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HomeNewsFrontline Voices From India’S COVID-19 Crisis

Frontline Voices From India’S COVID-19 Crisis

A coalition of progressive Indian American and South Asian diaspora organizations held a press conference with frontline workers from India and their allies on May 9, 2021. The speakers offered first-hand accounts of how their communities and families are coping in the face of the devastating Covid-19 health and humanitarian crisis, and also what the US Government, its allies and those in the diaspora can do to help alleviate the suffering. 

Rohit Tripathi, co-founder of Young India, Inc., a progressive diaspora policy advocacy group in the Washington DC area, opened the event by reciting a poem that captured the collective grief of all Indians and the diaspora. Dr. Nidhi Trehan, a political sociologist, noted that “tragically, infections of the current virulent strain are rising exponentially in the subcontinent (including in neighboring Bangladesh and Nepal), and have reached catastrophic proportions in India, with over 400,000 cases reported daily. Close to 250,000 Indians have been lost to Covid-19 and this figure is certainly an undercount as many Indian medical professionals have noted”. The inexplicable lack of planning and inaction by the Modi administration created a trajectory that resulted in many avoidable deaths as the early warning signs flagged by the Indian scientific community were ignored. This will certainly have global consequences in the months to come. 

Akriti Bhatia, a labor activist from New Delhi based PAIGAM, speaking on the political economy of the pandemic, noted that “It’s very important to call out the story of the failed Indian state – the government has misplaced priorities – instead of preparing for future waves, the government introduced anti-farmer and anti-labor laws”. In discussing the National Capital Region (NCR), Akriti noted that “it’s very grim, there is a dearth of firewood to burn corpses, with special permission being granted to cut firewood, oxygen cylinders cost 40,000 rupees and are being shared between patients. After the exodus of last year during the first lockdown, better preparations should have been made.” She pushed the Modi administration to encourage testing and vaccination at local levels, as well as to reach out to the world community to seek help and not to hamper or refuse it (eg. China). 

Kalaimagal Arumugam, advisory member of the Dalit Solidarity Forum, spoke from rural Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu about the lack of resources to combat Covid-19 and the context in which marginalized groups are facing deteriorating conditions. She said, “fear rules in every sense, and Covid has made it worse. The isolation of Dalits has increased, leading to an increase in domestic violence and sexual violence. They are like frightened lambs.”  She added that poverty and fear are creating mental health issues as “Dalits are being called upon to handle the bodies of those who have died of Covid-19 and provide cremation services. Now we are doubly ‘polluted’. And we are being provided with neither money or food for hours of cremation work.”  Her daughter Anu, a medical student in Kerala, suggested one path forward, “There are 1 lakh medical students and medical graduates in Tamil Nadu who aren’t being used during the current healthcare crisis. The state of Kerala has done this, and also every hospital in Kerala is now required to have an oxygen plant – these policies need to be implemented everywhere in India.” Mrs. Arumugam lamented that basic items such as hygienic products and sanitary pads were unavailable, and added that even simple things like vitamins (to address the malnutrition) and sanitizers could be distributed to the poor. 

Ali Shariff, Secretary of Mercy Mission in Bangalore emphasized the critical paucity of resources (oxygen cylinders, regulators, masks; medicines and staff shortages) and how citizen’s collective actions based on ad-hoc solutions of NGOs volunteers coming together are good, but simply cannot be a replacement for a functioning health care system based on proper planning. He explained how Mercy Mission had created an alliance of about a dozen NGOs with approximately 400-500 volunteers to be able to save lives in this second wave of the Covid pandemic. Mercy Mission began awareness campaigns about masks and social distancing and focused on food for migrant workers in Bangalore, which many individuals and companies also donated towards. Lastly, volunteers became “mercy angels” and took the covid dead for cremations and burials when no one else would. The NGO also created oxygen centers, created online clinics, and ran ambulance and helpline services. Shariff offered a sobering assessment of the challenges that lie ahead, “There is hopelessness everywhere, grief all around. Even when the pandemic is over, mental health issues will continue to haunt us for a long time to come.” Critically, he underlined how NGOs are struggling with shortages and this problem could be alleviated with the lifting of the stringent FCRA restrictions for foreign contributions. 

