The guard

India is hiding its Covid crisis – and the whole world will suffer from it

Modi’s government had a choice between saving lives and saving faces. It selected the latter workers to cremate people who died of Covid-19 in a crematorium outside Siliguri on Tuesday. Epidemiologists believe the reported death toll in the country is only a fraction of the real number. Photo: AFP / Getty Images A few years ago, when Narendra Modi came to power, I was working on an investigation report into India that hid his malaria deaths. When my colleague and I traveled from Tribal Odisha to the Indian Ministry of Health in New Delhi, we saw thousands of cases disappearing: some malaria deaths, first recorded in local handwritten health books, never appeared in central government reports; other malaria deaths have been magically transformed into heart attack or fever deaths. The discrepancy was massive: India reported 561 malaria deaths that year. Experts predicted the real number was up to 200,000. Now that Covid has ravaged the country, desperate Indians have taken to Twitter asking for oxygen bottles or asking hospitals for an open bed. The government’s obfuscation of critical information exacerbated the crisis. Between India’s long history of hiding and undercounting disease deaths, and the much more recent history of withholding and suppressing the press, the Modi government has made it impossible to provide accurate information about the spread of the virus in the country Find. Blocking this information will only harm millions in the country. It will also hinder global efforts to stop the Covid-19 pandemic and new variants of the virus on the Indian border. Epidemiologists in India and abroad currently estimate that the country-reported Covid-19 fatality – around 222,000 at the time of publication – is only a fraction of the real number. The director of the US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Assessment has estimated that India only detects three to four percent of actual cases. Other experts point to more overall deaths in cities like Mumbai as evidence that Covid-19 could cause 60 to 70% more deaths than the government admits. There are several reasons why India might boil the books on Covid deaths. For one, the utter failure of the public health system makes it difficult to explain the millions of bodies that go through hospitals, clinics and the dying in their own homes. Although India has become one of the largest economies in the world, it has always spent a dire portion of its GDP on healthcare, with an investment of around 3% compared to Brazil (9%) or the US (17%). However, system failure is only part of the puzzle. The ruling party of the Indian government touted their success in containing the virus very early in the pandemic and never let go of the narrative. When corpses were burned at stake in Uttar Pradesh in April, Yogi Adityanath – the prime minister and a key Modi lackey – claimed everything was under control and repeatedly refused to announce new lockdown measures despite contracting Covid-19 would have. This denialist rhetoric takes place on almost all levels. Like India’s approach to fighting malaria or tuberculosis, its Covid cover-up suppresses “bad news” to bolster the country’s international image and domestically the ruling party. Not all countries with difficult health systems do this. In fact, some sometimes count deaths from other viruses to get more humanitarian aid. But counting diseases is far more sinister in many ways. Modi’s government had a choice between face saving and life saving and opted for mass death. India’s Covid concealment suppresses “bad news” to bolster its image and the standing of the ruling party domestically. While disease counting has been a long-standing problem in India, the attack on freedom of the press is far more recent. Since Modi came to power in 2015, the freedom of India’s expansive media culture has shrunk dramatically, according to sources like Reporters Without Borders. In recent years, the government has sued or prosecuted several news organizations and journalists on the grounds of defamation or other even more dubious reasons. Controversial laws such as the Information Technology Act of 2000 seem to allow more and more frequent and grossly arbitrary and politically motivated raids against freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Indian journalists tell me that they are often asked to censor their coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as what they say on social media, for fear of inciting the government’s wrath. Many were understandably outraged last week when India’s central government reportedly got Twitter and Facebook to remove posts critical of the government’s Covid measures. Meanwhile, India remains one of the most dangerous places to work for journalists in the world, and more than 165 journalists have allegedly died of Covid-19 while reporting on the crisis themselves. (Last month, Kakoli Bhattacharya, an Indian journalist who worked as a news assistant for the Guardian, died of Covid.) In the absence of trustworthy Covid information from their own government, Indians rely largely on social media and overseas coverage for the story of What’s Happening actually? The result is a public health nightmare in India – and I also fear that the global community, which, like many countries, breathe a sigh of relief, could face another wave of Covid with new variants. We can learn what that might look like from other epidemics: India was one of the last countries to eradicate polio and is one of 15 countries that still have significant numbers of people with leprosy. India also has the third largest HIV / AIDS epidemic in the world. India’s struggles with diseases eradicated or largely alleviated elsewhere leave a back door to global public health threats and cost billions of dollars in disease burden. These health crises are also damaging international travel, trade and other economic indicators and presenting new challenges not only to India but also to its allies. India likes to advertise as the largest democracy in the world – and uses this moral authority to protect its reputation in the world economy and in the international diplomatic community. But with a dark curtain separating the reality of the country’s Covid-19 crisis from the rest of the world, India’s reputation and authority are at risk. If the country continues to choose political expediency over transparency in the coming days, the people of India who strive to protect their families will be the first victims, but far from being the last. Ankita Rao is the Guardian US news editor