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When Numbers Became Names: How did India’s COVID-19 Crisis Become a Catastrophe?

By Samhita Srinivas Ayaluri

About two weeks ago, I casually logged onto Instagram, not expecting some of my friends urgently requesting plasma donations to save their close ones. What began with requests for plasma two weeks ago has now culminated into a wave of solidarity on social media where citizens are helping each other, without awaiting the government’s response. How did we get here?

Earlier this year, like any other country, India too began to get back to an apparent state of normalcy after the reduction of the huge rise in COVID-19 cases last year. Many educational institutions and offices reopened their doors in February albeit with regulations such as social-distancing and wearing a mask. Many people, assuming leniency, began taking off their masks as the number of daily cases significantly reduced to the range of 9,000 – 12,000 from mid-January onwards. For India, this seemed close to a win: after all, the curve was flattening. However, from approximately 12,000 new cases on the 1st of March 2021, the number of new daily cases increased to 81,500 on the 1st of April. Today, on the 27th of April, the number of new daily cases officially recorded stands at 323,000 – a 295% increase in 26 days. What happened in April?

Educational institutions began to shut down again in March but some workplaces remained (and still are) open. In March, a month-long Hindu festival (the Kumbh Mela) where tens of thousands of devotees gathered, mostly without face masks – resulted in nearly 1100 positive cases. The local state government (led by BJP, the national office-holding party) defended the risk of hosting millions of people during the pandemic by claiming that “faith was stronger than fear”. The leniency awarded to this gathering can be contrasted against what happened last year at the onset of the COVID-19 wave. In March 2020, around 3000 foreign nationals and members of Tablighi Jamaat came to India. This gathering resulted in the spread of the virus to some  states  of India. 

What happened next was a media outrage calling for a boycott of Muslims, with members being accused of “corona-jihad” and imprisonment of some foreign nationals. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, here is another thing that went wrong: thousands of people joined election rallies across five states in India. The Prime Minister of India – Narendra Modi – too, continues to stand at the forefront in these rallies. But bear in mind this: he has been given two shots of the vaccine and maintains a guarded and a barricaded distance with those who come to these rallies. However, in West Bengal, where massive election rallies have been held by multiple parties, three election candidates have died due to COVID-19. Is the government putting politics before public health?

In the state of West Bengal, Modi announced that if his party (BJP) comes into power, he would offer free vaccination to all the residents of the state. Modi is in power at the Centre and does have the ability to provide vaccines for free in all of India if he desires or feels the need to do so. Yet, he allowed politics to take precedence over public health. This led to some trending hashtags on Twitter: #SuperSpreaderModi, #ResignModi. The government then asked Twitter to remove certain tweets (under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act) that criticized the leading political party and Modi, and Twitter obliged. Freedom of press is a constant battle. There was also an incident where, while being interviewed by a news reporter, a (well-educated) politician (BJP) was asked if it was a good idea to hold a rally when social distancing was unobserved. The politician looked the other way and replied “You should ask the people in the villages; they don’t really practice it. It is obviously a great concern to you so I suggest you should go and preach this noble message of yours in the villages. I came here to talk about the elections. If you are interested to talk about the elections, talk about it. Otherwise, I’m sorry.” 

India’s political leaders did not prepare for the second wave. For example, setting up of oxygen plants was sanctioned during the first wave in 2020 and yet, only about 20% of those have been installed so far. And who is to ask for the transparent usage of the PM Cares funds collected in 2020!? When citizens do not oblige to the universal safety precautions out of ignorance or lack of information, the elected leaders or politicians who run for elections for the welfare of the society must be held accountable for informing the citizens and ensuring strict adherence to global norms, especially when the country is in a dire need. And of course, citizens do listen to the leaders because hey, don’t you remember the taali or thaali-bajao incident from 2020 in India? So, what happens next?

With the number of cases being at an all-time high, the capacity of institutions has been put to test. Medical institutions are running out of oxygen cylinders, ambulances, beds, and plasmas among others. The country is also witnessing shortages of vaccines where people, my family members included, are having to look around to get their second dosage of the vaccine. International aid has now begun to flow into the country to support India in fighting the deadly second wave in the forms of providing ventilators, oxygen concentrations as well as vaccine doses from Singapore, China, Bhutan, Saudi Arabia, the UK, the USA, the European Union, the World Health Organization, etc. So, is everything going to be alright?

The current state of affairs in India is saddening, but the frontline health workers and civil society are doing their best to bring India back into the state of normalcy. Each day, hospitals are occupied beyond their capacities to support patients. The medical staff is exhausted beyond limits to respond – at any time of the day or night – to emergencies across the country. Social media is flooding with requests for information and donations. 

A friend from India who has been extremely active on social media in the last two weeks shared her experience of receiving numerous requests each day (via direct messages on Instagram), asking her to share their requests and help in arranging facilities. “It began with curating resources and sharing requests for plasma donations but now, people have begun asking me if I can help them with information on any (empty) crematorium grounds or services”, she said. When she received messages to help patients in critical conditions, she reluctantly had to call doctors even at 2 am in the night, and they had readily gone beyond their call of duty. “When somebody says ‘no’, it is painful to convey it back to the person who requested help. But something that had a major impact has been when  in the process of finding out information and trying to arrange resources, I received a message reading ‘thank you for your help but the person has now passed away.’ The first time, it came as a shock, had a big impact, and took a toll on me. But then, it became a recurring event. It is overwhelming,” she says  when evocating the mental and physical toll the reality has been taking on her. But she does not want to stop. Being of help to some people, if not all, is keeping her going. And just like her, thousands of Indians have pledged to solidarity during this disturbing second wave. 

I have friends, relatives, and acquaintances who have contracted the virus in the last few days. A student at the Graduate Institute whose mother is currently recovering from COVID shares her feeling of helplessness. “Amma (mother) has always been there for me when I was sick. What really bothers me is that she is going through this alone.” She shares that the wait and the anticipation are scary when the mind thinks of all the possibilities. “When numbers become people and you have faces and memories attached to it, it takes a toll on you”, she adds. Such constant sense of fear continues to occupy the minds of many Indians and other well-wishers. The numbers that have been officially reported may not be the actual ones due to under-reporting. Solidarity on the internet, civil society, and the motivation of thousands of frontline workers are helping the country subside the impact of the second wave. One can hope for the fear to subside, the resilience to grow, and the curve to flatten once for all, for a brighter state of affairs in days to come.


How can you help India? The student initiatives of the Graduate Institute – the Student Initiative on Asia, the Welfare Committee, and MentorEd – are organizing a garage/flea sale on the 2nd of May and from the 3rd to the 7th of May, you can buy Indian food to contribute. The raised funds would be donated to NGOs which are providing resources to hospitals and those affected with COVID-19 in India. Go to the initiatives’ social media handles ( SIA Instagram, Welfare Committe’s Instagram) to get more information about the fundraiser.


Photo By Bruno Kelzer on Unsplash

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