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The disaster management of Covid-19 in India

The management of the Covid-19 epidemic was disastrous in India. Poor prophylaxis, blocking of all land transport, which forced 460 million people to walk to work, false beliefs (yoga and cow urine in anti-Covid function). Yet it is precisely from India that glimmers are opening: like the silent and promising search for a vaccine.
Indian interior minister Amit Shah is currently on the list of “positive” top politicians at Covid-19 – and populist politicians, albeit with marked differences, from Trump to Bolsonaro. Not just any man: but what Prime Minister Narendra Modi – little inclined to modesty – defines in the aftermath of the 2014 electoral triumph as “the man of the match”, the decisive architect. And indeed, Shah (long-time President of the BJP, Modi’s party) immediately shows that he is much more than a simple “right hand man” of the leader: in a 2013 harangue in a village in Uttar Pradesh (in that moment theatre of ferocious clashes between Hindus and Muslims, with dozens of deaths) invites the masses present – of orientation, it goes without saying, nationalist-Hindu – to “take revenge”, using not so much “swords” and “arrows” as a tool used against the Mughal invaders, but the ballot.

The strong rhetorical vein of the speech is not only (as the BJP spokesperson summarizes) a targeted measurement of the “mood of the nation”; but an astute evocation of the two Indies, the contemporary one and the “timeless” (historical-mythical) one that acts as a permanent counterpoint.

A dual India clearly visible in its complexity-contradiction even in this pandemic, of which it represents the current epicentre (or one of the epicentres), with over 2 million cases and over 42,000 deaths, according to very underpowered figures. A centrality already occupied in many epidemic-pandemic flows in “long duration”, which see India as a protagonist in various aspects, from moments of “trigger” to those of biomedical turning point.

The basic history of Covid-19 in India is rather linear, not unlike that of other countries, especially those of considerable extension (and similar political leadership, such as the USA and Brazil): debut for “import” from Wuhan (here returning students in Kerala between January 30 and February 3); initial scepticism (also due to caution towards the economic system) and forced lockdown (March 24, defined by Arundhati Roy as “the most punitive and least planned in the world” and in fact announced 4 hours before it became operational); consequent mix of “lockout” (schools-restaurants-cinemas) and ban on gatherings (sporting events-rallies-ceremonies); subsequent inhomogeneity between the various states, with a lot of early reopening and “relapses”; phantasmagoria of screams for promising or pseudo-such treatments (from hydroxychloroquine to bizarre freaks linked to “spiritual” medicine).

As for Modi, here too we see cloned (perhaps in more modest and oracular tones, consistent with his exhibited sobriety as a teetotaller-vegetarian), the same oscillatory motion exhibited by Trump and / or Bolsonaro, often confirming that chronicle, well summarized in the split between the initial denial (on 11 March, the day on which the WHO proclaims Covid as a “pandemic” and the government “downgrades” it among its priorities) and the current “realism”, with Modi in person who on 26 July describes the virus, on local TV NDTV, “as dangerous as it started”, complete with motivational input to try to overcome it for “Independence Day”.

In between, above all, the real disaster of the Covid management; the blockade – at the same time as the lockdown – of all means of land transport (from trains to buses) which forces millions of urban workers (without contracts, health insurance or paid holidays) to return on foot or by hitchhiking to their countries of origin to survive (we are talking about the areas of Badaun, Agra, Azamgarh, Aligarh, Lucknow, Gorakhpur…). This is 92% of the total workers, something like 460 million people: which translates into a “long march” compared by many to the post-war exodus of 1947 (which actually involved “only” 20 million of people). Immediately after the provision, Modi is targeted by a universal hashtag (#ModiMadeDisaster): but his request for “forgiveness” (March 29) will be followed by a management that is only minimally “restorative” (with few transports restored) and mostly police (not surprisingly, at the beginning of the lockdown, the agents were placed “in battle mode”, with all leave frozen).

Modi’s “disaster” has no appeal: no prophylaxis (or almost) to manage the exodus (135 million unemployed) and insufficient economic measures to contain it (as the economics Nobel Prize winners Banerjee and Duflo denounced), but only a few general appeal to words like tapasya and tyaag, penance and self-flagellation.
Nor can one be indulgent on the more police than health management of the pandemic, which has led to the recent scenarios (hospital conversions of hotels and sleeping cars and the “spiritual center” extended as 22 football fields) or to the Supreme Court complaint about patients “Treated like animals”,

Nor, finally, can the constant “blowing on the fire” of folkloristic beliefs be justified (see the BJP parties with drinking cow’s urine), which raise consensus at the price of a dramatic wink at subcultural drifts. But, on the one hand, certain intrinsic, “deterministic” traits of the pandemic trend must not be removed: the fact, for example (shared, once again, with the USA and Brazil) that in large countries the pandemic “shifts” fatally entails relapses o spatial or temporal differences in lethality (see, also in Europe, the current “blaze” in the East and in the Balkans); which will lead – in the coming months or when the pandemic is over – to evaluate how much the objectively catastrophic management of those countries has really affected contagions and excesses.

By Domenico Greco

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