India's Covid Crisis: Lives Devalued and Deaths Disregarded

This article is a guest feature and part of the series, #IndiaInRed, run in collaboration with Roar News and The Gryphon. Gryphon Writer Manasa Narayanan speaks with a journalist on the ground in India to examine the extent to which local and national governments are misreported Covid-19-related data.


While India suffers gravely from the pandemic, the hurt is not just from the virus but from major government insufficiency when it comes to response and relief operations. As scores of people die, ministers like Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), have been denying the presence of an emergency situation. As the country was well into the crisis and people were struggling, Mr Adityanath claimed that “there [was] no shortage of beds, oxygen and life-saving drugs in the state”. This stands quite in contrast to the press statement released by the government on its strategy regarding distribution of foreign aid, explaining that “the health infrastructure of several States and Union Territories (UTs) has been overwhelmed”. The chief minister’s claims are very much at crossroads with the reality on the ground in UP.

The official death counts seem to indicate that there were around 3000-4000 deaths each day over the last two weeks or so. But journalists who have checked with counts at crematoriums and graveyards report that a considerable proportion of deaths are not being accounted for in the official summaries. One such journalist, trying to investigate the true extent of the crisis, is Ayush. He is a reporter with a Delhi-based English-language news outlet and is currently covering the crisis in the deeply affected state of UP. Through his investigation with a fellow journalist, he found that in Meerut (a city in UP), on a day when the official death count was claimed to be zero, there were a total of 29 Covid-related cremations in just one of the many crematoriums in the city. Further investigating the numbers for the city over the period of twelve days, from 19-30 April, they found that the official claim of deaths was “seven times” lower than the actual deaths as reflected from the logs at these crematoriums. This clearly points to the officials in charge misconstruing the extent of devastation and downplaying death counts in the state.


“PEOPLE [WERE] LYING ON THE FLOOR – TWO OR THREE OF THEM BREATHING OXYGEN FROM JUST, SAY, ONE CYLINDER”


Speaking to me over the phone, Ayush describes how the realities on the ground, in the hospitals, are much in contrast to what the central and state governments in UP, headed by Mr Adityanath, are saying. Describing the scenes at “the biggest hospital in [Meerut] district”, he says “the emergency area here […] it’s a joke – just a makeshift area – [they have] arranged some beds together – just near the entrance”.


He tells me how hard-hitting it is to watch all of this crisis unfold. Highlighting the desperate situation in terms of oxygen shortages, he says that in that very hospital – which is supposed to be the biggest and most equipped in the region – “people [were] lying on the floor – two or three of them breathing oxygen from just say one cylinder”. Painting a picture of the contrast between the official word and reality, he describes how a board outside the hospital said that it had “enough oxygen” and that the patients “don’t need to bring any from outside”. That was not at all the case. Inside, oxygen was very much in short supply; much like how the government has made any real data in short supply.


I asked Ayush what he suspects might be the motive for the hiding of the actual death counts. He believes it is to do with Mr Adityanath following in the footsteps of Mr Modi and his style of image-building politics: “What matters more is the narrative and the image you create on the outside than doing anything that’s real and authentic.”

The reason being given by ministers that they do not want people to panic seems nonsensical. People living through the crisis are already experiencing the truth first-hand. The fear on the ground is palpable, and it is not these numbers that are really going to change reality for them. For a start, if the government wants to help the distressed public, it could try governing better. Therefore, the panic reasoning seems more like an afterthought and an excuse for either negligence or manipulation; difficult to say which, at this point.


Suffice it to say that people are reeling, not only from the pandemic but also the gross negligence and recklessness of the Indian government at all levels. The situation in the country is grave because people are not just dying from the virus, but are particularly dying due to shortages of hospital beds and oxygen.


But while all of this crisis is unfolding, and amid the public anger, the central ruling party in the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leaders, including Narendra Modi himself, are busy trying to fix Mr Modi’s image. They are also silencing dissenting voices on the pretext of salvaging India’s image on an international stage. What use is this false image and the pretence that there is no suffering in the country when literally thousands are dying deaths each day? It would not be wrong to claim that many of these deaths could have been prevented if India had had a sensible and sensitive government in place. Unfortunately, the orange flag flies higher than the white under the Modi government, and it looks like the Ganges did not wash away the virus with it after all; much to the woes of the Hindu nationalist warriors.

As part of this collaboration, we have compiled a list of resources for Covid-19-related aid in India, and will continue to update it as the situation develops. Multiple societies at King’s have started a relief fundraiser for the Covid-19 crisis in India, which can be found here.


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