India reported 206 cases of coronavirus and five deaths on Friday. But with its poor population, poverty and public health services, the largest democracy in the world could be a COVID-19 time bomb. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the country this week, the Indians were looking for measures to deal with the crisis. Rather, they had a populist symbolism.
On a sunny spring afternoon in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a crowd of people, followed by journalists, walked to tables set up on public land to catch terracotta cups filled with a miracle cure against the promised coronavirus: cow urine.
As musicians hit cymbals and chant Hindu religious verses over a deafening sound system, a participant named Om Prakash swallowed the bovine elixir in front of press cameras and extolled the virtues of cow urine in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Gaumutra [cow urine] is effective against all forms of bacteria that harm us, “said Prakash, carefree that a virus, not bacteria, is the cause of the last global health crisis.
The climax of the event organized by All India Hindu Mahasabha came hours later, when supporters gathered in front of a poster of a multi-member monster – labeled “coronavirus” – chasing Chinese people eating various types of meat. A cup of cow urine was symbolically placed near the lips of the poster monster while Swami Chakrapani Maharaj, the group’s religious leader dressed in saffron, explained that the offerings should calm the demon coronavirus.
While the cow is considered a sacred animal in Hinduism, public health experts in India have endeavored to spread the message that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the creature’s waste has medicinal properties or health benefits.
The March 14 rally in the heart of the Indian capital was just one of many “gaumutra parties ”- dubbed an Indian version of tea parties – held in parts of the country to ward off the killer virus. Some have presented people getting dirty from cow dung in an effort to ward off the deadly virus. A number of these events were organized by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Others were detained by organizations belonging to Sangh Parivar, or a family of right-wing Hindu groups including the BJP, whose executives of millions of volunteers and sympathizers constitute Modi’s most loyal voting base.
The country currently has 206 confirmed cases of coronavirus and five deaths, according to the latest government figures. These are expected to increase as India is among the the lowest test rates in the world. With a population of 1.3 billion, poverty, public health and inadequate infrastructure, India presents a perfect storm if the virus spreads on a large scale.
“India is one of the most populous countries in the world, a key economic and strategic player, and its location is essential. If India is badly affected by the coronavirus, the stakes for the world are clearly enormous, “explained Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC in an interview with FRANCE 24.” Given its high population density, the social distance is absolutely critical to contain the spread of the virus. “
The official Indian response to social distancing, however, was schizophrenic. While many governments have been accused of not responding quickly and effectively enough to the COVID-19 crisis, the Modi government faces a unique set of mixed messaging problems, which are political and not big – something to do with public health or sanitation policies.
First case of China, early health measures
In terms of public health, India reacted quickly and vigorously to the epidemic when the first case, a student returning from the Chinese province of Wuhan, was confirmed in late January. Thermal controls were immediately applied to airline passengers arriving from China. Restrictions on international travel have been gradually tightened and, on Thursday, India banned inbound international flights.
Before the ban, information and social media were obstructed by unsanitary conditions of quarantine facilities and lack of organization, forcing the government to respond to complaints from part of the population with the means and resources to travel abroad and demand basic health standards.
Travel bans have, however, only been applied to people arriving from abroad. Within the country, no restrictions have been placed on domestic travel, raising concerns about a community spread that could overwhelm the country’s health system.
“Dream time for a virus”
Regarding social distance, a major concern of the second most populous nation in the world, the Modi government’s response to public rallies has drawn criticism from experts and concerned citizens.
This month in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, for example, chief minister repeatedly ignores calls from health officials to cancel religious fair that attracts millions of worshipers each year . Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a fire-branding Hindu priest and a member of the BJP in power, kept the nine-day Ram Navami Mela commemorating the birth of the Hindu god Ram in the city of Ayodhya.
This year’s ceremony seems to be particularly busy as it marks the first celebrations of Ram Navami after a controversial Supreme Court decision in November 2019 allowed Hindus to build a temple on the site of 14ecentenary in Ayodhya which was destroyed by Hindu extremists. The chief minister of state, Adityanath, was to kick off the celebrations on March 25 and a statue of Lord Ram would then be placed in bullet-proof glass on the disputed site.
Each year, the faithful dive into the sacred river of Sarayu, a prospect that has sounded the alarm among the Indians concerned about the spread of the coronavirus. “With crowds gathering on the banks of the Sarayu, performing ablutions in the river, it’s a dream moment for a virus,” moans Salil Tripathi, author of “Offense: The Hindu Case”, a book on nationalism Hindu, in an interview with FRANCE 24 Thursday.
Stay at home on Sunday
Given the conflicting signals about social distancing, Indians concerned about the crisis turned to Modi for leadership and to deliver an unambiguous public health message, particularly on the politically charged issue of religious gatherings. Their hopes were raised this week when his office said the Prime Minister would deliver a long-awaited speech Thursday evening to the nation on the crisis.
