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Modi could have prevented India’s devastating Covid-19 crisis, critics say. He didn’t

His country was on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. That day, India recorded more than 261,000 new coronavirus cases — more than many countries have seen during the entire pandemic.

Others in Modi’s orbit have argued state governments are to blame for not imposing regional lockdowns and mismanaging their health care systems. Last weekend, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said oxygen shortages at hospitals were a problem not of supply but distribution, which he claimed was the responsibility of state governments.

But many in India believe responsibility lies with Modi and his Hindu nationalist government, which not only didn’t prepare for a second wave but also encouraged mass gatherings at Hindu festivals and political rallies, including in a closely contested battleground state.

“The government has failed us all,” Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the general secretary of opposition party Indian National Congress, said in a statement this week. “Even those of us who oppose and fight them could not have foreseen a complete abdication of leadership and governance at a time as devastating as this.”

Modi’s pandemic PR moves

Modi has been keen to tie himself to positive aspects of India’s pandemic responses.

Vaccinated Indians receive a certificate with his face on it. The Covid relief fund, a charitable trust which gathers voluntary contributions to help support those affected, is named PM Cares — an acronym for Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund. It also bears Modi’s face on its official website.

With his name tied to these positive initiatives, a first wave that avoided the catastrophic caseload some experts feared, and a roaring pharmaceutical industry that had produced a homegrown vaccine, India’s pandemic response was on track to be a PR win for Modi. The country was positioning itself to help other countries, having exported more than 66 million doses of vaccines, rather than be the one in need of aid.

“(India) has saved the world, entire humanity, from a major tragedy by effectively controlling coronavirus,” Modi boasted at the World Economic Forum on January 28.
With many in India feeling the pandemic was over, there was a slower take-up of vaccines there than expected. About 300 million of India’s 1.3 billion population are illiterate, meaning they may have had less ability to investigate what was going on for themselves.

“You can’t blame people for thinking ‘maybe the government knows best, maybe things are back to normal, maybe we should go out and live our normal lives,'” said Pradeep Taneja, an expert on Asian politics at the University of Melbourne and a fellow of the Australia India Institute.

But the pandemic was far from over. By February, cases were beginning to tick up. The BJP, however, still claimed India had “defeated Covid under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership” of Modi.
On March 7, when the country reported about 18,000 new daily cases, the Health Minister Vardhan said India was in the “end game of the Covid-19 pandemic.” And on March 30, a day before authorities reported more than 81,000 cases in a single day, Vardhan said: “The situation is under control.”

Yet mutations had been circulating overseas for months, and epidemiologists in India believed another wave was coming. While the second wave was inevitable, its size took everyone by surprise, said Ramanan Laxminarayan, an economist and epidemiologist at Princeton University who is in New Delhi.

“I think there was a premature sense of optimism among many that was probably unwarranted and in hindsight has ended up being quite deadly,” he said.

Asia politics expert Taneja said: “Modi was complacent, even arrogant in thinking that India had succeeded when more developed countries, countries with much stronger health systems … were struggling.”

Fury over the second wave

As it became clear India’s cases were spiraling, Modi stayed largely silent — and a second nationwide lockdown that some expected never…

Read More: Modi could have prevented India’s devastating Covid-19 crisis, critics say. He didn’t

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