Nobody is safe till everybody is safe
As the horrific situation in India proves, writes Eddie Ford, the pandemic is far from over
The good news is that in Britain the number of Covid infections and deaths is steadily decreasing - on May 4 there were 1,946 cases and four deaths reported, representing an eight-month low. And 51.9% of the population have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Everything seems to be going in the right direction. Neil Ferguson, previously dubbed “professor lockdown” by the tabloids, said the recent data was “very encouraging” and he was “feeling fairly optimistic” that by the summer we would be back to “something which feels a lot more normal”.
But globally it is a very different picture, with nearly 3,242,000 deaths and 155 million cases. If anything, in many parts of the world things are going from bad to worse - especially in India, which has descended into Covid hell. On May 5 deaths in India from Covid rose by a record 3,780 in 24 hours, making it a total of 226,188 fatalities, while daily infections rose by 382,315. This means India accounted for one in four Covid deaths and nearly half of all cases reported worldwide last week. These are staggering statistics, as the virus mercilessly squeezes the world’s second-most populous nation of almost 1.4 billion.
The crucial question now about India is whether the infection rate is actually beginning to slow down or not. Erratic testing, poor official record-keeping and governmental incompetence - not to mention generalised corruption - makes it extremely difficult to gauge the significance of the statistics coming out at the moment. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has been widely and deservedly condemned for not acting sooner to suppress the second wave amid a severe shortage of hospital beds, oxygen, ventilators, vaccines and other medicines to treat the disease. Indeed, sounding like his fellow idiot, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi declared that Covid had been “beaten” after official statistics in January and February showed that the number of daily cases had fallen to under 20,000 from peaks of around 90,000 in September last year.
Foolishly and recklessly, all places of public gathering were re-opened - including the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival that attracts millions. In the campaign for the state assembly elections, Modi and government ministers addressed large, unmasked public gatherings - nor did they wear face coverings themselves. Inevitably, all these ‘super-spreader’ events helped unleash a second wave at the beginning of March much larger than the first - aided and abetted by most not adhering to Covid safety protocols, thanks in part to confused messages coming from officialdom. Making things even worse, Modi has resisted all calls for another national lockdown - stupidly citing worries about the impact on the economy. He is clearly living in an alternative universe, where a rampaging pandemic does not itself damage the economy. Then again, Donald Trump thought the same - at one point calling Covid-19 a “hoax”, then insisting it was the “Chinese virus”.
The devastation wrought by Covid has exposed the chronic underfunding and neglect of the public healthcare system in India - as elsewhere, of course. The horrific images of large crowds gathered outside hospitals - people dying without getting treatment - shows the grim reality of India’s infrastructure. As always, those who could afford to do so rely on private hospitals for treatment - while the poor struggle to get even a doctor’s appointment. Recent schemes, like health insurance and subsidised medicines, are making very little difference because hardly anything has been done to increase the actual number of medical staff or hospitals. India has less than 10 doctors per 10,000 people, but in some states it is less than five. India’s healthcare spending (including both private and public) has been around 3.6% of GDP for the past six years - the lowest percentage in the so-called Brics countries.
Compounding the misery, by a dreadful irony India is one the world’s biggest producers of vaccines - yet is facing a severe shortage of supplies. Vaccination rates are down from 3.7 million doses a day about a month ago to just 1.7 million a day now. Just over 10% of India’s population have had one dose and only about 2% both doses. The chief executive of India’s Serum Institute, the world's biggest vaccine manufacturer, has warned that shortages will last quite a while. It is due to deliver 220 million doses over the next few months, which would still only cover 8% of the population. Reports indicate that the Indian government is in discussions with Pfizer, which is seeking an “expedited approval pathway” for its Covid-19 vaccine.
Residents in Varanasi, Modi’s own constituency, have complained that the prime minister has gone into “hiding” - for all of his professed “special bond” with the river Ganges, the ancient city and the city’s people. The virus has ravaged the city and the medical infrastructure has collapsed, but Modi has stayed clear - despite making 17 trips to West Bengal between February and April to campaign in the elections (which he lost badly). In the words of an angry restaurant owner, Narendra Modi and the local Bharatiya Janata Party leaders are guilty of “abandoning Varanasi and its people to their own fate” - they have “switched off their phones” at “the time people need them”. With leaders like these, who needs enemies?