In his 28-minute prime-time speech, Modi called for a self-imposed janata [or public] curfew to be observed on Sunday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. “March 22 will be a symbol of our efforts, our restraint and our determination to fulfill our duty to serve the nation,” said Modi.
The Prime Minister then called on the Indians to come to their windows and balconies on Sunday at 5 p.m. to show their support for healthcare workers. “We are going to clap our hands, beat our plates, ring our bells to cheer up and salute their service,” he added.
Modi also announced that his government would set up an economic working group to “make decisions in the near future, based on regular interactions and feedback from all stakeholders”. But he did not provide any details on budget packages, allocations or measures to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic. He also did not address the question of questionable miracle cures advocated by some of his party members, nor raised the issue of banning large religious gatherings such as the upcoming Ram Navami festival.
“Big symbolic gestures”, big omissions
The justification for a voluntary 14-hour lockout on a single day without announcing a political initiative did not impress critics. “I agree that he sent a soothing message, but honestly, he expected an economic announcement to help daily workers, the lowest strata of society, etc.,” said Sumanth Raman, TV presenter and doctor by training, on Twitter. “Staying at home on Sundays and making noise at 5 p.m. may not be enough.”
I agree that he sent a soothing message, but honestly, he expected an economic announcement to help the day laborers, the weakest sections of society, etc. And a plan on how the health system is mobilized. Staying at home on Sundays and making noise at 5 p.m. may not be enough.
– Sumanth Raman (@sumanthraman) March 19, 2020
In his Twitter response to Modi’s speech, Tripathi listed the omissions. “Here is what he should have said: 1. No Ram Navmi Mela 2. No exemption for any large religious gathering,” said Tripathi before concluding, “Applause is granted, not required.”
Here’s what he should have said:
1. No Ram Navmi Mela.
2. No exemption for any large religious gathering.
3. Like @prempanicker underlined, an additional salary for those who perform work that involves contact.
3. Like @srajagopalan says, stop it all.
Applause is won, not required.
– Salil Tripathi سلیل تریپاٹھی સલિલ ત્રિપાઠી (@saliltripathi) March 19, 2020
Kugelman was skeptical about the effectiveness of the Prime Minister’s proposals. “We know that Modi likes big symbolic gestures. I would put this day curfew in this category. There is no benefit to public health in this effort to gather at windows and balconies to recognize those on the front line of defense against the coronavirus. It’s not new, people from other cities did it by running a social media campaign, without the leaders calling it. Supporters of Modi will say that it is a grand and unique idea. But it is neither large nor unique, ”he noted. “That said, it is a useful way to bring the country together to show support for those who are working hard to fight the virus.”
Finally, the organizers of the Ram Navami festival announced Friday the cancellation of the celebrations following the public outcry.
While welcoming the cancellation, Tripathi noted that Modi had missed a critical messaging opportunity. “It is scandalous that the authorities waited so long to stop the congregation, and the Prime Minister missed the opportunity his speech gave to set the tone by saying that such large gatherings, regardless of faith or purpose, should be postponed indefinitely, “said Tripathi. “At a time when world leaders were proposing innovative policy measures, Modi only called for a limited stop on a Sunday, which was too voluntary, and asked people to applaud essential service workers. It is the abdication of responsibility. Even other governments that were initially lethargic, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, are doing more. “
Meanwhile, Kugelman was not surprised that Modi did not discuss other unproven medical treatments and remedies to fight the coronavirus epidemic, but he was dismayed by the silence of the Indian chief . “It is striking to say the least. He could have spent at least a sentence or two saying that there are scientifically proven measures to fight the health crisis and reject alternative measures that are not particularly effective, “he noted. “But it makes political sense for Modi not to get into this question. He has the support of conservative members of the population who sincerely believe in these remedies. “
“Old India” to the rescue
Populist symbolism devoid of political directives that could upset its hard Hindu voting base has been Modi’s standard operating procedure since taking office six years ago. The Hindu nationalist leader has faced international criticism of human rights abuses and anti-Muslim policies in the “New India“As the country prepares to respond to the coronavirus crisis, experts hope that the public health structures of former socialist India will allow the world’s largest democracy to weather the latest crisis.
In one Foreign policy column released earlier this week, Indiana University’s Sumit Ganguly detailed three past health crises – including the 1980s HIV crisis – that were effectively managed by the Indian state and central authorities. They “suggest that the country has the capacity to alleviate serious health problems, even if it has shown a lax attitude towards routine public health needs,” said Ganguly.
The Indian state, Ganguly noted, has so far responded effectively and proportionately to the COVID-19 epidemic. “Despite all the efforts the government has made to contain the likely spread of the virus, it is of course entirely possible that a growing wave of infections will spread through the community. Once this happens, given the unusual living conditions of Indian cities and towns, the disease can spread across the country like wildfire, “he warned. “The question then becomes whether New Delhi’s actions have left its people enough time – and whether they will do their part by practicing social distancing and taking personal precautions.”