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Sensemaker: India burning

Monday 26 April 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • The US lifted its pause on the Johnson & Johnson Covid jab, a one-shot dose essential to the global vaccine campaign.
  • A parliamentary committee summoned the UK’s most senior civil servant for questioning over Dominic Cummings’s allegations of impropriety by Boris Johnson.
  • Prosecutors asked a Moscow court to designate Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption organisation an “extremist” movement, which would cut off its funding and could land its members with lengthy prison terms.

India burning

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, learnt lessons too early or too late during the Covid pandemic. Infections were still low when he imposed a severe lockdown and they remained low as he eased restrictions ahead of other countries. In February, his party called him a “visionary,” but he missed the signs of a second wave. 

They were obvious: 

  • Daily infections were rising and, within a month, had tripled. Another month later, on 21 April, India set a global record: 315,735 new infections. By that point, Covid was killing 2,000 people a day, and those were the official statistics.
  • The true number of Covid deaths in India, according to Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, is two to five times higher. The country’s caseload may be anything from 10 to 30 times higher, and the picture is set to get worse.
  • India will add 15 million new cases to its load over the next three weeks, according to Mukherjee’s modelling.

When infections began rising in Maharashtra in early March, Modi attacked the state’s opposition-run government instead of helping it. In West Bengal, he held huge rallies during a weeks-long campaign – no masks, no social distancing. And he promoted a month-long festival, the Kumbh Mela, which draws millions of Hindu pilgrims to a small town in Uttarakhand state. 

As the state’s case numbers increased seven-fold since the start of April, Modi tweeted that the Kumbh Mela should now just be “symbolic” and toned down his political campaigning. But it will take more to bring India’s Covid catastrophe under control. 

Fewer than 10 per cent of Indians have received even one dose of a Covid vaccine, despite India being home to the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer, the privately owned Serum Institute of India. In June, Serum signed a deal to make the AstraZeneca vaccine – and when it did, a number of foreign governments ordered hundreds of millions of doses. 

But, big on Indian self-reliance, Modi ordered just 11 million doses of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca jab in January this year. He threw money instead at an Indian producer, Bharat Biotech, even though its product – a vaccine called Covaxin – hadn’t completed all trials and the company was less experienced in mass production. Modi also rejected applications by Pfizer-BioNtech and others to license local versions of their vaccines. Thanks to these policies, India found it could only distribute three million doses a day, meaning vaccination wouldn’t have been completed until the end of 2022.

Recognising the shortfall, Modi’s government began withholding nearly all of the 2.4 million doses that Serum made every day. The countries that had ordered them experienced vaccine shortfalls of their own, and so India’s Covid crisis spread across the world.

Modi has moved to rectify the shortage. He has fast-tracked approvals for half a dozen foreign vaccines – while giving more money to Indian producers – and accepted emergency supplies from foreign governments. But for hundreds of thousands of Indians, that no country can go it alone was one lesson Modi learnt too late. 

There’s a Hindu belief that cremation frees a body’s soul and it’s the practice of that belief which gave us the true horror of India’s Covid crisis over the past week. Funeral pyres burned day and night at mass cremation sites across the country. In Gujarat, Modi’s home state, one crematorium’s furnaces ran for so long their metal parts melted.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Pay cheek
As millions of Americans suffered unemployment and income losses during the pandemic, many of the country’s worst affected companies paid their executives as if business was booming. Boeing, for example, was grounded for most of the year after two deadly crashes and travel restrictions. It announced plans to sack 30,000 workers, reported a $12 billion loss, but paid its chief executive $21.1 million. (His predecessor made $23.4 million before he resigned in December 2019 with a $62 million pay out). Hilton, which paid its chief executive $55.9 million, laid off a quarter of its corporate staff and lost $720 million. “The pay packages reflect soaring share prices, which in turn reflect, at least in part, the willingness if not eagerness of corporations to cut payrolls at the slightest provocation,” Robert Reich, a labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, told the New York Times. They reflect something else: a country on the verge of a rapid recovery but racked by income inequality.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Oscar wins
Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao became the first woman of colour and only the second woman ever to be named best director at the Oscars. Two weeks ago she became the first Asian woman, and the second woman ever, to win the best director Bafta. Her film, Nomadland, won best picture and best actress – for Frances McDormand – at the Oscars. It’s about a woman living out of her van and meeting real-life nomads across modern America. In her victory speech, Zhao said making the film was a “crazy once-in-a-lifetime journey”. Fewer people watch awards ceremonies now, but it’s hoped that the celebration of Zhao’s work will have a lasting effect on diversity in film. As McDormand’s character says in the film, “What’s remembered lives”.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Dirty spies
British secret agents have started “green spying” on the world’s biggest polluters to ensure they “play fair” and keep their climate change promises. The head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Richard Moore, told Times Radio that climate change was the “foremost international foreign policy agenda item for this country and for the planet”. Moore didn’t explain how the spying works, but it’ll be interesting to see what other intelligence you pick up when monitoring the emissions of not-obviously-trustworthy countries and companies… and whom you offend. The US is the biggest emitter cumulatively but China is by far the biggest now.


