13.04.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

India’s Response to the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic


Since the beginning of 2020, a range of complex issues associated with the “SARS COV-2” outbreak (the latest official name WHO has given the virus which causes the Covid-19 disease) have gradually been becoming the most central concerns in today’s Great Global Game (GGG). It has caused most of the problems the world’s biggest players are now experiencing, yet the “medical” challenges are just one aspect of these issues, and probably not even the main component.

Modern India is undoubtedly one of these top players – an extremely sophisticated yet stratified country with a population of over 1.3 billion people, which was ranked one of the world’s five largest economies in terms of its GDP in 2019, overtaking the UK.

For now, India has been spared the kinds of apocalyptic scenes that can be seen in the American and European news on a daily basis. On April 5, the number of infections recorded in India was at 3374 with 79 coronavirus-related deaths, although the country had recorded its first case back on January 30.  This relatively positive picture (especially considering the country’s massive population and how densely populated India is) can only be down to how India reacted in the early stages of the outbreak when the epidemic began to develop.

For almost two months, Narendra Modi’s government did not seem too concerned about the coronavirus problem. After all, this period was marked by important political events including the Legislative Assembly elections for the National Capital Territory of Delhi and a visit from US President Donald Trump. During Trump’s visit (extremely important for the country and for Narendra Modi’s popularity), large-scale riots broke out in Delhi between various different sections of Indian society, which are still the subject of an ongoing investigation.

On March 20, the press were already discussing statements made by certain “activists” from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) about the healing power of a folk-medicine “panacea” based on local beliefs in the fight against coronavirus. The article in question highlighted peddlers selling cow urine and dung (in some cases people were told it should be ingested) for 6-7 dollars per kilogram/liter.

Considering that these kinds of claims and beliefs have a wide following in India, while secular India reacted to this news with bewilderment, looking towards the party and government for their reaction, the response from BJP leadership was that India is a democratic country and that everyone has the right to express their own opinion. The traders mentioned in the article were arrested, but an unclear formal reason was given for their arrest.

By this stage, it had become clear that the urgent methods needed to be put in place, and the tried and tested tools of official medicine needed to be enlisted. On March 24, Modi announced the introduction of an unprecedentedly strict total lockdown throughout the country for a period of three weeks. This paralyzed most aspects of political life.

As communications were severed with the outside world, Indian states (of which there are about thirty) simultaneously began working in “it’s every man for himself” mode. One of the problems that arose was that almost 150 million daily wage workers could no longer put food on the table, as they normally have to travel (sometimes tens of kilometers) to their workplace every day. The suspension of passenger transport services has forced people to commute on foot (including women with children). But this walking exodus was often met with more obstacles such as the roadblocks set up by police and soldiers patrolling state borders. That is not to mention all the closures which have left many of these laborers without any work.

It has become a major challenge to prevent different types of events where a large number of people gather to celebrate various religious occasions. Most representatives of different faiths generally adhered to the restrictions imposed by the government even before the lockdown was imposed.

However, these restrictions were broken in mid-March in what became known as India’s coronavirus hotspot in Delhi, where over ten thousand members of the Tablighi Jamaat Islamic missionary movement gathered in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque (named after the medieval Sufi saint), a group which is banned in other countries and has an estimated following of 150 million people around the world. According to India’s central government, those who took part travelled home to different Indian states after attending this religious congregation, making it a coronavirus super-spreader event. Almost third of all those infected with the coronavirus in India are believed to be Tablighi Jamaat members. Some claim that this event has led to the fact that the number of coronavirus cases in the country now doubles every 4.1 days.

Whether or not that is the case, this incident has made relations between Hindus and Muslims even more complicated.

The discussion led by NEO on the controversial legislation India brought in last year is still relevant today. The press is now questioning whether the Supreme Court order on migrant labor taken on March 31 this year, which is seen as giving India’s central government “carte blanche”, complies with basic democratic rights. What makes this situation so interesting is the fact the government acted as a defendant in this trial, as these proceedings took place in response to a writ petition submitted by representatives of India’s domestic labor migrants to the Union of India.

One of several measures taken which extend the powers of India’s central government during the lockdown period that has been highlighted is the severe restriction of press freedoms, which had been a pillar of a proper democratic state structure up until recently.

On Friday, March 3, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet joined those who have criticized the measures being taken, as she urged the Indian government to ensure the police force “show restraint and abide by international standards on the use of force” when implementing the new measures. The High Commissioner for Human Rights presumably meant that the beatings with long police batons should not be too painful for these migrant laborers living off a daily wage.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs has not responded to this friendly advice for the last two weekends. But not only can we expect to hear this response from next week, we can also predict what kind of response it will be with a good degree of certainty. After all, there was a similar situation a month ago which specifically had to do with clarifying the new Citizenship (Amendment) Act for Jammu and Kashmir, and the same respected UN chief Michelle Bachelet was already told where to go (in diplomatic terms).

The SARS COV-2 pandemic in India is an issue that is also clearly beginning to take on an international dimension. The most representative evidence of this was a telephone call which took place between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi on April 4, when the two leaders had an “extensive” conversation on the topic of a joint fight against the coronavirus, deploying their “full strength”. Modi spoke with the President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro on the same day and on the same subject.

We also note that external affairs ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar did not take any time off last weekend, and was quick to hit back at another statement made by the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan regarding the same new amended citizenship law for Jammu and Kashmir.

Another point worth noting is that China has yet again ignored Pakistan’s latest request to raise the issue of India’s decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir for discussion by the UN Security Council. Pakistan made this request at the end of March, when China was chairing the UN Security Council.

Amid growing international turbulence, Beijing has been forced to take dependable cooperation with its key regional ally off its list of priorities for the time being, which certainly does not mean Pakistan will be deprived of this status in any way.

However, now is a good time for China to work on building positive relations with India, which is something that Delhi also acknowledges. One of the most significant steps taken in this direction was at the end of February, when Indian Air Force transport planes delivered 15 tons of medical supplies to Wuhan.

Lastly, it should be noted that the measures taken by Indian government to combat the SARS COV-2 pandemic cannot please everyone. Yet the same also applies to other countries. Every country is struggling to find a happy medium, balancing the requirements to suppress the epidemic and the task of not killing off all material means to support humankind and life going forward.

Yet it is unclear whether this happy medium even exists.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.