Chahat Rana says that being in India right now means constantly asking yourself: When will I get COVID? “It’s like a circle that’s closing in,” says the Caravan magazine reporter. “You hear of a distant contact, you hear your neighbor has COVID, you hear a friend’s parent has COVID, friend’s parent has died, grandparent has died, my father’s colleague has died, stuff like that. It comes closer and closer to you and you wonder how long will you remain unscathed?”
You’ve probably heard the stories from India about hospitals that are overfull and simultaneously discharging body after body, about the shortages that are driving people to beg for oxygen on social media. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Rana about her reporting from COVID wards and how the government has failed to control the surge. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Do you remember when it felt like India had kind of dodged a bullet when it came to the coronavirus and what that was like?
Chahat Rana: End of last year and early this year, everyone was a little more hopeful. I personally was reading news about the U.S. and seeing the spike in November, December, was really bad, and I would say, oh, it’s surprising that we’re still doing OK compared to that. Being in a country that does not have such health care resources, that level of infrastructure and development, it was surprising that we didn’t reach the level of apocalyptic chaos that we’ve reached now. For a minute I thought maybe that’s never going to happen, at least not to this extent. And the messaging around where we are in terms of the pandemic and what the government tried to tell people, especially when the two new vaccines were approved in India, was that, yeah, we have the vaccines, the numbers are low, and we’re going to beat this.
But while India’s leaders were celebrating manufacturing those vaccines, they weren’t doing much to convince people to get vaccinated. So far, only 9 percent of India’s population has gotten a shot. Only 1.7 percent is fully vaccinated, according to the latest data. The numbers are low for a lot of different reasons. You say one of them is vaccine hesitancy, but not the kind in the U.S—it’s something “completely new” for India.
We have a very good universal immunization program. There is faith in that system. People line up to get vaccinated. So there is faith in vaccines in general. What happened here is, at least in the earlier phases, it was front-line workers and health care workers who were getting vaccinated. And I think the government did not do enough in terms of communicating the science, the research about vaccines, to instill that faith in them, because the way regulatory approvals were granted to these two vaccines, it seemed quite rushed, only because we wanted to make in India a national vaccine as soon as possible. That’s what the government wanted. So there was a worry that scientific rigor has been compromised, just to show that we have these two made-in-India vaccines and India has done so well.
The problem is not that we can’t trust these vaccines or the science behind it or our scientists. The problem is that we did not communicate in a way that instills faith in these vaccines. A lot of health care workers in the beginning were very hesitant to get these vaccines.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech at Davos in January basically saying we’re at the end of dealing with COVID. So you can see how everything combines and a practical person might think, I can skip it. I don’t need it.
Yeah. Some people said, “I’ve already been infected, so why take that risk? I went through this last year and it was OK.”
People were assuming they’d developed immunity.
Which clearly is not the case. Reinfections have occurred. We don’t have really good data on the rate of reinfection in India, but anecdotally we know that so many people, so many health care workers, front-line workers, just general people, have been infected and have faced somewhat even more severe symptoms this time than last time, especially if they weren’t vaccinated.
When did you sense something was changing, cases were picking up and it might be getting dangerous?
By the end of February and early March, there was a lot of talk about one specific state, which is Maharashtra. Mumbai is the capital of Maharashtra. So there was a spike there, but the government was isolating particular states and being like, “These are problem states. They’re not doing well enough. They need to ramp up their vaccination, ramp up their testing.” So it seemed like it’s not a national problem—it was a very specific epidemic, localized, and this is the state’s problem, but otherwise India is doing well.
Was the government giving reasons why COVID cases might be on the rise in particular places?
Well, they were giving reasons, but those reasons didn’t add up. A lot of people were asking these questions, like, Maharashtra is peaking, Punjab is peaking—why is the rest of the country not? And the main answer that they always gave was COVID fatigue, that people are not taking precautions. But that could be applied to any state, so that didn’t make sense.
There was some conversation about mutations, but nothing has been done even until now. No significant research has been done to trace that virus. There was a sort of mutant virus that was traced in some districts of Maharashtra early on, but nothing has been done to see whether these are more infectious, more dangerous. So, again, there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest that this might have caused a spike in Maharashtra as compared to other places.
India has a scientific task force on COVID-19, but that task force wasn’t meeting in the early days of this surge. Do we have any reasoning for why?
Honestly I’m not sure why, but what we know is that the government’s priorities were different, clearly. We were focusing more on the election rallies, focusing on the Kumbh Mela, which was this big religious gathering of unmasked crowds. A minister spoke about how religion has a place above COVID-19, and if you have faith, then COVID-19 can do nothing to you. These are government officials saying all of this.
