Opinion | Modi Declared Victory, Then Covid Struck Back With a Vengeance


Narendra Modi

to blame for the carnage that Covid has wrought in India? It may be too soon to predict how voters will respond, but it’s not too soon to assess the evidence. Any prime minister would likely have struggled to cope with the pandemic’s brutal second wave, but Mr. Modi’s overweening vanity, overly centralized style of governance, and relentless focus on electoral advantage made him particularly unsuited to the task. His Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalist ideology—which makes it loath to alienate “godmen” who are at odds with modern medicine—didn’t help either.

On Wednesday, India recorded nearly 363,000 Covid cases and 4,120 deaths, about 30% of deaths world-wide from Covid that day. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle estimates the true number of cases at more than 20 times the official figure, averaging between seven million and nine million a day since mid-April.

Experts say India is vastly undercounting deaths as well. Earlier this week,

Ashish Jha,

dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, estimated that at least 25,000 Indians are dying from Covid each day.

Murad Banaji,

a mathematician at London’s Middlesex University who tracks the pandemic in India closely, says the real death rate is three to eight times the official figure—or between 12,360 and 32,960 deaths on Wednesday alone.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks in West Bengal in India, April 12.


Sonali Pal Chaudhury/Zuma Press

Anecdotal evidence supports these grim estimates. Every day, journalists report new horrors: corpses floating in the Ganges River, oxygen shortages leading to mass deaths in hospital intensive-care units, funeral pyres taking over parking lots for lack of space in crematoria. Anxious Indians flood social media with pleas for oxygen, lifesaving drugs and hospital beds for their loved ones. In Mumbai and Delhi it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t lost a friend or family member to the disease. The world has launched a massive aid effort to help India, but for many people this won’t make up for their own government’s failures.

With crowded cities, abysmal air quality and a rickety healthcare system, India was always at risk from the pandemic. But Indians also had reason to hope. The country produces more than half the world’s vaccines and 20% of generic medicines. Public-health experts hold up its successful mass vaccination program against polio as a model. As of Wednesday, however, India had managed to vaccinate less than 3% of its population fully. (About 10% of Indians have received at least one shot.) Amid shortages, the vaccination program has slowed from a high of 4.3 million shots a day in early April to 2.2 million shots on Wednesday.

What went wrong? In a nutshell, buoyed by declining cases earlier this year, Mr. Modi declared victory too soon. “It was said that there would be a tsunami of Corona infections in India,” he boasted in January to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Instead, India had “succeeded in saving the lives of the maximum number of its citizens” and helped “more than 150 countries” with medicines.

In February, the BJP lauded Mr. Modi for his “able, sensitive, visionary and committed leadership” in handling Covid. The health minister declared that India had reached the “endgame” in its fight with the pandemic. The foreign minister had already launched an ambitious “vaccine friendship” program to export vaccines—before ensuring that India had enough for its own people.

In March and April, Mr. Modi appeared to care more about barnstorming opposition-ruled West Bengal than controlling the pandemic. The prime minister personally addressed more than 20 rallies in the state. His powerful confidante, Home Minister

Amit Shah,

essentially camped out in the state in an unsuccessful bid to win power.

The sight of Mr. Modi addressing thousands of unmasked supporters deepened a sense of complacency in India right when it most needed caution. So did full-page ads in newspapers that featured the prime minister urging Hindu pilgrims to attend a religious gathering on the banks of the Ganges. This may turn out to have been the biggest super-spreader event in history. In another nod to religious sentiment, the health minister appeared publicly with

Baba Ramdev,

a prominent yoga guru, to promote Coronil, an herbal medicine falsely touted as a cure for Covid.

The BJP’s nativist instincts contributed to other costly miscues. Mr. Modi loudly promotes the virtues of “self-reliance.” As late as April 11, India had approved only two vaccines—the


shot manufactured under license by a private firm, Serum Institute of India, and Covaxin, a homegrown vaccine approved before it had completed efficacy trials. A less rigid approach would have allowed India to buy vaccines on the world market and inoculate more people.

So far the prime minister’s defense consists of a series of deflections by his supporters: Mr. Modi works very hard. The pandemic hit other countries too. Successive governments over the decades neglected healthcare. State governments—particularly opposition-ruled ones—also dropped the ball. Opposition leaders, too, addressed large rallies. The Indian public shares the blame for its complacency.

There’s some merit to these claims, but they can’t hide a larger truth. Mr. Modi has presided over a shambolic response to the pandemic that threatens to set India back by decades. When things seemed to be going well, he was eager to claim credit. Now it’s time for him to accept the blame.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews Johns Hopkins specialist Marty Makary. Image: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

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