interview, filmed at the state-run Sadar Hospital in Ranchi, Jharkhand provides a single, powerful example of the countless tragedies unfolding all over the country.

A young woman wails in frustration and grief that her father passed away, after lying for hours on a stretcher outside the hospital, waiting for medical attention.

“We kept shouting for a doctor,” she screams at the news crew. “But no doctor came! … My father breathed his last here. You are taking my interview? Will you be able to return my father? You only came to gather votes!”

This exchange occurred while Jharkhand’s Health Minister, Banna Gupta (Congress), was performing an inspection of the hospital.

The young woman’s words express not only grief, but open hatred at the entire, rotten political establishment for bungling this public health disaster.

Similarly, in Delhi, a woman named Neena who lost her 50 year old brother to COVID, asked in a viral Instagram video:

On what basis is Modi asking for our votes? Is he asking for votes to kill people? He has destroyed the nation, there is a death in every family. Why isn’t he ensuring oxygen supply, why can’t we find beds?

Modi is doing his utmost to keep a lid on this all anger, successfully lobbying Twitter to censor tweets criticizing his handling of the pandemic. But try as he might, a groundswell of rage and resentment will inevitably erupt to the surface.

Money and medicine for the rich while the poor perish

The rich—who stash their wealth overseas, and live in isolated, well-ventilated homes far from infection centers—are largely spared all this misery. Still, there has been a boom in demand for private jets, as wealthy Indians scramble to flee the virus overseas.

By contrast, the belated introduction of lockdowns in urban centers like Mumbai and Delhi has resulted in a new exodus of migrant workers to their home villages, many hundreds of miles away in some cases.

These workers remember the mass migrations that followed the first lockdown last year, which killed hundreds and threw thousands more into dire poverty. They are trying to get out before it is too late. But in the rush to escape the horror in the cities, infections may end up being spread to rural areas where healthcare infrastructure is nonexistent.

While the poor endure increased precarity, the rich have continued to accumulate wealth during the pandemic. India’s biggest mogul, Mukesh Ambani, just splashed out on Britain’s iconic country club and luxury golf resort, Stoke Park, for a cool £57 million.

And with the help of the central government, the pharmaceutical fat cats are set to become even richer. From Saturday, India plans to expand its inoculation campaign to over-18-year-olds, while giving permission for the country’s vaccine manufacturers to hike their prices.

Already, Indians at private hospitals pay the highest prices in the world for vaccines manufactured in their own country, including Covishield, the local name for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII).

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Once again, the masses are trapped between poverty and the pandemic / Image: Satish

From the weekend, the government will only pay for half of India’s monthly vaccine production, to supply over-45s, while states and private entities will have to procure jabs for younger people at the new, higher prices.

This new policy of having multiple buyers will pit different states, and the private and state health sectors against one another in the rush for scarce vaccines: a recipe for unequal distribution. Already, four opposition-run states have been told by the SII they will not receive stocks of vaccines before May 15.

The privately owned SII will be granted massive power over allocating limited vaccine supplies, and will prioritize private hospitals that can afford to pay more.

“You are making states compete with the private sector on a differential pricing basis,” said K. Sujatha Rao, India’s former health secretary. “The younger rich can go and buy vaccines from the private sector and the poor [lose] out.”

As rich families pay handsomely to vaccinate their children and pharmaceutical profiteers stuff their pockets, the den of thieves in parliament will doubtlessly enjoy back-handers from the resulting windfall.

Meanwhile, millions of Indian workers and the poor will be priced out of vaccines, despite their country being the biggest vaccine exporter to the rest of the world.

This scandal recalls the Bengal famine, where India continued to export food to its imperialist masters, while the masses starved.

Vaccine nationalism and crocodile tears

The depth of the crisis has forced the Indian government to seek emergency aid, in the form of oxygen containers, ventilators and limited surplus stocks of vaccines, flown in from as far afield as Singapore, the UAE and Europe.

These acts of charity were accompanied by sympathetic words from the likes of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wished India well and pledged an urgent “mission of support.”

These hypocritical bourgeois gangsters represent wealthy nations that are sitting on stockpiles of millions of surplus vaccines, purchased directly from suppliers. Many of these were manufactured in India to begin with.

While the rich West was laying claim to the lion’s share of the world’s vaccine supply, India and South Africa were lobbying the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October to waive intellectual property protections on vaccines so generic versions could be manufactured cheaply anywhere in the world.

They were rebuffed by WTO representatives from the West, who were far more concerned with the private property of the pharmaceutical capitalists than the COVID victims in poor countries.

Until recently, the USA enforced a trade embargo on COVID-19 products such as sterile filters, disposable bags for cell cultures, cell culture media and single-use tubing. Following a plea from the SII addressed directly to President Joe Biden, and political pressure both domestically and internationally, the embargo was lifted.

“Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need,” Biden tweeted on Sunday.

The president’s newfound “determination” followed months of flat refusal to give up any COVID products.

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The rotten capitalist system has condemned the Indian poor and working class to a living nightmare / Image: Ninian Reid, Flickr

The wartime Defense Production Act (DPA), invoked by his predecessor Donald Trump, remains in effect, and leaves US companies with no option but to give priority to domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines and Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs).

This has created production bottlenecks that are not only disastrous for India, but have resulted in a knock-on effect for the global vaccination drive, since the SII is central to producing vaccines for the WHO’s Covax program.

To this day, Biden is refusing to share any of the US’ excess vaccine supply, including 30 million unused doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that have yet to receive FDA approval (though this is now under “review”).

These surplus vaccines are desperately needed in India, and elsewhere. But rest assured, while Trump may be out of the White House, it is still “America First”.

Aside from inflicting misery on billions of people in poor countries by denying access to essential resources, these shortsighted policies create more opportunities for new strains of the virus to mutate, and spread around the world, potentially reinfecting people in the USA.

Indeed, the Indian strain of COVID-19 has already been identified all over the world, including in the USA. As ever, the narrow nationalism of the imperialists is self-defeating in the face of this pandemic.

Nationalize big pharma! Down with Modi! Down with capitalism!

India is the world’s largest manufacturer of pharmaceuticals. The means, resources and expertise to resolve this crisis literally exist at the fingertips of the Indian masses.

Unfortunately, these are the private property of a Big Pharma racket, which enjoys the full support of the reactionary Modi regime. These gangsters couldn’t care less if the poor die in droves, so long as their lust for profits is sated.

Were India’s tremendous medical production infrastructure wrested from private profiteers, (starting with the SII), nationalized and run according to need, this calamity wouldn’t have happened to begin with.

Production of not only vaccines but of oxygen and PPE could have been ramped up. Meanwhile, expropriating the parasitic private health sector would free up a huge amount of additional capacity.

India’s immense medical resources and manufacturing base make it critical to the global fight against the pandemic. The variant bred in India due to Modi’s complacency and vaccine nationalism by wealthy countries is now a threat to the whole world.

It is therefore in the interests of workers everywhere to support their Indian brothers and sisters in their struggle against Modi, and the degenerate capitalist class he represents, to assume control over Indian medical production and to place it at the service of humanity.

The Indian masses have shown their fighting strength many times in the last period. Faced with a calamity on this scale, their victory over the forces of capitalism and imperialism acquires a newfound urgency.

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