Professor Dähnhardt on India’s second wave of COVID-19

At the start of the pandemic, India seemed to be facing the crisis better than other countries, despite not having imposed particularly severe restrictions. However, the second wave of COVID-19 has hit India with a brutal force. To date, with over 27 million cases and numbers on the rise, India is second only to the USA for number of cases. The latest threat is the ‘black fungus’ infection, a serious condition that seems to be affecting COVID-19 patients, causing many deaths. 

At the same time, the Indian government has been carrying on a massive communication and vaccination campaign. According to the data released by the Indian government, over 20 million people have been vaccinated. Nevertheless, there are many critics of Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s management of the pandemic. For example, in The Guardian, the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy has attacked the government, stating that the situation is out of control and that medication and medical equipment are flooding the black market. 

We have asked Thomas Dähnhardt, professor of Modern Languages and Literatures of the Indian Subcontinent at the Department of Asian and North African Studies to comment on this situation. 

What is happening in India with this “second wave”? If it is true that the country managed the first wave quite well, what has changed? 

When it comes to the health emergency, the situation during the last few months has become very serious – much more critical than during the first wave between March and September 2020 – because this time the spread of the virus has not been contained as it was by the drastic measures that India adopted in 2020. The authorities were taken aback and the rapid spread of the virus has caused a shortage of vaccines, intensive care places, oxygen supplies and other types of medication in many areas of the country, hitting in a comparatively similar way states that are relatively well-off, such as Maharashtra, Kerala and Delhi, and poorer ones, such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.  

There are millions of sick people, with very bad infections, that have no access to the few resources that are left in the country – and this is happening to the rich, too, since it’s not a matter of money. In fact, the hard and sudden lockdown that was imposed by the government in spring 2020 caused great economic issues for many sections of the population, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable, such as day labourers, who were deprived of their only source of income from one day to the next. 

One of the consequences of the 2020 lockdown was a forced internal migration of millions of individuals towards their hometowns and villages — an epic displacement. This time, the government wasn’t willing, nor able to make a similar mistake, but it went to the other extreme, showing a certain complacency for having resisted during the first lockdown. The government acted with misguided self-confidence, challenging destiny on many different fronts. 

In your opinion, which internal and external factors have had the greatest impact on the health emergency and on the high infection rate?

India’s population is almost one and a half billion people. This in itself is a fact that contributes to the rapid spread of all sorts of infectious diseases. Moreover, because of the Indian mentality, any action is taken with a certain flexibility – this is completely different from China, where discipline is enforced in a much stronger way. Moreover, this second way was accelerated by the government’s laxness: the government was too self-complacent about its supposed success against the first wave and more worried about gaining support before important regional elections (such as in West Bengal), where, however, this approach was not successful. 

Just consider how many people gathered for the celebration of certain traditional festivals, such as Holi (to celebrate spring) and ‘Id al-Fitr (to celebrate the end of Ramadhan for Muslims), as well as to protest, such as the protest of farmers in Panjab, Haryana and Delhi. People from all villages and cities gathered together, and no efficient monitoring or checking procedures were implemented. It is understandable that the situation got worse so quickly, and that the pandemic got out of control. 

What do you think about the way the political establishment has managed the pandemic, and how do you think society is responding to political management? 

The Constitution states that public health is the responsibility of the single federal states of the Union, and not of the central government. This means that coordinating measures on a national level is complicated and can happen with delays. 

During the first wave, for example, the central government imposed a national lockdown and therefore bypassed the limitations that are prescribed in the Constitution. However, states have limited resources to face such widespread and serious emergencies and often the elaboration of strategies, such as vaccination programmes, is not coordinated among states – this is also due to the fact that India’s population is extremely mobile. All of this aggravates the great economic and educational disparities between states. Overall, during this second wave there has been no efficient policy to develop coordinated strategies that could control and contain the rapid spreading of COVID-19. 

What consequences will the pandemic have on the national economy, in the short and long term?

At the moment it’s hard to tell. The seemingly infinite growth of the Indian economy had already slowed down before the pandemic and the limitations of the pandemic certainly do not encourage the free circulation of people and goods, and consumption.

However, the situation is complex. The impact of COVID-19 on the agricultural sector, which is very important for the Indian economy and society, seems to be limited, also thanks to the government’s intervention. Conversely, the tourist sector (which amounts to approximately  9.3% of the GDP) has been hit very hard. This has resulted in 38 million people being fired (of a total of 43 million, so almost 90%), but it has also meant that India has lost a lot of incoming money. 

On the other hand, the pharmaceutical industry, which is very important in India’s economy, has gained great benefits from the increase in the international demand for drugs such as hydroxychloroquine, which is exported all over the world, as well as for other drugs that are used to treat COVID-19 symptoms. 

However, given that the impact of the pandemic on the economy is different from the impact of a “conventional” recession, it is hard to predict the possible long-term consequences only on the basis of economic indicators that are still quite unstable. 

In April various public gatherings were authorised for Kumbha Mela, one of the major hindu festivals. What is the relationship between religion and prevention in India?

Religious traditions are an integral part of everyday life for most Indians, so the government’s decision to authorise religious gatherings such as Kumbha Mela was a populist move. It was meant to reassure people and satisfy their need to live a normal life, a life in which pilgrimages play a fundamental role.  It would be wrong to believe that there are no measures that aim to guarantee a basic degree of safety (to prevent health issues but also terrorist attacks) – it’s just that the sheer number of people everywhere makes it basically impossible to adhere to the standards that would ensure effective protection. 

Are Indian universities active in their research against the virus? 

India certainly has some excellent medical institutions, such as the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), which are very active in doing research and have conducted numerous studies on the nature and distribution of the disease. They have also developed a series of vaccines that the country has already produced. There is no doubt that India has services and expertise that are enough for it to face COVID-19 on various fronts – but during the second wave, the role of these agents has been limited to expressing opinions and to giving advice to local and national politicians. India doesn’t need more “brains”, but an improved distribution of resources and skills.


Author: Rachele Svetlana Bassan / Translator: Joangela Ceccon