League of shame
Nepal is facing a deadly Covid wave similar to India - districts are already reporting an alarming spike in cases and shortage of hospital beds and oxygen. In the Banke district, doctors at the Bheri hospital said it was turning into a “mini-India”, with the coronavirus spreading “out of control”.
So far Nepal has registered 323,187 cases and 3279 Covid-19 deaths, but cases are going up at breakneck speed. The peak in October was 5,743 cases in a single day, but the current surge in cases has reached more than 7,000 new cases in a day. Last week, Kathmandu, the capital, went into a two-week lockdown - the Nepal Communist Party health minister confessing that the country’s healthcare system “can’t contain the pandemic”. Only about 7% of the population have received their vaccine shots. At first, Nepal was a beneficiary of Delhi’s “vaccine diplomacy”, with India donating 100,000 doses to its neighbour. But when all vaccine exports were halted recently, Nepal was forced to rely on China for doses and as a consequence, the vaccine programme has slowed down considerably.
Meanwhile, along with the US and India, Brazil and Mexico are still right at the top of the league of shame and will continue to remain there until the pandemic is over. Brazil is getting near 15 million cases and 412,000 deaths, whilst Mexico has well over 200,000 deaths. When the pandemic first began, Bolsonaro madly described it as a “fantasy” created by the media and his son, Eduardo - wanting to get in on the act - tweeted about how the Communist Party of China was to blame for the worldwide spread of the virus. Like Modi, the Brazilian president has organised numerous super-spreader events and essentially dismissed - if not mocked - the need for safety measures, despite getting the virus himself. Did he still think it was a “fantasy” then? Similarly, Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, continued to hold super-spreading rallies - being literally hands-on with crowds and generally downplaying the threat of coronavirus, with predictable results. Nor must we ever forget the almost 128,000 who have perished in the UK due to the criminal incompetence and bungling of the British government, for all the obvious success it has now had with the vaccine rollout.
As we speak, the UK government is agonising over which countries will be put on the so-called ‘green list’ from May 17, meaning no need to quarantine on return. Current reports suggest the likes of Portugal, Malta, Iceland, Finland, Gibraltar, Israel and possibly the US could make it onto the list. In turn, the European Union is now deciding who it will add to its own green list. As it stands, only visitors from Australia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand are allowed entry into the EU for non-essential matters. A senior official said the UK could be added to the green list, but it would depend on a reciprocal willingness to open its borders to all EU citizens - what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
Obviously, extreme caution needs to be exercised when it comes to opening the borders - there is always the possibility of a vaccine-busting mutation or variant emerging, particularly from countries like India and Brazil. There are various newspaper reports about an aggressive Covid variant tearing through Brazil that spreads “at more than double the rate of previous circulating strains” and “can also reinfect between 20 and 40 per cent of people who have already had Covid before” - thus it can evade some immunity (P1 variant).1 What must not be allowed to happen is a relaxation of the restrictions too quickly, risking another wave of the virus, whether in Britain or elsewhere.
Over the last six weeks, Gordon Brown has conducted a whirlwind campaign to persuade the UK-hosted G7 summit to fund a $60 billion two-year vaccine and healthcare support package for the poorer countries - a fraction of the sums spent fighting Covid-19 domestically in countries such as the UK, which borrowed £300 billion to fight the disease. Nobody is safe until everybody is safe. For Brown, what the G7 “spent in billions it would gain in trillions”. If his figures are anywhere near accurate, then it does seem like a small price to pay to vanquish Covid-19 - just so long as we adequately prepare ourselves for the next pandemic, which is bound to happen at some point.
For too long each state - not least in the advanced capitalist countries - has focused overwhelmingly on itself. As if national measures can end a pandemic that, by its very nature, knows no borders.