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India's Pandemic & Modi's Leadership

The centre’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been a mixed bag. But the shortcomings expose serious flaws within Modi’s leadership—flaws that we should be familiar with by now.

Rohan Hande for The Atlantic

Seven months after the country first went into lockdown, in an effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic, we are still struggling with the virus. For much of the television media, the pandemic might have been forgotten and been replaced by film actors, drugs and alleged rating scams; but for much of the country, the virus is still alive and well, although things seem to be getting better.

To be fair, the whole world, for the most part, is also on its knees against the pandemic. A vaccine is still unavailable; people are dying; economies are falling; people seem to be getting more careless. Some countries, which seemed to have reined in the virus earlier, are now going through a second wave. Still, that should not prevent us from inspecting how India performed.

As Things Stand

At the time of writing, India seems to be better placed than many other countries. According to the latest data, the number of daily new infections in India has been the lowest in months and “for the 22nd consecutive day, more people recovered from the disease than fell ill, a trend that has resulted in a significant decline in active cases in the country.” The number of active cases, the data tells us, is now around 6.7 lakh as opposed to over ten lakh in September. The September peak is receding while testing rates have also gone up.

As per the centre’s Ministry of Health data, India’s recovery rate now stands at 90% while the fatality rate is 1.51%. The data also shows that the number of active cases has now been under 7 lakh for the third consecutive day, as of 25 October. Daily deaths have also been constantly less than 1100 since 2 October. Till now, over 1.18 lakh people have died of the virus. However, some questions have also been raised about possible undercounting of deaths.

Current recovery rate in India. Source: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare

Active cases have fallen below 7 lakh. Source: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare

Declining daily deaths. Source: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

India has also made advances in the production of PPE kits, from being an importer to now the second-largest producer of the same.

Locking and Unlocking

India went into a nationwide lockdown on 25 March and remained in that state till the beginning of June, when the government started easing restrictions. It is difficult to determine how successful or unsuccessful the lockdown has been. While the government has claimed that the lockdowns prevented tens of thousands of deaths and lakhs of infections, some experts have also argued that lockdowns do not work. At the same time, others have also warned against pursuing relentless herd immunity strategies in the absence of a vaccine.

Measuring the successes and failures of the lockdowns is also difficult because state-wise variations still exist, both in terms of restrictions and the healthcare systems. Maharashtra was the worst-hit state till some time back; now, Kerala is leading in the number of new cases having reported over 2000 more cases than Maharashtra in the last 24 hours, as of 25 October. Kerala is followed by Maharashtra, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Delhi. However, Maharashtra still led considerably in the daily number of deaths, as of the time of writing.

The Undeniable Crises

While the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the lockdowns can be debated by experts, some accompanying crises have clearly emerged.

The harsh and abrupt lockdown led to thousands of migrant workers being trapped in cities. In absence of appropriate facilities and savings, many had to walk thousands of miles back to their villages. The visuals of huge crowds of migrants at railway and bus stations showed some of the most explicit impacts of the lockdown on common people. Many people ended up losing already precarious livelihoods. This has also brought about food insecurity and consequent fears of long-term damage to children as a result of malnutrition. Results from surveys of “nearly 5,000 self-employed, casual, and regular wage workers across 12 states of India, conducted between 13 April and 23 May” by Azim Premji University found that “almost 8 in 10 are eating less food than before. More than 6 in 10 respondents in urban areas did not have enough money for weeks worth of essentials. More than a third of all respondents had taken a loan to cover expenses during the lockdown. More than 8 in 10 respondents did not have money to pay next month's rent.” The study finds that among the sample surveyed, 66% workers lost their jobs, 77% households were consuming less food than before, 47% households did not have enough to buy essentials to last them a week. 77% vulnerable households—those defined in the study as having a total income of less than ₹10,000 in February—received ration and 49% of such households received a cash transfer. 87% self-employed workers in urban areas reported to have lost employment, while 66% casual workers in rural areas went out of work.

The haste in which the lockdown was imposed by the centre has also been criticised. With barely any timely notice, the lockdown left many stranded with no time to prepare. The economist Kaushik Basu called the lockdown a failure: it could not prevent the spread of the virus as large sections of migrant workers had to be on the move, but at the same time it led to the economy freezing up. The 23.9% contraction in India’s GDP in the first quarter of the financial year 2020-21 has been a major cause of concern. However, top economists have been puzzled by the centre’s response, calling for the government to do a lot more to fix the collapsing economy.