Himanshu Kumar, a grassroots leader who works with Adivasis (India’s indigenous communities) in Chhattisgarh, expressed his alarm at the continued centralization of policy making and execution, with all decisions going through the PMO’s office. He also noted the new laws under the Modi administration which treat NGOs as “government servants”, and therefore they are not allowed to point out flaws in government policy anymore. He opined, “this government sees every tragedy as an opportunity to further its agenda and help capitalists”.
Madhuri Sastry, journalist and writer on human rights law, made an impassioned case for vaccine equity, advocating for equitable access to the Covid-19 vaccine worldwide and making it a public good, not a private commodity, “the vaccines should be a public good, as their development was a public effort, with vast public funds being given to pharmaceutical companies.” One could argue citizens of developed countries, whose vaccination programs are progressing rapidly, can demand their governments to share the surpluses that were developed by their tax dollars. Sastry concluded by calling for a shift in ethos when it comes to vaccine patents in the industry and to create an effective pathway for free, universal vaccination with the unprecedented urgency that this crisis demands.

Given the current regulatory framework and production capacities, urgent policy interventions are needed to meet the vaccine demand ahead of impending waves. Related to this, the coalition commended the Biden administration on its initiative to share the AstraZeneca vaccines stockpile and for moving on the TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) waiver for vaccines at the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as other immediate direct relief efforts to India, including sending a CDC team of experts to advise on the Covid-19 emergency. The coalition noted just how critical it is to listen to the voices of those on the ground and emphasized, “we hope power will pay heed”.

Rohit Tripathi closed out the event with a forceful demand for transparency from all stakeholders. Tripathi emphasized that “Transparency isn’t just a theoretical concept but rooted in data: itś capture, its veracity and its dissemination. Without which local, state and national responses in India cannot be meaningfully crafted and executed. The world community at large needs assurance that India will cooperate at the global level to stop this menace in its tracks. The world is at risk as well.” 


Key Recommendations for the Biden/Harris Administration

Despite its sluggish initial response, the Biden administration has swung into action based on expertise, evidence and encouraging community participation. It must be thanked for swift action on both pledging the AstraZeneca stockpile to lower income countries of the Global South and the recent statement by US Trade Representative Ambassador Tai which confirms the US’ support of the TRIPS (intellectual property protection) waiver for Covid-19 vaccines within the World Trade Organization. 

We recommend the following:

  1. Stay focused on the Vaccination efforts and their regulatory hurdles. It is essential that rapid global vaccination become a priority for the Biden administration and its allies. We urge the Biden administration to stay the course, release the AstraZeneca vaccine in May 2021 to countries in greatest need such as India, and urge the lifting of the patent protection of vaccines by its allies (eg. Germany). 
  2. Transparency and Data Integrity. Continue to stress the criticality of transparency, data integrity and free speech in India with counterparts through diplomatic channels. Trust within India and with its external partners has to be the basis of effective collaboration. 
  3. Lead with Science. Collaborate with the Indian scientific community to help them lead the best operational response to the vaccination challenge. Assist in ramping up vaccine rollout in India (CDC advisory role) – push for vaccine equity within India.

Key Recommendations for the Modi Administration

  1. Transparency and Equity in addressing the health and humanitarian crisis – Be honest and clear in communicating with the Indian public and international partners. The Modi Administration needs to be more transparent and clearly and regularly communicate both its emergency policy implementation and public health messaging (around covid testing and vaccinations) during the pandemic. The people of India need assurance that the government will mobilize its resources aggressively in order to save lives. 

Here are some immediate term actions we recommend:

  1. The PM Cares Fund set up expressly for Covid relief has over US $1 billion at present and this should be released immediately, equitably, and transparently in order to save lives. 
  2. The Centre must work collaboratively and effectively with the State governments in order to meet the goals of emergency healthcare provision. Key areas include the production and impartial distribution of oxygen supplies, equitable distribution of foreign aid and donations and full coordination with government agencies as well as Indian military for the relief efforts on the ground.
  3. Inequities based on regions or political considerations should not inhibit critical access to resources across metros, tier 2/3 cities and rural areas.
  4. Central Vista construction should be halted immediately and the funds used for oxygen and vaccines, focusing on regions of India most affected by the pandemic. 
  1. Execute a Science-based and Equity-focused Vaccination plan.  Vaccine equity is of paramount importance; for example, since the Indian government owns the patent rights of Covaxine jointly with Bharat Biotech, it must ramp up production of this vaccine on an emergency basis. Indeed, vaccines must be free of cost and universally accessible, ensuring that marginalized communities also benefit. There should be transparency and clear accountability in their distribution.    
  2. Lift Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) restrictions. Allow healthcare and livelihood-focused NGOs and civil society organizations access to foreign relief focused funds. The Modi administration should relax its policies on local Indian NGOs getting funds from abroad with immediate effect, thereby facilitating a more nimble and effective network of aid on the ground during the pandemic crisis. 

Stay Committed to Freedom of Speech. Support free speech for journalists and on social media platforms, especially those expressing dissent and in the humanitarian sector; at the same time, regulatory policies are required to curtail divisive, hateful inflammatory rhetoric on social media (eg. on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc).



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