It is with one or two misgivings that I am writing about what is happening in India. Compared to the character-assassinating army of trolls backing Narendra Modi, Donald Trump’s livid fan base seems almost Socratic. Yet the situation in India cannot be ignored. It is tragic in its own right and dangerous to everyone else.
This morning I heard Barkha Dutt, one of India’s foremost broadcasters, and an old friend, interviewed on the BBC. She lost her father to Covid-19 in Delhi earlier this week. Her story of trying to find transport and oxygen for a dying parent has become heartbreakingly familiar. Having many good friends in India — one of whom is right now in a hospital intensive care unit in Delhi — gives me a more direct sense of what is going on there than in, say, Brazil or Mexico, where the numbers have been alarming for longer.
But India is more worrying as it is home to almost 1.4bn people and because it is suffering from a double mutant variant that could spread to other parts of the world. As my colleague Gideon Rachman wrote earlier this week, the country is also led by a prime minister who has made several big unforced errors, not least in declaring mission accomplished back in January. Modi told the Davos virtual gathering that India had turned the corner and defeated the pandemic. Then he held a series of mass political rallies in states such as West Bengal and permitted the Kumbh Mela gathering of millions of Hindus on the Ganges. It was likely the super-spreading event of the year.
There but for the grace of God, go all of us. The sentiment in the west, and particularly in Britain and the US, is that we have almost put the pandemic behind us. Once we’ve worn down the vaccine hesitants who are still holding out we can waltz off into a summer of joyous herd immunity. I hope that is right (indeed, my peace of mind travel plans are sort of betting on it). But what is happening in India — and elsewhere — gives me real pause for thought.
Over the past six weeks, the rate of global infections has doubled, while it has dropped sharply in the west (and more than 90 per cent in the UK). The narratives could not be further apart. We’re all in the same theatre complex watching different movies but breathing the same air.
If we have learnt anything about this virus, it is that it mutates quickly, turns up at the most surprising times (why did it so viciously strike India in the past few weeks rather than last year?) and often confounds the epidemiologists. The leading vaccine companies this week said they were confident the shots will protect us against new variants. I hope so. But we would be reckless to bet on it.
We should take two urgent lessons from what is happening in India. First, it is in our interests to get as many vaccines to India as possible. As Sadanand Dhume writes in The Wall Street Journal, that will involve some political risk on Biden’s part — and other western leaders. If the virus resurges at home, having helped foreigners will become an easy stick with which to beat them. Yet our self-interest demands it, in addition to humanitarian motives. Just 2 per cent of India is fully vaccinated and it is barely able to inoculate more than 2m people a day. At that rate it will take more than 18 months to cross the approximate 70 per cent line to get to herd immunity.
We cannot afford to allow anything like that continued room for mutation in India. Neither can Africa, which, until recently, had been largely depending on India’s now-suspended vaccine exports for its own people. Neither the Russian nor Chinese vaccines are World Health Organization-approved so they cannot be distributed through the Covax system. We have to find ways of massively ramping up production by other providers, such as Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca and getting them to India and elsewhere.
The second lesson is never believe your own propaganda. Modi is one of the world’s most narcissistic leaders. The personality cult around him and his intolerance of dissent is profoundly disturbing to anyone who values India’s pluralistic vitality. Modi has been as assiduous in steamrollering those traditions as he has been negligent in safeguarding India’s public health. But he is by no means unique. Every country is prone to self-admiration.
Just a few months ago, Britain was the sickest largest country in the west. Now the UK’s tabloids are beating their breast about the country’s scientific prowess. That is when the rest of us should be most nervous. The world is awash in brain-eating nationalisms to which all of us are vulnerable. I am no stranger to patriotism but hardcore nationalism is a hazard to mental and physical health.
Rana, I’m trying to think of a positive note on which to conclude. I believe you’ve had your second shot, which is great news. Mine is next week. Are we now out of the woods?
Ed, I did indeed have my second shot this week, for which I’m hugely grateful. But like you, I don’t think we are out of the woods at all. I worry very much about the mutations and in particular the fact that they seem to be affecting more young people. My husband and college-aged daughter have been vaccinated, but my 14-year-old son isn’t eligible for the vaccination, even with mild asthma, as it hasn’t been deemed safe yet for under-16s. So, we are staying put in New York this summer, spending some time upstate in the country, rather than taking any big trips.
But to the most worrisome issue of all — India. We need to get as many vaccines as possible there for humanitarian reasons alone, as you point out. But to be blatantly political, India is a very, very important country for America at the moment. Modi aside, it’s still a democracy and a potential ally in any conflict with China. The last possible thing that America could want would be for chaos to ensue in this part of the world off the back of what’s happening with Covid. Or for Indians themselves to feel that the US turned its back in an hour of desperate need. We should send them supplies, and fast.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘Tax justice now!’: “The caveat to all taxation is trust. As a European immigrant to the US, I have a relatively positive attitude to paying tax. The American mindset is totally different. My friends and colleagues here (even liberals) have a visceral hatred of taxation and little or no trust in government. If the US is going to move from being one of the lowest tax countries in the world to one of the highest, we will need to see gigantic improvements in public education, healthcare, social security, etc to achieve even the lowest European standards.” — Chris Millerchip, Rye, New York
In response to ‘Time to give Putin a new salvo of Panama Papers’:“The underlying snag with achieving that transparency is not so much that many politicians, and presumably most kleptocrats, benefit from the way that things are and would oppose change, but that the administrative establishments do not wish to take on the challenge. Over 30 years ago the European Commission invited the English Institute of Chartered Accountants, with me and another partner from my firm, to propose how to oversee grants from the EC which were clearly not going to their intended purpose. Our proposal was, ‘follow the money’. Only make grants on agreement that the trail can be audited from bank account to bank account to final recipient and its use. That, the every able officials told us, would be impossible. Auditing, tracking, where money went, keeping it identifiable and identifying its use, would be politically unacceptable — in their view.” — Hugh Aldous, London, England