Poor leadership dooms India during pandemic

May 10

Poor leadership dooms India during pandemic

Published in the Florida Times Union, May 9, 2021.

by Parvez Ahmed

About a year ago, I received the devastating news about my Mom’s terminal cancer. As she took her last breaths, I could not visit her in Kolkata, India. The first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic was underway. Global travel had come to a virtual standstill and India, like the rest of the world, was in the midst of lockdowns and quarantines. A year later, while the pandemic here at home is beginning to wane, in India it has metastasized into a carnage. The US State Department has urged Americans to not travel to India and a travel ban from India has now been instituted for non-US citizens. Once again, I am forced to cancel my summer travel plans to visit family in India.

Almost every Indian American I talk to knows someone, either a member of their extended family or someone from their circle of friends, who have been personally impacted by this new wave in India. The 7-day average of daily COVID-19 cases is over 400,000, not only the highest in the world today but also a number not seen anywhere in the past year. The 7-day daily average of deaths is over 3,000. As alarming as these numbers are, experts on the ground contend that the official daily new cases and deaths in India are a severe undercount.

In one of many examples, a crematorium in the capital New Delhi that receive 10 bodies a day during normal times, is now receiving over 100. Graveyards are running out of space too. If that is not dystopian enough, consider the daily “normal” scene of patients entering hospitals with their own oxygen cylinders in tow. Family members pumping someone’s chest as they gasp for air in a car parked outside the hospital as a scramble for bed ensues are not scenes from a M. Night Shyamalan movie.  As patients gasp for air, Indian social media is replete with people pleading for hospital beds or oxygen cylinders.

How did things turn so grave? The tale should be familiar to most Americans. It starts with a national leader in denial and engaging in wishful thinking. Recall on February 26, 2020, then US President Donald Trump boasting, “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” Almost a year later, on January 22, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi boasted that atmanirbhar Bharat (a self-reliant India) has beaten back the pandemic. India’s ruling political party, Modi’s BJP, hailed the “visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi” that has made India “victorious nation in the fight against COVID.”

This new wave in India was partly driven by a more transmissible variant but mostly due to Modi government’s negligence. Not only did Modi, much like Trump, engage in large political rallies during a pandemic, he also pandered to the religious establishment by allowing a major Hindu festival, which attracts millions, to go forward. With mask wearing nary in sight, the results were predictable. Cases exploded and the Indian health system collapsed. The Prime Minister who was prematurely boasting of a self-reliant India is now receiving generous donations from many countries, with the United States being a major benefactor. The Biden administration, rightfully understanding that the pandemic cannot be controlled if a major nation like India is on fire, is sending vaccines, large-scale oxygen generation units and N95 masks.

The generosity of the American people will undoubtedly be appreciated by my family, friends and untold millions. However, the challenge in India remains one of sane governance. Modi and his allies seem more worried about critical social media posts and editorials in foreign newspapers than about the plight of people gasping for air. Just as Trump made states fight for COVID-19 test kits, Modi has left the states in India to fend for themselves in securing supplies of vaccines. Even as a practicing physician, my father cannot secure a vaccine for himself much less his family. Following threats from “powerful people” the CEO of Serum Institute, India’s leading vaccine manufacturer, has fled to London.

Growing up in India, I have lived through many social traumas. But through it all, I have always found my family and friends resilient even in the face of overwhelming odds. But now I sense resignation and a foreboding of disaster. They feel powerless in the face of this incalculable tragedy. Dealing with this fatalism has only made matters worse for the Indian diaspora in America.

Parvez Ahmed was born in India and is professor of finance and director of diversity and inclusion at the Coggin College of Business, University of North Florida.