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People wait to get tested for Covid-19 in Hyderabad, India. A crowd stands before two health care workers.

Interview: The Human Rights Crisis Behind India’s Covid-19 Surge

People wait to get tested for Covid-19 in Hyderabad, India, April 25, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

Covid-19 is surging through India, resulting in record-breaking numbers of new cases with medicine, oxygen, and vaccines in tragically short supply. Amy Braunschweiger speaks with South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly about how this humanitarian crisis is exposing India’s underlying human rights issues, and what needs to be done.

What’s it like in India right now because of Covid-19?

It is devastating. For a year now, we’ve been hearing news from colleagues and friends across the world, whether in London or New York or Sao Paolo, who have been impacted terribly. Many have lost friends or gotten sick themselves. But what is really difficult is that India did not have that same level of severe cases through 2020, and perhaps the authorities began to feel that the threat was over, and so they simply did not prepare. Now people in India are dying from Covid-19 because they’re not getting the hospital care, medicine, or oxygen support they need to fight the disease. The shortfalls continue even after death: people wait hours in line to cremate or bury their loved ones. Even though India had a year to pull itself together and learn lessons from experiences around the world, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have failed to do so. That’s why it’s so hard. There were lives that could have been saved.

How has the government’s crackdown on criticism exacerbated the crisis?

The Modi government seems to care more about its image than the crisis itself. There are news reports about senior officials meeting to control the narrative around the Covid-19 crisis. When the Delhi government’s lawyer complained about supply shortages, India’s solicitor general told him to stop being “a cry baby.” The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh talked about using the country’s draconian National Security Act against people who complain on social media about lack of supplies. The Uttar Pradesh authorities even filed criminal charges against a man who appealed on Twitter to find oxygen for his dying grandfather. They also sent complaint notices to three journalists for reporting that officials in an ailing district had diverted some oxygen supplies elsewhere.

The Supreme Court stepped in and said it will treat it as contempt if the police act against any citizen asking for help on social media. But really, if people, even healthcare workers, feel compelled to self-censor, how will the authorities even know who needs help?

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has a large majority in parliament and should be upholding rights with confidence. Yet, when criticized for its failures, it comes down on anything that could dent its image. But this a pandemic. You can only hide people who are dead and dying for so long. The government shouldn’t be worrying about public relations at this time. It should be working on saving all lives in an equitable manner.

What should the government be doing?

With help pouring in from around the world, the government should ensure proper distribution of aid to overcome the medical scarcities. Recently there were reports that state governments were left wondering what’s happening to the aid that has landed. Such international assistance is under the purview of the central government.

We are particularly worried about rural areas. The fear is that people participating in recent election rallies, religious festivals, and other big gatherings will head home to rural areas and bring the virus back with them. If that happens in the villages, it could be disastrous. The health infrastructure in rural India is poorly equipped to handle this deadly spread of Covid-19 unless the government acts immediately by providing the necessary resources and medical supplies.

Some of those crowded election rallies, led by important leaders, including the prime minister, were widely broadcast over TV. This was at the same time that public health experts were recommending safe practices. That sends a mixed message to the public. The leadership needs to come out and say that holding mass rallies was the wrong decision, that testing and other measures to reduce the spread of the virus need to be taken, and that protections, including using masks, must be followed. They should promote vaccinations and make it widely available. But that message means admitting a wrong. We’re not hearing that.

India is densely populated. People live cheek by jowl in many parts of the country. So to try to manage safe practices is difficult and the state needs to recognize the difficulties people face, and put much more energy behind supporting people to manage their lives safely. 

India has an acute shortage of medical supplies, including oxygen. How did this happen?

The shortages, according to the authorities, have more to do with distribution than actual supplies. But if that’s the case, why hasn’t the supply chain been fixed yet? Why are people still hunting for medicines and oxygen? Perhaps initially the authorities were caught unaware about how quickly the pandemic could spread, despite knowing what happened during a second surge in Europe and elsewhere. But India does not lack resources. For instance, the PM-CARES Fund collected huge grants to help the government’s response to the pandemic. But the government has not been transparent about how the money is being deployed, which makes people wonder why these problems are taking so long to address? We are concerned that the government initially focused on denying or hiding the bad news instead of setting up systems and organizing consultations with experts to build a prompt and efficient response.

India is the largest manufacturer of the Covid-19 vaccine, but only 2 percent of Indians are fully vaccinated and the raw materials for manufacturing vaccines are running out. How can the international community help?

India wants to be seen as the “pharmacy of the world.” But during such a grave global health crisis, expecting that Indian manufacturing could single-handedly provide vaccines for itself and dozens of developing countries is just not sustainable.

India does have an untapped manufacturing capacity. But complex global intellectual property and trade rules, along with pharmaceutical companies’ exclusive licensing practices, has significantly curtailed the ability to speed up manufacturing.

Human Rights Watch and many others are supporting a proposal made by South Africa and India in October 2020 to waive some intellectual property rights for medical products until there is enough vaccination in place globally. The United States and New Zealand have just pledged support to this waiver request. We hope that more countries will also drop their opposition and move quickly and transparently to finalize a strong waiver.

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, India’s government stopped permitting the export of vaccines so it could meet domestic needs, which then had serious knock-on effects, limiting or delaying supplies for dozens of countries. This includes governments that expected deliveries from an Indian manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India, under a global vaccines-supply initiative called COVAX.

Of course, if the intellectual property rights had been waived swiftly when India and South Africa first proposed doing so, there would perhaps now be more vaccines available to people around the world. One lesson the pandemic has taught us is that the virus doesn’t respect borders. It is in the international community’s interest to quickly vaccinate as many people as possible around the world.

What can concerned governments do to help people in India?

Concerned governments can take a range of actions that would help India address the Covid-19 pandemic.

Considerable aid pouring into India. But governments can press for there to be state accountability to ensure it’s reaching the people that it is meant to reach.

The government should remove existing restrictions that prevent domestic organizations from receiving foreign grants and assistance. Regulatory measures that have kept Indian groups from receiving crucial foreign funding have severely limited their ability to help the communities they support cope with the pandemic.

The international community should also ask the government about human rights protections, notably the right to free expression. The authorities have repeatedly accused peaceful critics of the government with sedition and other crimes. And at the same time, they have protected government supporters who incite hate and violence against marginalized groups.

As Covid-19 cases soar in overcrowded jails, foreign governments should ask Indian authorities to follow United Nations guidelines that could help reduce the prison population and reduce the spread of Covid-19. They should also call for human rights defenders and other activists detained on politically motivated charges to be immediately released.

The international community should also press the Indian government to end its abusive and discriminatory policies targeting minority communities, particularly Muslims.

The government should take steps to address the needs of Dalits, tribal communities, and other marginalized groups that are more likely to be at risk of losing their livelihoods or having poor access to health care during the pandemic.

The Indian government needs to do a reset to ensure that everyone in India has the help they need to survive the pandemic. For the authorities, this means looking beyond ideological differences and focusing instead on being good, competent, and impartial administrators.

The pandemic has highlighted the shortages of crucial, lifesaving supplies that India’s donors can do much to address. But this humanitarian crisis has also exposed human rights shortcomings that the Indian government needs to address to ensure that the pandemic can be successfully contained.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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