India’s Covid Critics Are Back: They Are Right For Now, But Will Be Proved Wrong Again

R Jagannathan

Apr 15, 2021, 11:37 AM | Updated 11:29 AM IST

A Covid-19 test. (representative image)
A Covid-19 test. (representative image)
  • India’s Covid critics have slammed everything, from the sharp first-quarter GDP drop in FY 2020-21 to the draconian lockdown and migrant crisis.
  • They are again at it as Covid has come back with a vengeance; they will again shut up once they know this thing also will pass.
  • Given the massive spike in Covid infections in India over the last two months (the daily addition to Covid numbers have now crossed the 200,000 mark), it is not unreasonable that the track record of the Narendra Modi government should be examined with a critical eye.

    Two recent commentaries, one by Modi-baiter Mihir Sharma, and another by fan-turned-critic Rupa Subramanya, have pointed out that presumptions about India conquering Covid turned out to be false with the virus’s second coming.

    Even the much-touted claim of being the world’s vaccine supplier-in-chief is wearing thin as shortages have been reported in India itself. (Read here and here).

    While Sharma blamed this on India’s hyper-nationalism, arrogance and incompetence, Subramanya says India tripped on this challenge by focusing on just one vaccine – AstraZeneca’s Covishield – and an untested domestic offering (Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin).

    Also, the government kept bulk purchase prices too low, which proved to be a disincentive for manufacturers to rapidly expand capacity, and the early decision to dispatch vaccines abroad to gain diplomatic brownie points now looks questionable.

    Any government which happens to be in this situation must surely shoulder a large part of the blame.

    However, here’s the point: with the exception of some monocultural and authoritarian governments in Asia, it is difficult to believe that any government actually got its Covid response completely right. Maybe we should call them out for arrogance, hyper-nationalism and incompetence too.

    As for China, Singapore, etc, in the case of the former we don’t know the full truth of what happened; in the case of the latter, the only standard of comparison can be population-adjusted performance.

    India, with 237 times Singapore’s population, currently has 231 times Singapore’s cumulative Covid total, 14.07 million versus 60,719. Things may change if India makes a hash of it going forward, but as of today it ain’t doing so.

    As for the charge of hyper-nationalism, the political charge against the Modi government now is the exact opposite: India has been too busy playing international do-gooder by sending vaccines to the world when its own needs are going to overwhelm it. This attack is the burden of the Aam Aadmi Party’s song, and also Rahul Gandhi’s. It hardly sounds like hyper-nationalism.

    The second point to make is this: in diverse democracies, public policy objectives cannot be reduced to one simple metric of measurement or performance metric. In January, when Covid was tapering down, vaccines were in healthy supply. There was also an initial resistance to vaccinations, thanks to mindless politically-motivated criticism.

    Consider what would have been the case if India had been over-cautious in according emergency use approvals (EUAs) on grounds of safety; vaccine availability today would have been even lower.

    Or, assume, it did the exact opposite, by allowing all kinds of global vaccines to be sold here without at least some bridge trials: adverse reactions, even deaths, would have created a complete crisis of confidence in the vaccines.

    Vaccines also are in short supply because states, faced with the sudden spike, are now finding it convenient to look at vaccination as a silver bullet; they are shouting “shortage” in order to cover up for their own inability to contain the second wave.

    Another point also needs making about the hyper-nationalism that prevented India from approving, say, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. These vaccines, with their high costs and need for high-quality cold chains and logistics, could never have been used for public vaccination programmes.

    At best, they could have been allowed in the private vaccine market, where the rich could have bought them at market prices. It would have made almost no impact on public health outcomes.

    The subsidies involved ($20 for Pfizer versus $2-3 for Covishield and Covaxin) would simply not have flown past an opposition ever keen to allege that the private sector made money at the country’s cost. The same issue also makes it difficult for the government to quickly and fully fund the expansion plans of the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech.

    It is also a bit rich for critics, who got apoplectic over the 23.9 per cent gross domestic product (GDP) drop in the first quarter of last year, to now criticise the spike as being the result of too little care in reopening the economy or in preparing for the second wave.

    Nobody anywhere actually knows the tradeoff between livelihoods and lives, and each country has been learning on the job, through trial and error.

    Moreover, in a diverse country like India, with low fiscal headroom and a large daily wage population, it was easier to err on the side of a quicker reopening in order to up growth and jobs.

    I believe that the Covid surge will peak around May-June in most states, thanks to the enforcement of improved Covid-appropriate behaviour in the hotspots, and a steady ramp up of vaccinations in the second half of the year.

    Most important, while lockdowns, containment zones and curfews are back in many places, we have learnt something from last year’s mistakes. Poor and aspiring people have no option but to get back to work; this is what caused the second spike; it is what will revive growth after a temporary hiatus.

    As for the alleged “incompetence”, India’s state capacity for execution and implementation has always been weak. So, states tend to err on the side of draconian measures (like complete lockdowns) to give themselves time and space to deal with crises.

    The same goes for Internet shutdowns during mob actions anywhere. Any top-down measure will surely involve some degree of incompetence, since what is intended by the planner at the top gets watered down or misunderstood by the base which has to implement policy.

    The criticism of India’s handling of Covid is warranted, but this must be tempered by the knowledge that even if India had done the exact opposite of what it did – the results could have been significantly worse.

    Consider the possibility of India adopting the Swedish model of not locking down and merely advising the population to follow Covid safety norms. It was precisely our failure to follow norms that enabled Covid to make a comeback when the economy was reopened; every time things opened up, Indians invariably rushed to public spaces, for large private spaces are the exclusive preserve of the rich and upper middle classes.

    The shortage-psychosis of the average Indian always ensures that queues to buy things are tightly packed, and safe distancing is nearly impossible in Indian culture.

    Given all this, a fair-minded critic would note that India did not do so badly despite its many handicaps. This is what I said last year, and one of the above-mentioned critics disagreed strongly with me on twitter. I will say this again. India has not done too badly.

    Our destiny is, to use investment strategist Ruchir Sharma’s phrase, to disappoint both the optimists and the pessimists. Rest assured, our critics will have to find something else to criticise us for since India is not going into an endless spiral of Covid negativity. We are dumb enough not to avoid a problem, but we are smart enough to get ourselves out of the mess we keep getting ourselves into.

    India’s Covid critics have criticised everything, from the sharp first-quarter GDP drop in FY 2020-21 to the draconian lockdown and migrant crisis; they shut themselves up when India reopened from the second quarter and GDP made a V-shaped recovery. They are again at it as Covid has come back with a vengeance; they will again shut up once they know this thing also will pass.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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