Covid-19 Live News: India’s Crisis Shakes Modi’s Image of Strength


Children wearing masks with the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Nandigram, India, in March. A second virus wave has made India the worst-hit country in the world, shaking Mr. Modi’s image of strength.
Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

His Covid-19 task force didn’t meet for months. His health minister assured the public in March that India had reached the pandemic’s “endgame.” He boasted to global leaders that his nation had triumphed over the coronavirus.

Now, as a second wave has made India the worst-hit country in the world, its prime minister, Narendra Modi, is at the center of a national reckoning, one that comes amid India’s stark reversal from declaring victory to suffering its gravest emergency in decades.

New infections have reached about 400,000 a day, a grim world record. Vaccines are running short. Hospitals are swamped. Lifesaving oxygen is running out. Each day, cremation grounds burn thousands of bodies. And a series of accidents at hospitals have added to the grief, with the most recent one early Saturday in the western state of Gujarat killing at least 16 Covid-19 patients and two health care workers.

Even as infections rose, Mr. Modi let big groups gather to help his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. His government allowed a Hindu festival with millions of worshipers to take place. He campaigned in state elections without a mask at rallies with thousands of supporters who also weren’t wearing masks.

Experts around the world once marveled at how the country seemed to have escaped the worst of the pandemic. But independent health experts and political analysts say that Mr. Modi’s overconfidence and his domineering leadership style bear a huge share of the responsibility for its current crisis. Critics say his administration was determined to cast an image of India as back on track and open for business despite lingering risks.

The growing national distress has tarnished Mr. Modi’s aura of political invulnerability. Opposition leaders are on the attack, and his hold on power has increasingly made him the target of scathing criticism online. His party and his allies have moved to silence critics, ordering Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take down critical posts and threatening to arrest ordinary people for pleading for oxygen. Countries including the United States have restricted travel from India.

Mr. Modi’s party and the government declined to answer specific questions but listed actions the government has taken, including Mr. Modi holding more than a dozen meetings in April with Air Force officers, pharmaceutical executives and many others.

In a statement, the government said it “maintained a steady pace of coordination and consultation to prepare an adequate response.” It added that the administration in February had “advised states to maintain strict vigil” and “not let their guard down.”

Any Indian leader would have faced challenges. Hundreds of millions of poor people live cheek by jowl, easy targets for a highly contagious virus. India has long neglected public health — a problem that predates Mr. Modi.

With parliamentary elections three years away and no signs of defections from his government, Mr. Modi’s power seems secure. His government has stepped up efforts to get supplies to desperate patients and broadened eligibility for scarce vaccines to more age groups. Still, analysts say that his dominance means that more people will hold him personally responsible for the sickness and death exploding across the country.

“The bulk of the blame lies in Modi’s governance style, where top ministers are chosen for loyalty rather than expertise, where secrecy and image management is privileged over transparency,” said Asim Ali, a research scholar at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

On Saturday, the country reported over 398,000 new
virus infections and more than 3,500 deaths. Evidence suggests the official numbers vastly understate the toll. Though India is a vaccine powerhouse, producing vaccines to protect the world, it didn’t purchase enough doses to protect itself, and when infections were low, it exported more than 60 million shots. The country’s biggest city, Mumbai, just halted all vaccinations because it essentially ran out.

Members of the Indian diaspora community prepared food in the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Southall, West London, this week.
Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

As the coronavirus has surged in India, so has the collective grief and anxiety among the huge Indian diaspora, over loved ones lost or fighting for their lives amid a health-care system pushed past the brink.

In WhatsApp chats, video calls, Facebook groups and forums, a global community has worried, mourned and organized.

Some 17 million people from India were living outside their homeland in 2020, according to figures from the United Nations, and millions more have Indian heritage, making the diaspora the largest in the world. In the United States, some 4.8 million people were either born in India or reported Indian ancestry on the last census.

They have looked on in horror as the country records more infections per day than any other since the pandemic began. For many, the pain has been accompanied by a realization of their worst fear: That when the people they love need them the most, they can’t be there to help.

In London, many are organizing in the face of a seemingly impossible situation: pooling money to buy oxygen concentrators, connecting the sick with doctors and using community networks to share resources.

A patient received oxygen outside the emergency ward of a hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Friday.
Credit…Niranjan Shrestha/Associated Press

The coronavirus outbreak in India has spilled across the border into Nepal, where health officials have warned that hospital beds are unavailable, vaccines are running short and the number of new infections is rising faster than overwhelmed clinics can record them.

The situation is so dire in Nepal that the Health Ministry in the H
imalayan nation issued a statement on Friday in which, in effect, it threw up its hands.

“Since coronavirus cases have spiked beyond the capacity of the health system and hospitals have run out of beds, the situation is unmanageable,” the ministry said after the government recorded 5,657 new infections on Friday, the highest daily total since October.

And with more than one-third of tests returning a positive result, officials worry that the actual number of cases is much higher. Nepalis who are infected but have only minor symptoms have been told to stay home to keep hospitalizations down.

Experts believe the outbreak is being fueled by Nepali migrant workers who returned home in recent weeks from India as lockdowns were imposed there. The 1,100-mile border between the countries is porous, and hardly any of the returnees were tested for the coronavirus or placed into quarantine.

Within weeks, many of them began falling ill.

“Just a few days after returning from India, one of my relatives died in an ambulance,” said Narendra Singh, a local leader from Bajhang, a western district near the Indian border. “More and more people returning from India are getting sick. And the virus is spreading here. We don’t have any quarantine or isolation facilities in the villages.”

Nepal has since closed its border crossings with India, but the virus is already spreading. In early March, Nepal was recording fewer than 100 cases a day….



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