New things technology, science, engineering

Faceblock
Apple introduced a feature on its devices that lets users stop apps collecting their data. Surveys suggest that up to 80 per cent of users will use the feature, called IDFA (identifier for advertisers), which has upset Facebook. User data and the advertising it generates is what makes the social media platform so profitable. Facebook warned that IDFA could halve its advertising income. Apple, meanwhile, cares little for user data because it makes money from selling devices and in-app purchases rather than advertising. In its latest blog post, Facebook made a catty reference to the actions of “just a single company” but seems to have accepted the new feature. For the rest of us, that apps can be prevented from collecting more of our data than they need to provide their service is good news.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Another vaccine
When malaria still existed across southern Europe, Italians thought it was transmitted by air and gave it its name: male aria, bad air. The disease, caused by parasites transmitted through mosquito bites, is now concentrated in the world’s tropical zones. It kills more than 400,000 people a year, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa. In Burkina Faso, 450 children took part in a trial of a new malaria vaccine made by the same group of Oxford University researchers who developed a Covid vaccine. It showed 77 per cent effectiveness. The most effective malaria vaccine to date showed an effectiveness of only 55 per cent. A malaria vaccine took longer to develop than a Covid one because the disease, one of the world’s deadliest, has thousands more genes and a very high immune response is needed to fight it. Adrian Hill, the Oxford professor who led the trial, said the vaccine was “very deployable” and “has the potential to have a major public health impact”.


The week ahead

UK
26/04 – Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks at the Union of Shop, Distributive & Allied Workers annual meeting; ONS publishes analysis on Covid-19 and the outdoors; trial begins for two police officers charged over the death of former footballer Dalian Atkinson, 27/04 – European Parliament votes on whether to ratify UK-EU Trade Agreement; BP releases first quarter results; Channel 4 hosts Scottish leaders’ election debate, 28/04 – Covid Recovery Commission releases final report; court hearing for former football Ryan Giggs, charged with assault and controlling behaviour; Supreme Court hearing on Google’s alleged data breach of iPhone users; UK-EU Trade Agreement vote result announced, 29/04 – Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy releases 2021 fuel poverty report; Ministry of Justice releases quarterly statistics on deaths in custody, 30/04 – Circus Nightclub hosts indoor club night for up to 3,000 people in Liverpool; Barclays releases first quarter results, 02/05 – Festival Republic hosts outdoor gig with 5,000 people in Liverpool

World
26/04 – Nobel Prize Summit takes place virtually; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute releases report on world military expenditure, 27/04 – Pfizer and Moderna CEOs speak at Fortune media annual health summit, 28/04 – Joe Biden addresses joint session of Congress; Council of Europe releases annual report on safety of journalists; NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station due to splash down on Earth, 29/04 – Joe Biden visits Georgia to mark 100th day in office; US first quarter GDP figures; appeal hearing for Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, convicted of defaming a Second World War veteran, 30/04 – AstraZeneca releases first quarter results, 01/05 – International Workers’ Day; Kentucky Derby takes place, 02/05 – 10 years since death of Osama bin Laden

And finally… What possessed Boris Johnson to personally phone newspaper editors last week to brief against his former chief advisor Dominic Cummings? Join us at tomorrow’s lunchtime open news meeting to work out what’s eating the PM.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagalizia

Xavier Greenwood
@XAMGreenwood

Photographs by Hindustan Times and Getty Images


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