Australians of Indian origin live in contrasting times. On the one hand, most Australians seem so terrified of coronavirus as the Grim Reaper that they cheer locking down a city of two million in response to one infection. On 1 May, travellers from India – including Australian citizens, in possible violation of the constitution and international law – were banned from entering Australia with threats of five years’ jail and $66,600 fines.
That day, India had 2.40 Covid daily new deaths per million people. The figures were four to nine times higher for the EU, US and UK at their respective peaks. Yet, the effort by citizens to come home was not criminalised in any other case.
On the other hand, on 20 April, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a sombre national address devoid of his usual braggadocio, said: ‘In today’s situation, we have to save the country from lockdowns.’ He explained that current strategies were aimed at ensuring the least loss of lives and livelihoods and appealed to states to consider micro-containment zones rather than lockdowns. Yes, Modi has made mistakes, some very consequential. The biggest is neglect of public health infrastructure, instead prioritising the building of temples and statues; the pursuit of socially divisive policies; and an agenda of criminalising dissent and delegitimising opposition parties in the relentless campaign to install BJP governments in every state in a semi-permanent election campaign. A second big mistake was the harsh lockdown imposed in March 2020 that created a massive humanitarian tragedy. So, bravo PM Modi for resisting domestic and foreign siren calls for another national lockdown that would worsen the humanitarian emergency when social distancing is physically impossible in India’s teeming slums and millions don’t have the option to work from home.
I say that as someone who has criticised Modi for his hardline religious agenda that risks turning India into a Hindu Pakistan; for turning towards autarky in rejecting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that would have anchored India’s prosperity in Indo-Pacific open regionalism; and for the erosion of democratic principles and institutions on his watch. But also as someone strongly critical of lockdown as the default resort of scientific charlatans who have conducted an unethical medical experiment on entire populations in violation of the existing scientific and policy consensus, as embedded, for example, in the national pandemic preparedness plans of the UK and Australia as well as the World Health Organisation.
In two articles for the American Institute for Economic Research, Phillip Magness meticulously documents how the Neil Ferguson-led Imperial College London modellers predicted catastrophe in country after country, were directly and ‘bigly’ responsible for lockdowns, have been proven wrong by orders of magnitude, ‘yet in the eyes of the scientific community their credibility remains peculiarly intact’ and they continue to be the go-to ‘experts’ for the UK government and media.
The humanitarian disaster currently unfolding across India must be seen in global and domestic context. Globally, five killer diseases were deadlier than Covid in 2020: Alzheimer’s and dementia, influenza and pneumonia, lung diseases, strokes, and coronary heart disease. This is why policy attention and public resources cannot be monopolised by coronavirus but must scan the total public health horizon and establish a hierarchy of priorities to reflect the relative gravity of the different threats.
Within the global Covid envelope, India stood out as an anomaly earlier with puzzlingly low Covid casualties despite the extremely unfavourable initial conditions with respect to congested living and working conditions, and more recently with the anti-seasonal surge of new double mutant variants. No public health expert in the world forecast the ferocity of India’s surge. Yet, countries that experience an exponential growth in Covid deaths generally experience a comparable rate of descent as well of their mortality curves after a few weeks, even in second waves. India did not experience an earlier exponential growth and this bred hubris. The consequence has been tragic on an epic scale. However, there are encouraging signs that the infection curve may have peaked around 9 May and, if so, daily deaths should start to fall shortly.
With 24.4 million total Covid-19 cases and 266,229 total deaths by 15 May, India’s numbers are the second and third highest in the world. On the daily new count, India is the worst hit on both key indicators. Yet, on cases and deaths per capita, India still ranks a lowly 109th. Against internal benchmarks, in the fourteen months from 1 March 2020–30 April 2021, Covid was outside India’s top ten killers. Of course, the reliability of all mortality statistics from India is suspect because of weak state surveillance capacity. But then global statistics too are questionable with no agreed definition and methodology for tests, cases and what constitutes a Covid death. Only after another year or more will we be able to assess all-cause deaths during the time of Covid against historical trendlines and estimate how many died from and not just with Covid.
Meanwhile data show conclusively that the balance of lockdown risks and benefits varies between rich and poor countries. National authorities have to work out the best mix of mitigation measures for themselves. Anna-Mia Ekström and Stefan Swartling Peterson of the Karolinska Institute showed that as many people have died from lockdowns as of Covid. Most of the former were younger people in poor countries dying because of malnutrition, suspended vaccination campaigns and cancelled treatments for TB, HIV, etc.
Of 500 million children around the world forced out of school by lockdowns, more than half are Indian. Similarly, more than half the world’s additional 115 million people pushed back into extreme poverty live in South Asia. India is set to usher in a 375 million-strong ‘pandemic generation’ of children who will likely suffer long-lasting impacts like increased child mortality, being underweight and stunted and educational and work-productivity reversals.
Had Modi prioritised the quality of education and not politicised science, he could have sponsored world-leading and world-changing research on anti-viral treatments with ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, etc. for prevention and early treatment and been closer to realising the boast of being the pharmacy to the world. Nor is there reliable data on any correlation between vaccine rollout and initial spikes (followed by dramatic falls) in hospitalisation, on the numbers of dead who had been vaccinated, and on rampant poor mask-wearing etiquette as a vector for infection and transmission.
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