Right now, the world needs to put aside any other concerns and do everything possible to save India.
We need to act fast. Any pandemic health crises being faced in wealthy countries such as Canada are dwarfed by the scale of the subcontinent’s emergency, which is not only taking an unspeakable human toll – if you have family in India, you have almost certainly received heartbreaking news – but threatens to spill out and infect others.
We need to get oxygen, ventilators, medicines and vaccines to India as quickly as possible. In Canada, it’s worth delaying our own suddenly successful vaccination campaign to get needed doses to India.
India’s crisis is grave enough that it has provoked countries to do unprecedented things. The United States this week agreed to waive COVID-19 vaccine patent protections temporarily so anyone can produce vital doses – a decision largely prompted by India’s crisis. Neighbours China and Pakistan, both engaged in military conflicts with India, have provided needed supplies and assistance – a humiliating turn for India, which has spent the past decade calling itself a source rather than a recipient of foreign aid.
But we should remember, when this is over, that India is not a country that should have needed to be saved. It is a country that could have saved the world.
This awful crisis was not inevitable, for three important reasons. Firstly, India is home to the world’s largest maker of vaccines, and is the fourth-largest manufacturer of COVID-19 vaccines; until recently, at least 60 per cent of them were exported. It could easily have become the first, if its national government had invested last year in emergency support to its pharmaceutical sector.
Secondly, India is a major producer of health-care technology, e-health services and other medical infrastructure. Last year, it managed to create a major domestic personal protective equipment industry in a matter of months. If this urgency had been applied to other health sectors, it could have been a life-saving supplier to the world.
Finally, India has a recent history of large-scale national campaigns to defeat epidemics and health crises. Its Universal Immunization Programme against measles, tetanus and diphtheria immunizes tens of millions of women every year, and it led the world in defeating smallpox and polio. During the 2000s, the previous government’s National Rural Health Mission changed the fortunes of hundreds of millions and reduced infant-mortality rates.
Why didn’t India draw upon these strengths to become a pandemic-fighting leader? To a shocking degree, the answer leads to the decisions – or lack thereof – of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On one level, Mr. Modi made exactly the same errors of arrogant pride as other nationalist strongman leaders – notably, the erstwhile U.S. and current Brazilian presidents, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Like them, Mr. Modi held crowded political rallies during the most infectious periods and disdained masks and distancing. He put his Hindu-nationalist party’s (mostly unsuccessful) efforts to win state elections ahead of health advice. In January, as this deadly third wave rose, he declared victory and encouraged people to attend crowded religious events.
But his failing is somehow worse, because India had so much opportunity.
India’s political expertise did come to the rescue, but far too late. Three weeks ago, Mr. Modi received a letter from the previous prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who calmly outlined the sequence of emergency measures India should have taken to reduce the infection curve quickly and save lives.
Mr. Singh, who had spent a good part of his 10 years in office on nationwide reforms to the country’s health-care system, politely offered proposals to fund India’s vaccine-makers to produce more doses, enable licence-approval waivers to accelerate imports, and empower the 28 states to target the most vulnerable priority occupations for immediate vaccination.
Mr. Modi’s predecessor also drew attention to the sobering fact that only 1.8 per cent of India’s population had received full vaccination. “Currently, India has vaccinated only a small fraction of its population,” Mr. Singh concluded. “I am certain that with the right policy design, we can do much better and very quickly.”
In a sign of how desperate things have become, Mr. Modi essentially adopted all of Mr. Singh’s ideas immediately – though without acknowledging their source, whose secular-opposition politics and religious-minority identity make him all but unmentionable in Mr. Modi’s obsessively partisan and sectarian circles.
In Manmohan Singh’s calmly knowledgeable voice, there was a sign of the India that could have been. For now, those recommendations are enough to provide some measure of aid to India’s 1.4 billion people in the face of the virus – and Mr. Modi.