So I’m not so sure why. But this has been the trend—to not listen to subject area experts, the scientists. Their advice has clearly not been taken into account from the very beginning. Scientists already knew that cases are on the rise and predicted that something like this is on the horizon. So honestly I cannot understand, I cannot fathom what stopped them from meeting and planning for this.
You sound so frustrated with your own government.
Yeah. Yeah, I am. I’m beyond frustrated. I’ve given up hope. Just seeing what I see every day, reading what I read every day—I mean, they can’t even acknowledge what is happening. So, thinking beyond that, if you can’t even acknowledge there’s a problem, what are you going to rectify it with? What are you going to do to make sure that this problem is resolved?
In Uttar Pradesh, one of the states that has been badly hit, the chief minister spoke about how there’s no shortage of oxygen, there’s no issue about beds, we have everything, there’s nothing to worry about, cases are actually going down now. So this is the kind of narrative that they create. While on the other side, if someone does try to speak up—for example, there was this one person yesterday who tweeted about getting an oxygen cylinder for his grandfather who was really sick, and the government responded by filing an FIR against him for spreading lies and misinformation.
That’s like a criminal charge?
Yeah. An FIR is a first information report. That’s what happened for “spreading rumors and lies.”
The government does not want to talk about what the situation is on the ground. They’re very wary of the international coverage that India is getting, instead of trying to actually focus our energy on fixing things. The efforts have been to clamp down on real narratives from the ground and reporting, and instead pretend that everything’s all right and everything’s good. And the other thing they’re doing is curbing testing, asking private labs to stop testing, so that, I mean, if there are no tests, then obviously numbers are going to go down.
That’s so reminiscent of what happened here when Trump was in charge. He was saying, well, we’re doing so much more testing—that’s why the numbers are going up.
That’s something that’s been used also earlier, but now it’s very explicit orders to curb testing, to stop private labs from taking tests. And even if you do get tested, sometimes you get your results in a week or 10 days. Until then, you either recovered or you died.
In the last couple of weeks, you’ve been to hospitals and you’ve been to crematoriums and you’ve met people who are desperate. What have you seen?
We went to this hospital in Bharuch. It’s in Gujarat. It’s a small town. We went to the civil hospital there, which is a district-level hospital, and there was one doctor who was taking care of a ward of 70 COVID patients, all of them on oxygen support. One doctor, one young medical student, resident doctor, along with four, five nurses. And every 10, 15 minutes, he was being called from one bed to another—someone was losing oxygen, someone was gasping for breath, couldn’t figure out what’s happening to them. There weren’t enough nurses, so family members were tending to patients that were inside these wards. There was not really a segregation between intensive care and nonintensive care or suspected COVID and COVID patients because all of them had the same sort of symptoms. All of them needed oxygen support. Some of them even needed ventilation. But there were no ventilators.
You chronicled this moment where a man came into the hospital, they weren’t able to test him for COVID, but he clearly had COVID symptoms, and he died. And his death was marked as a cardiac arrest. That kind of reveals the entire problem, which is we don’t even know how many COVID patients there are, even when they’re in a hospital.
Yeah. Most people are dying before they get hospital care. Most people are either dying inside their homes or in an ambulance or on the side of the road in an auto rickshaw. Most of them are announced dead upon arrival. I’ve seen that quite a bit in my reporting.
The data that we have—I don’t even know where to begin talking about how fudged that data is. And it’s not even about being fudged. It’s about, in this whole chaos, how are they even keeping account at all of what’s happening, when there are no tests? So, yeah, we have no idea of how many people have actually died of COVID. We just know it’s at least hundreds in one city, not even talking about the state—hundreds of unreported deaths.
Some of the highest infection levels right now seem to be in West Bengal, and that is the state where the prime minister had been doing so much campaigning. There’s an election there that’s really important to him because if his party is able to secure a foothold in that state, it unlocks a lot of potential power. And that election is still going on, which some people are saying is driving the infection rate up. Is there a chance that there would be political ramifications for Modi quite soon, given how he’s dealt with the COVID crisis?
I would hope so. I can generally sense a level of disenchantment, disillusionment, with the current regime. But there are some people who are still ready to push that narrative, like, “What can the government do? It’s on us. What’ll they do if there’s a virus? What can Modi do?” I know people who would still swear by him and his leadership. And I guess that’s what this government has done well, which is image-making, perception management, creating symbols out of these people in power, these larger-than-life symbols.
In the last week, international allies have started offering all kinds of aid to India, vaccines and oxygen, and I wonder if that gives you some sense that relief may be on its way.
Yes, of course. But I feel like this is not the worst of it. The cases, everything is going to rise to an extent that the amount of support we get will not catch up. So I feel like there’s sadly much more devastation to see before this gets better.
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