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Grief and rage over India

For the past couple of weeks, the world has watched in horror as the pandemic in India reached apocalyptic proportions, illustrated by the desperate search for oxygen and the unceasing smoke from funeral pyres. With daily cases well above 300,000, India accounts for over a third of the world’s daily reported cases, and its daily death toll of over 3,000 now exceeds that of Brazil. Local experts say even these grim figures grossly underestimate the true magnitude of the crisis.

And yet, despite these staggering numbers and the stark images that accompany them, spectacle and statistics alike lose their power from the moment they are presented. Once a new record, a new all-time high, is reached, it will take another record to make it a headline. Even the video of a dead woman being transported by her family members on a motorbike must give way to other video clips of human suffering.

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Such has been the nature of our hyperconnected, hyperreal world that newsworthiness does not correspond with relevance. But perhaps a year of COVID-19 has desensitized us further, to the point where it will take some exceptional number or nature of deaths for us to be bothered, and even then, only momentarily. First, we watched the lockdown in Wuhan, then our gaze moved to Europe, United States, Brazil, and now to India—the latest episode in what social scientists call the “global outbreak narrative,” or, in more popular parlance, “season 2” of COVID-19.

Notice how, in the global media coverage, the concern shifts—why the world should care about what’s happening in India, as if the deaths themselves aren’t enough reason. Per this outsider’s perspective, India’s COVID-19 crisis poses a global problem because of the variants it may unleash, which is why Australia has barred its own citizens from coming home. In a world where even Biden’s America hoards, or at best grudgingly parts, with its vaccine stockpile, where high-income countries protect vaccine patents with the tenacity of a viral spike protein, what can we expect?

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In India, the post-mortem has already begun, and local and global observers alike are right to indict Narendra Modi for incompetence and criminal negligence. Modi, after all, was quick to allow mass religious and political gatherings, holding mask-less rallies of his own ahead of the West Bengal elections, where his eventual, embarrassing defeat is seen as further, albeit tentative, repudiation of his pandemic response. In my own research on medical populism, I saw how politicians tend to downplay health crises and dramatize their responses to such—and Modi fits this bill perfectly, ignoring public health advice, (in)famously declaring in January that India “has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

Inequity has only exacerbated the catastrophe that Modi has brought about. No matter how incompetent Donald Trump was, the United States still managed to produce vaccines and maintain health care capacity, notwithstanding its own longstanding health care woes and catastrophic COVID-19 toll. Medical populism may affect the whole world, but some countries are more vulnerable than others, countries where leaders hold too much power, countries like India where people do not only face crisis, but are also forced to deny the crisis by the politicians who refuse accountability for it.

I am outraged, because the people of India do not deserve the incompetence and political narcissism that have led to this apocalypse. Make no mistake about it: This is not because of the virus or its variants alone. Equally responsible, if not more, is a leadership whose top priority has always been its personal, political fortunes.

And I am doubly outraged because when I see the people of India, I see the predicament of my own people. When I read accounts of Indians desperately searching for oxygen tanks or hospital beds, I see the struggles of my own family and friends, some of whom were ultimately unable to find care for their loved ones.

When I see the health care workers in New Delhi crying for help, I see my own colleagues in Manila and beyond, some of whom have lost their lives to COVID-19.

And when I see Narendra Modi declaring victory, insisting that everything is okay, and ignoring the suffering of his people, I see the emperor in my own country, naked in cowardice and shame, drunk with privilege and power, declaring that he’s doing an excellent job—while watching his country burn.

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