India’s lockdown to combat coronavirus ‘belated’; gives no assurance of supplies to poor : US magazine

NEW YORK, Mar 30 (APP):Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s lockdown of India, the world’s second-most populous country, aimed at containing the spread of coronavirus is “belated” and would leave too many poor and homeless people
exposed amid increasing cases of the deadly infection, according to an article published in Foreign Policy, a respected American magazine.

“A country that is already grappling with its worst unemployment rate in decades and a rising and divisive nationalism now must deal with a pandemic that will strike a major blow to its economy especially for its so-called informal workers who have no health care, benefits, or safety nets to fall back on,” Rana Ayyub, a noted Indian journalist, wrote in the bi-monthly publication.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, Ms. Ayyub pointed out, India refused to label it a health emergency and placed the country under lockdown on March 24 — nearly two weeks later.

“While New Delhi has taken decisive action,” she wrote, “there are fears it has come too late and that too many of the country’s poor and homeless will be left exposed.”

“Even now, the entire country has tested fewer than 30,000 people, representing one of the lowest testing rates in the world.”

Citing Ramanan Laxminarayan, a U.S.-based public health expert, the article said that despite the lockdown, the peak of the pandemic will likely hit India by late April or early May and that around a million people will need hospital beds and critical care at that point.

“This is where disaster could strike,” Ms. Ayyub said, noting that India has just 0.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people (Italy has more than six times as many) and spends just 3.7 percent of its GDP on health (the United States spends 17 percent of its GDP on health care).

Meanwhile, she pointed out that India had allotted large sums of money to build the world’s tallest statues in “an obnoxious display of nationalism.”

Ms. Ayyub wrote, “Last year, Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, put aside $91 million for the construction of a statue of the Hindu deity Ram even as hundreds of people in his state had died of encephalitis in the last few years, with key emergency facilities lacking necessary oxygen cylinders. Adityanath’s stated aim was to build a statue taller than the 597-foot one of the freedom fighter Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, inaugurated by Modi in 2018, which cost $400 million.

“Even when Modi announced his lockdown on March 24 with no mention of how people would get their daily supplies his words sparked panic. People rushed to the streets in large numbers before Modi could finish his speech. Pharmacies were swarmed with nervous faces; social distancing was quickly forgotten. At supermarkets, anxious families stocked up on essential commodities. Milk and eggs disappeared from the shelves.

“But while the privileged a tiny minority in India were stocking their refrigerators with weeks of supplies, the country’s daily wage workers and laborers were flocking to their hometowns, often barefoot, some with their infants tied to their backs and young children crying in tow as police beat them mercilessly for flouting curfew rules.

“In Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, some 300 migrant workers crammed themselves in food container trucks so they could reach home away from the scrutiny of baton-wielding police. The heart-wrenching images of young men, with sweaty, bare bodies making their way out of the claustrophobic containers, made headlines on the country’s TV channels.

“In neighboring Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum with a population of 1 million in an area of less than a square mile, workers laughed when I asked them if they had been practicing social distancing. As I stood outside a hovel, trying to keep some distance from people the day after Modi’s lockdown order was announced, even talking about social distancing felt obscene near a room of eight people crammed together with barely any space to breathe.”

Amid lockdown, Ms. Ayyub spoke about the plight of poor as also of the frustration of doctors and said that wealthy Indians came out on March 22 at their balconies clapping and banging utensils to mark a national day of curfew. “But it was a misplaced celebration of nationalism,” she remarks.

“It also highlighted a fundamental divide in the country. On the one hand, there is the country’s upper-middle class, the elite that has stocked hand sanitizer, mango puree, and ground coffee and is posting patriotic selfies on social media,” the article said.

“But a much larger underclass, the country’s poor and struggling, is battling poverty, has no access to soap, water, or toilets, and is living in packed clusters in slums. These same people are extremely vulnerable to the virus; for them, social distancing is a curious privilege.The unpreparedness of India’s health care and social system to deal with the pandemic is aggravated by an indifferent law enforcement that deploys brutal force against its people.

“Last month, while much of the world including next-door neighbor China was raising the alarm about the fast-spreading coronavirus, India was making global headlines for a bloody carnage in the country’s capital in which 54 people were killed and hundreds injured. And all of it was spawned by hate speech by top-ranking ministers in Modi’s cabinet. The city’s police watched on. While the world was stocking up on masks and gloves, India was busy dousing communal fire stoked by its own government.

“Thousands of families displaced in New Delhi’s violence with their kin in hospitals and their livelihoods destroyed were living in temporary relief camps in the capital. Then, as the country suddenly woke up to the threat of COVID-19, the camps were abruptly razed to the ground. The victims were left with no help.”