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Ending Vaccine Apartheid and the Violence of the Hindu Right

India had 15 million COVID cases as PM Modi rallied


The second wave of Covid-19 in India is much, much deadlier than the first (Figure 1). The New York Times is reporting that millions are afraid to step outside, while hospital patients gasp for air and die due to a lack of oxygen. They state that the true death toll is likely to be as many as five times the reported numbers, an idea corroborated by FT data on cremations. Drone footage shows disturbing, ongoing mass cremations in Delhi. The Times stated that workers at burial grounds “could never remember so many people dying in such a short span of time.”

Amid this humanitarian disaster, a vaccine shortage has slowed down India’s inoculation efforts. The BBC reported that the country of 1.3 billion people is unlikely to meet its target of vaccinating 250 million by July, especially with the second wave. Meanwhile, high-income countries representing a fifth of the global population have purchased over half of all vaccine doses, a staggering example of global inequality playing out yet again over the course of the pandemic.

 

Figure 1


Furthermore, patent protection for vaccines limits the supply that can be exported to developing countries. The Defense Production Act essentially prioritizes U.S. company profits. Vanity Fair reported that contracts signed by the Trump administration, in the name of “America First,” prohibited the United States from exporting surplus vaccines to other countries. Due to liability protection clauses, these rules remain in effect under the Biden administration. Vaccine manufacturers refused to renegotiate these terms, which is unsurprising given the profit incentive to donate to richer countries.


Most countries in the developed world oppose waiving patent protection, even amid the critical supply shortages (Figure 2). An open letter from 175 former heads of states and Nobel laureates urged the U.S. to waive these patents and increase global manufacturing capacity. On social media, there has been widespread outcry on the export restrictions on raw materials for vaccines to India. To refuse to waive these rules is, quite simply, to put the profits of global pharma above the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the suffering of millions.

 

Figure 2

 

On April 25th, the White House released a statement regarding National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s call with Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Following pressure from civil society on social media, the statement reads, “the United States is working around the clock to deploy available resources and supplies. The United States has identified sources of specific raw material urgently required for Indian manufacture of the Covishield vaccine that will immediately be made available for India.” Additionally, the U.S. will share up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine with other countries “as they become available.”


While this is a welcome step, and notably the result of significant public pressure, the United States must display further solidarity with the Indian people by 1) immediately sending additional resources, including vaccines, PPE, and oxygen, and 2) explicitly condemning the far-right Modi government for its role in the second wave of the pandemic.


Because AstraZeneca is already being deployed in India, the U.S. ought not delay its export any further. With each passing minute, people are dying deaths which could have been prevented under better governance. While safety is an important consideration, there is no need to keep these vaccines sitting in storage any longer. As each day passes, the spread of the virus increases rapidly in densely populated India.


Aside from the moral imperative to quell the devastation in India, exporting more vaccines is in America’s interest. Shruti Rajagopalan reported in Bloomberg that the variant driving the new wave in India increases the likelihood of more dangerous, possibly vaccine-resistant mutations spreading globally and to the U.S. Frighteningly, scientists predict that in less than a year, current vaccines may be ineffective. Beyond this, since India has been a key exporter to nearly 100 countries in the global South, failing to support them in the current crisis would have a ripple effect for struggling nations worldwide, prolonging the pandemic. By stepping forward as a global leader in the fight against the coronavirus, the U.S. can firmly regain some of the credibility that was lost during the previous administration, and prevent more cases and deaths from occurring within its own borders.


With that said, the U.S. is currently sitting on a stockpile of over 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not yet been approved for use. Rajagopalan argues that the administration should export these vaccines, which are sitting idly in warehouses, and India could refill the supply since the country has capacity to manufacture both the AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines.


Additionally, the U.S. also has a responsibility to accurately narrate the causes of the pandemic in India. Mainstream media outlets have highlighted the contagiousness of the new variant and the slowdown in the vaccine rollout. However, it is imperative to acknowledge specifically the far-right BJP government’s role in bringing about the current crisis. At the World Economic Forum in January, Modi stated that India had defeated Covid and also had adequate infrastructure to contain it. Subsequently, large crowds gathered both for election rallies (Figure 3) and the Kumbh Mela, a months-long religious festival with millions congregating and taking dips in the sacred Ganges River (Figure 4). Especially due to fear of religious backlash ahead of the elections, the government did nothing to contain such crowds or otherwise restrict the gatherings. Furthermore, the media has censored posts critical of the government. Twitter has deactivated accounts posting critical content, and Facebook hid posts with the hashtag #ResignModi. The U.S. government should condemn this censorship and work to aid freedom of the press on these platforms.


 

Figure 3

 

Ultimately, far from serving as a great equalizer, the pandemic has only exposed and exacerbated existing economic and social disparities across the globe. In India, Dalit and Adivasi communities, migrant workers, and slum dwellers have been disproportionately hit by the virus. Overworked and underpaid Bahujans (those from marginalized castes) are often left to work in cremation grounds without PPE or masks, coming in direct contact with people who have died due to Covid-19. Vice spoke to one such cremator at Delhi’s largest crematorium, Nigambodh Ghat. He told Vice, “I used to cremate three to five bodies every day before the pandemic, but after this second wave, I am cremating more than 15 bodies a day alone.” He does not wear protective gear at work. While calls for help on social media have resulted in robust mutual aid, the digital divide has left many hung out to dry. The abject failure of the government to curb the virus’ spread or protect its citizens is reprehensible enough, but the particular impact on marginalized groups reflects the sheer lack of consequences the state believes it will face. As an influential player on the global stage, the United States has a deep moral obligation to publicly condemn the BJP government as such. It is certainly possible, and often necessary, to censure the government and politicians while coming to the aid of the people.

 

Figure 4


At this time of rampant death, failing to waive the patents and disseminate vaccines is tantamount to standing by during genocide. The Biden administration’s recent declaration regarding raw materials and supplies shows that it is receptive to pressure, and thus we must continue to push them to act. The status quo is a step in the right direction, but is altogether insufficient. All Americans, but especially members of the South Asian diaspora, have a duty to pressure the administration to further extend its support and call out the fascistic, right-wing Hindutva government for what it is. Helping another country is about aiding the people on the ground. After four years of “America First” under Trump, it’s high time for a change. The time to act boldly is now. Let’s see to it.

 

Resources:

  1. Mutual aid doc: http://bit.ly/MutualAidIndia
  2. Crowdsourcing link from @r_gov11 on Twitter
  3. Call your reps script from Equality Labs
  4. South Asia Solidarity Group Petition
  5. South Asian Today verified resources
About the author

Ria Mazumdar is South Asian Today's US political analyst. A Bengali-American, she is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. A recent graduate of Tufts University, her interests include politics, economic development, and postcolonial thought. Ria is currently working as a Research Associate in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Instagram: @ria.maz  / Tweets: @riamaz

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