A year ago, as Covid-19 ravaged Europe and the United States, a narrative developed that it was wealthy countries that were most vulnerable to the pandemic. The virus thrived among their elderly populations and global metropolises: New York, London, Paris, Milan. Although wealthy countries represented only 15 per cent of the world’s population, they accounted for 80 per cent of Covid-19 deaths.
However, the potential for the pandemic to devastate the developing world was always present. In the New Statesman last April, our international editor, Jeremy Cliffe, wrote of the factors that made the Global South so vulnerable: “denser cities, poorer sanitation, less effective state machineries, more people with pre-existing conditions, weaker collective immune systems and health systems.”
The devastation in Brazil, which has suffered nearly 400,000 deaths, and in India, which has recorded nearly 200,000, means that this analysis has proved grimly prescient. Indeed, owing to limited testing, the true death toll in both countries is likely to be far higher.
India, where patients are dying for want of hospital beds and oxygen supplies and where mass cremations scar the landscape, resembles a harrowing dystopia. On 17 April, a 65 year-old journalist, Vinay Srivastava, tweeted: “My oxygen is 31 when some[one] will help me[?]” He died hours later in his home in Uttar Pradesh.
As recently as March, India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, declared that the country was “in the endgame” of the pandemic. So, how did a human catastrophe unfold only weeks later?
As with the UK’s own deadly second wave, the story is one of hubris and complacency. Though the threat posed by more transmissible strains of Covid-19, such as the British variant, was known, India prematurely relaxed after the first wave. As Soumya Bhattacharya, the former managing editor of the Hindustan Times, writes: “Social distancing was abandoned, masks were left at home. Big, fat Indian weddings, swarming with guests, and other large private events returned to the social calendar.” In March, more than 66,000 fans attended England’s Twenty20 cricket match with India.
Yet in this regard, the public took their lead from the government. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, addressed mass election rallies and permitted large religious festivals to proceed as normal. Far from contemplating a second wave, Mr Modi, an authoritarian populist, basked in India’s apparent triumph over the virus. “I’ve never seen such huge crowds,” he declared at an election rally in West Bengal on 17 April. On the same day, India recorded 260,000 new daily cases, a new global peak (it has since recorded more than 350,000).
Faced with a lethal resurgence of the virus, India has few defences. Owing to its sluggish vaccine roll-out, only 8.8 per cent of its population has received at least one jab, compared to more than 50 per cent in the UK and 42 per cent in the US.
The British government has announced that it will send more than 600 pieces of medical equipment to India, including ventilators and oxygen concentrators, but in a country of 1.4 billion people, this will have little effect. The US, by contrast, has announced that it will provide raw materials for Indian vaccine manufacturers and will export up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to overseas countries.
It is this example that the rest of the developed world must emulate. India’s crisis has exposed anew the global nature of the pandemic. Just as the British variant is spreading through India, so the Indian variant (which scientists fear may also be more transmissible) is spreading through Britain. The Modi government’s decision to ban the export of most vaccine doses has left the developing world facing a dangerous shortfall.
For the West, pooling resources to ensure the Global South is vaccinated is not only a moral duty but an act of self-interest. Viruses, as a wet market in Wuhan demonstrated, do not respect borders. As long as Covid-19 remains a threat to one country, it will remain a threat to all.
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas