Letter From - Autumn 2021

Mumbai: A Nation Betrayed, A People Forsaken

An existential crisis

By Murzban F. Shroff | September 13, 2021
At a New Delhi cremation facility on April 26, 2021, family members pay their last respects to relatives who died of Covid-19. (Sipa USA/Alamy)
At a New Delhi cremation facility on April 26, 2021, family members pay their last respects to relatives who died of Covid-19. (Sipa USA/Alamy)

Dear Mr. Modi:

Seven years after your election to the post of prime minister, I write to you, anguished at the state of our country. I do so with some measure of hope that you will realize how a country once respected for its open-door hospitality, its magnificent history, and its ancient culture has been diminished in stature and reputation under your rule. You, sir, are culpable, and need to answer for the hundreds of thousands of deaths that our country has suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic. You need to answer for the failing health of the nation, for its doctors and frontline workers who have perished in the line of duty, for the families who have been deprived of their breadwinners, for the millions who have been forced below the poverty line—75 million and counting. You, sir, need to account for the broken promises that fed the ultimate lie: that you are not our leader but a mere chowkidar, a watchful custodian of our people and our resources.

Today, as a nation, we feel shortchanged, cheated, and betrayed by one in whom we placed our trust, not once, but in two national elections. That we gave our vote to you, a man who came to us with a plethora of promises, that we believed your promise of a corruption-free India and universal development, that we nodded joyously when you spoke of free housing for the poor and ease of living, and when you assured us grandly that the money taken from our banks by corporate defaulters would be scrupulously returned—all this speaks not just of an intellectual susceptibility but also of a nation willing to give its most ambitious politicians a chance. A nation that recognizes, with an inherent sense of goodness, that yesterday’s sinner can be tomorrow’s saint. It was on this assumption that we voted you in, Mr. Modi, and it is by this power that we now demand some answers.

In India, the first strain of Covid-19 infection was discovered on January 30, 2020, in a medical student who had returned from Wuhan, China. By March 11, the virus had spread to 114 countries, causing the World Health Organization to declare a global pandemic but cautioning leaders to “strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights.” What you did, sir, on March 24, 2020, was unpardonable. You gave four-hours’ notice before imposing a 21-day nationwide lockdown. You gave no thought to the 120 million migrant workers whose income would freeze up and whose survival would now depend on the charity of their fellow Indians. You did not pause to consider the people in slums, chawls, and tenements, or the hawkers, pavement dwellers, and homeless, who collectively account for a significant portion of our urban population. In taking this decision, you did not consult the state governments or the ministries of health, finance, and information. Neither did you discuss it with the National Disaster Management Authority or the heads of industry and labor unions. You left hospitals to find their own methods of dealing with the unfamiliar virus.

I have always held that there is no point living in a country like India if the inequities you see around you are not a reminder of the privileges you enjoy and that others have been denied. This sense of realization led me to send away my two domestic helpers, assuring them that they would be better off in their villages, safe under open skies. Ensconced in my apartment, in a tony neighborhood of Mumbai, I found it disturbing to see migrant workers walking as far as 1,200 kilometers to their villages, braving the heat, hunger, fatigue, and highway traffic. We watched this with growing horror in the weeks to come, but the figures only spoke of political apathy and neglect: nearly 200 migrants died on the way, including 16 who were mowed down by a train, after falling asleep on the tracks. And what was your contribution, meanwhile? Adopting the airs of a sage-incarnate, you appeared on national television on April 5 and asked the people to light diyas, torches, and their mobile phones, at nine p.m. for nine minutes. You said this would unleash the power of 1.3 billion Indians, that it would dispel the darkness of the pandemic. Sad to say, this seemed to be your only idea.

In the days that followed, we grappled with shortages of food and commodities, rising panic, lack of clarity on medical support for the elderly. Confined to our homes, we saw our roles change, our responsibilities multiply. We had to learn how to survive, how to cope, how to keep our families alive. Mumbai, once a teeming megalopolis, became a ghost town. In mid-April, even as the total number of cases surged past 10,000, you, Mr. Modi, bragged about how India was better off than other developed countries and how the entire world was talking about “our holistic, integrated approach.” There is a time for nationalism, sir, but this was not it. If there was one thing the pandemic was teaching us, it was of our own homogeneity, our fragility as a species. Instead, you chose to draw distinctions between us and the world. Worse, six months into the crisis, you were still doing what you do best: compulsive sloganeering, blind tokenism, and making empty promises—even assuring us that there was enough oxygen to treat patients and that the government would focus on building a health infrastructure such that every life would be saved.

Every life, sir?

The first wave, which had begun its ascent in May, started showing its teeth by early August. Over 70 days, it infected 5.3 million people and claimed 70,743 lives. It deprived several of my friends of their parents and claimed one of my closest friends, a gregarious bachelor who was about to move to Goa and start his own restaurant. My friend died because he was unable to procure a hospital bed.

September 16 saw the highest number of infections (93,000) and the highest number of deaths (1,290). In hospitals, non-Covid treatments were suspended and elective surgeries reduced by 80 percent, with Covid wards manned by a skeletal staff of doctors, nurses, and ward attendants. By the end of that month, India’s death toll stood at 98,628.

In mid-October 2020, the wave subsided, and some degree of normalcy returned. I took this opportunity to get some repairs done around the house, meet a few friends, and resume my evening walks, seeking out routes that were free of crowds and traffic. It gladdened my heart to see my city stir back to life. Shops had opened. People queued in front of restaurants, chatting excitedly, no longer annoyed at having to wait for a table. Families arrived at the beach. And with them, the street vendors and street food. On the roads, the sharp blare of horns reassured us that life was re-emerging in small and refreshing cycles. I was reminded of Camus’s exhortation in The Plague: “This very scourge that assails you, raises you up and shows you the way.” I was convinced the worst was over.

How wrong I was!

Supporters of Modi’s BJP Party at a Kolkata campaign rally in March 2021, as the Delta variant raged through India (Sopa Images Limited/Alamy)

And so, sir, the second wave.

It started in early March of this year, in Maharashtra, a densely populated state with the highest number of industries and migrant workers, and then spread to the northwestern state of Punjab. The catalyst was a feast of opportunities laid out for the new, highly contagious Delta variant to devour. The appetizer was served at the newly refurbished stadium in Gujarat, renamed in your honor and inaugurated proudly with two back-to-back cricket matches, which, reportedly, drew a crowd of 130,000 fans over two days. Then came the entrées: 20 election rallies, all through March, your first one in Kolkata aimed at drawing a million people. Next came the main course, so exquisitely planned that it even had your photograph on the billboards by way of an endorsement: the Kumbh Mela festival and seven million people congregating in religious frenzy to prove their devotion. And why not? Hadn’t you said earlier, sometime in February, that the entire world was shaken but India had been saved because God wanted her saved? And who was to disbelieve you, given the lengths you had gone to, in order to make the festival happen? You had moved up the event by a year and even replaced a chief minister who expressed his reservations. And so it was that, in the course of 70 days, we saw 11.2 million cases and 85,311 deaths. So it was that we suffered a superspreader carnage from which nothing could save us, because none of the resources that you had bragged about were in place. The hospital beds, the oxygen plants, the ventilators, the vaccines—nothing was there to fall back on as the virus raged. The country that was to save the world was going up in flames. We saw our brothers and sisters dying on pavements and in parking lots. We saw them make it to the hospital lobbies and then give up their last breath. We saw our crematoriums burn night and day for weeks. We saw our doctors bewildered and fatigued, threatened by powerful people and beaten up by mobs of angry, bereaved citizens. We saw relatives of patients wait in queues for hours in order to refill an oxygen cylinder. We saw oxygen cylinders stolen and a black market emerge, people ready to negotiate the price of a life. We saw our humanity in tatters, our dignity in shreds, our medical infrastructure crumble and collapse. And we saw our social media feeds ablaze with cries for help, cries from anguished relatives trying to save their loved ones, pleading for a hospital bed, a doctor, an oxygen cylinder, a ventilator. And yet, sir, you thundered on, persisting with your election rallies, pausing only to boast of the crowds you drew.

Every life saved!

In just three months during the second wave, 18 million people were infected—twice the number of cases recorded in the 10 months of the first wave. At our peak, we were reporting 400,000 cases a day (the highest in the world) and 3,000 deaths (which, many of my doctor friends believed, were grossly underreported). And during this period, we lost 205,000 lives, including 270 doctors.

