India’s Coronavirus Missteps Belie High Expectations From Fellow Quad states

Within weeks of accepting global recognition and responsibility, India’s health system was shaken by an unprecedented increase in COVID-19 infections.
A commentary by Dan Southerland
India’s Coronavirus Missteps  Belie High Expectations From Fellow Quad states Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) members take part in a protest against the government for not providing them with essential safety kits and paying them minimum remuneration despite being frontline workers outside a primary health centre in Hyderabad, May 24, 2021,

India’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis may have dealt a blow to the South Asian nation’s big power aspirations.

According to an article published in the magazine Foreign Affairs, the leaders of a coalition among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States met virtually last month.

The four nations proclaimed a new chapter in Indo-Pacific collaboration.

A more assertive China was extending its influence across the Indo-Pacific, and existing alliances weren’t up to the task of addressing the consequences, the writer Mandakini Gahlot wrote in Foreign Affairs.

The four-nation group, nicknamed The Quad, has become a test case for a new kind of multilateral partnership designed to shape the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

But Nayan Chanda, the founding editor of YaleGlobal magazine, said that “India’s deficient Covid-19 handling could deal a blow to its big power aspirations.”

In a commentary written on April 30, Chanda said that not long ago, buoyed by the QUAD’s decision to invite India to mass produce U.S.-made vaccines, officials crowed about India being the ‘pharmacy of the world.’” 

“Mere weeks later, images of India’s mass cremations plastered the front pages of international newspapers, cementing India’s position as the most dangerous Covid-19 hotspot in the world.”

‘A particularly humbling blow’

Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and others have banned flights from India, and the United States is advising its citizens to leave the South Asian country as soon as possible.

“The pandemic has, of course, devastated other countries as well, but recent weeks have delivered India a particularly humbling blow,” Chanda wrote.

Since 1991, Chanda said, reforms had begun to reverse India’s low economic growth rate. The nuclear-armed country began to be regarded by many as a major world power.

“Against the backdrop of a growing US-China rivalry, India – thanks in part to its own escalating border dispute with Beijing – has acquired ever-greater prominence,” said Chanda.

“Despite growing unease about the country’s recent authoritarian turn, the US and other Western nations have embraced the idea of India as a key strategic partner.”

They calculated that however problematic the government’s divisive policies might be, India’s market economy and traditions of democracy and openness were now too deeply rooted to be reversed.

Despite suffering some loss of territory, the Indian army has stood up to Chinese pressure and even delivered a counter-punch that surprised Beijing.

Stepped-up military cooperation and interoperability between the US and Indian forces, combined with bipartisan U.S. Congressional support, has provided India a cushion it has not had for a long time.

Meanwhile, India’s recent enthusiastic embrace of the Quad grouping has afforded it greater prominence on the world stage.

US President Joe Biden (L), with Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd L), meets virtually with members of the "Quad" alliance of Australia, India, Japan and the US, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC,, March 12, 2021. On screens are Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Credit: AFP

Running on empty

Last November’s Malabar joint naval exercises with Quad partners sent a clear message about the group’s regional security priorities.

 At the first Quad summit in March, India was given a key role in fighting China’s vaccine diplomacy as U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshide Suga, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison entrusted India with producing billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson, funded by Japan, and distributed via Australian supply networks.

Yet, within weeks of accepting this global recognition and responsibility, India’s health system was shaken by an unprecedented increase in COVID-19 infections.

And thanks to mismanagement, India’s vaunted vaccine production was reduced to running on empty.

As of May 24, India had recorded 26 million cases – second only to the U.S.­–  and became only the third country in the world to record more than 300,000 deaths - following the U.S. and Brazil.

The Economist Magazine, in article published on May 8, said that “Modi and his team have struggled to respond to a calamity far greater than India has experienced in generations.”

Many Indian vaccine doses have ended up in the hands of profiteers while others were exported while failing to reach Indians in need of them at home.

The New York Times explained in an article published on May 2, “although India is a vaccine powerhouse, producing vaccines to protect the world, it didn’t purchase enough doses to protect itself.”

The Times reported that India “exported more than 60 million shots to bolster its standing on the world stage.”

The two also described how profiteers belonging to one vaccine supplier had been repainting fire extinguishers and selling them as oxygen canisters.

The consequences could be deadly. The less sturdy fire extinguishers might explode if filled with high-pressure oxygen. Fortunately, that practice ended when the owner was jailed.

Premature victory laps

Remdesivir, the antiviral drug, was the focus of a number of scams. Police in New Delhi said that they had arrested four people working at medical facilities who had stolen unused vials of remdesivir from dead patients and sold them for about $400 each.

It had been sold previously for about $65. But scarcity boosted the price, according to The Times.

Meanwhile government leaders were taking premature victory laps for having ‘vanquished’ the virus, inviting millions of devotees to swim in the holy Ganges, and organizing mammoth election rallies with unmasked crowds.

Bloomberg Businessweek magazine described the swim in the Ganges as “the world’s largest human gathering.”

At the same time, plans to build oxygen plants gathered dust. As the second wave of the pandemic gathered momentum, prolonged electioneering wasn’t curtailed, vaccination plans faltered, and health care was left unprepared.

As if all this were not enough, on May 17 India’s first cyclone of the year slammed into the country’s west coast.

According to a website called Down to Earth (DTE), the cyclone had been generated by an unusual warming of the Arabian Sea, which is itself a consequence of global warming resulting from the greenhouse gases generated by human activities.

Getting a fix on the total death toll caused by the cyclone or the much larger total caused by the pandemic has proven difficult because officials are widely believed to be underestimating when they issue reports on the casualties.

On May 13, the Wall Street Journal reported that the pandemic has had a huge impact on most Indians.

“Many Indians have no savings to fall back on,” the report said. “During last year’s lockdowns, millions of migrant workers returned to their villages in rural India as their jobs in cities evaporated.”

Many Indian doctors and health care workers have also paid a heavy price.

The Indian Medical Association said that more than 1,000 doctors have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic struck last year. At least 40 percent are believed to have been infected, according to one estimate.

The final words on all of this go back to the writer Nayan Chanda.

“India’s public health experts knew well that that the country’s health system was susceptible to being overwhelmed,” he said.

“But the hubris of being the inheritor of an ancient civilization combined with unchallenged political power and media dominance,” Chanda said, “allowed the leadership to ignore science and created the conditions for carnage.”

 Dan Southerland is RFA's founding Executive Editor.


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