Every life saved!

That’s what you had promised, and that’s what your supporters had believed. After all, who’d be so low as to lie in the midst of so great a human crisis? What I couldn’t understand is how you could be so indifferent to your people. How could you not have seen this coming? How could you have allowed the Kumbh Mela to go on, even after 2,000 devotees had been infected? How could you not have realized that they would carry the virus to every corner of India, unleashing a tragedy that would be impossible to contain? How could you have proceeded with your election rallies, knowing that human lives are more important than votes? How could you have ignored those warnings issued in early March by the SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium about the emerging Delta variant? How could you have failed to take a single meeting with the Covid advisory bodies (the Indian Council for Medical Research, the All India Institute of Medical Science, and the National Center for Disease Control) until mid-April 2021? How could you have planned for 162 oxygen production facilities but ended up with 33? How could you, as late as January 2021, have ordered a mere 16 million doses of the vaccine when a country like the United States, its population a third the size of ours, had preordered 400 million doses, and the European Union had preordered 800 million doses, months earlier? Pray, sir, where was that victory you spoke of, that self-reliance you had seen for India, that promise that every life mattered and that every life would be saved?

Reality stared us in the face, and it was chilling. The Delta variant was unsparing; it roamed at will, taking down entire families, dispersing them to quarantine centers, hospital rooms, ICUs, and morgues. And it was not only the elderly who suffered; healthy people in their 20s and 30s with no preexisting conditions or co-morbidities died, too. I lost one of my dear friends, the proud owner of a graphic arts studio. Vidya was a man on whom life had conferred its graces and rewards, and for this he was grateful. He had made up his mind that he would enjoy his hard-earned wealth and use it for the benefit of his family and community. It did not seem fair that life should turn turtle on him, that it should raise him and crush him in the same breath. His condition deteriorated hours before his discharge, and in moments he was gone. My birthday, in the middle of May, was a despondent affair. Every friend who called spoke of being infected, of losing people they knew, and I realized how fortunate I had been to escape. And yet there were no vaccines in sight, and our leader was missing. Under the daunting glare of the media, he had gone into isolation.

I confess, sir, that you had us worried. At such times, the wildest of thoughts lay siege to the human mind. Some said you were infected, some thought you had escaped to some tax haven, some felt you might have dispensed with yourself, your humiliation too heavy a burden to bear. The international press made note of your failures and batted them back as facts: how you failed to provide oxygen supplies; how you failed to place advance orders for vaccines; how you exported vaccines produced in India in bulk, denying your own people their right to protection, their right to live. The fact that you, for the sake of your political ambitions, had allowed and even facilitated the spread of the virus.

At home, there were shouts for your resignation. For a man who had the temerity to stamp his photograph on the vaccine certificate, would you care to adorn the death certificates, too? they asked. And how did your ministers respond? By arresting people who dared put out public appeals for help, condemning them as desperadoes who were only spreading negativity and trying to make the country look bad. As for those headlines in the international press—“Modi Leads India into Viral Apocalypse” or “Modi’s Pandemic Choice: Protect his image or protect India. He chose himself”—those must have hurt, sir. After all, you had invested seven years and a considerable portion of the taxpayers’ money into cultivating your image as a spiritual-political leader, a long-suffering saint who had made enormous sacrifices for the sake of his country. When you did reappear, we were disappointed to see you hadn’t lost your love for spin. You returned only to blame the System; the System, you said, had failed us. Appearing on television, you looked at us teary-eyed, and some of that bluster was missing.

Every life, sir!

Words like these cannot be bandied loosely. Not in a country where 80 percent of doctors serve urban populations, while a significant number of rural villages are without doctors, ambulances, health-care centers, or basic medicines. It’s time to realize that nearly three-quarters of Indian villages lack access to smartphones, apps, and the Internet, and as I write this, only four percent of our citizens have been fully vaccinated. It’s time to realize that nationalism is a fine coat of arms to wear in the face of imperial domination or a foreign invasion, but that during a crisis of this magnitude, it becomes an act of opportunism, an admission of incompetence. It’s time to realize, sir, that we are now confronted with an existential crisis. We are going to be looking to our leaders for truth, transparency, protection, and safety. Denied these, life will remain a lonely, virtual, and risky affair.

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