Images and video coming out of India today verge on the apocalyptic. Nearly 350,000 new COVID-19 infections are being recorded daily, and the number of those who have died has rocketed into the thousands. Overwhelmed and exhausted medical professionals claim the true death toll from this new wave in India is far higher than the official count. Other experts argue the death toll could actually be 10 times higher than what is being reported.
Pyres for the dead burn in open lots, parks and even on sidewalks across the capital city of New Delhi, themselves a leading indicator of the crisis: Like oxygen, protective gear and effective anti-COVID medicine, wood for funeral fires is running low in India.
India is subsumed today in a chaos that has nearly overtaken a number of nations as COVID has made its long burn into its second year. Italy was pounded at the outset of the pandemic, and Brazil is currently #3 in the world for total infections. France, Russia, Great Britain, Turkey, Spain and Germany have endured more than 3 million infections each. At the top of the list stands the United States, followed by India.
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As with the U.K., Brazil and now the U.S., it is a variant of COVID-19 that is tearing through the Indian population. “This variant — officially known as B.1.617 — was first detected in India in October,” reports the BBC.
This variant has teeth; when it went bad in India, it went bad damned fast. “India was reporting fewer than 15,000 daily infections as recently as early March” reports Forbes. “However, loosened restrictions that led to the resumption of large, unmasked gatherings contributed to a rapid rise in cases, as has a devastating new variant of the coronavirus. Many experts believe the B.1.617 variant, or the ‘double mutant,’ has inflamed the country’s catastrophic second wave.”
India is home to some 1.4 billion people. The U.S., by comparison, is populated by slightly more than 331 million people. Despite having roughly a quarter of India’s population, the U.S. has endured more than double the number of infections, though India may catch up, with more than 300,000 new infections per day.
Why have these countries taken such a terrible beating during this pandemic? It is the oldest, and most thoroughly predictable, story of this pandemic: “loosened restrictions that led to…” etc. We’ve seen authoritarian rulers — Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and until recently Donald Trump in the U.S. — steadfastly refuse to accept the realities of COVID, promote loosened restrictions at the worst possible moments, and inevitably oversee massive spikes in infections caused by entirely predicted variants. Lather, rinse, repeat.
With President Biden in office since January, there can be no denying that the situation in the U.S. has changed dramatically for the better. Vaccines are flying into the arms of those willing to get them, though more than 5 million people have thus far skipped the second shot required by the Pfizer and Moderna protocols, and millions more are balking for right-leaning political reasons. Hospitals that reeled on the verge of collapse have stabilized, many people are taking the mask/social distancing recommendations seriously, and while daily infections still soar past 60,000, the number of deaths from COVID in the U.S. has significantly diminished. We are close to having more vaccine than we actually need.
We are, in other words, in a strong position to help nations like India. Over the weekend, reports began erupting about the pressure being put on the Biden administration to help this long-time ally and strategic partner. “Biden administration officials are coming under increasing pressure to lift restrictions on exports of supplies that vaccine makers in India say they need to expand production amid a devastating surge in Covid-19 deaths there,” reported The New York Times.
On Thursday, during President Biden’s global environmental summit, the administration was pressed on its failure to act in regards to India. State Department spokesman Ned Price replied by stating the nation’s top priority is vaccinating itself first, a hollow echo of the prior administration’s priorities. “It’s of course not only in our interest to see Americans vaccinated,” Price said. “It’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders profoundly disagrees with what he and others have come to call the U.S.’s vaccine apartheid. “We must do everything humanly possible to crush this global pandemic and save millions of people who are in danger of needlessly dying,” Sanders said at a virtual event hosted by Public Citizen on Friday. “Ending this pandemic requires collaboration, solidarity, and empathy. It requires a different mindset… the mindset that tells the pharmaceutical industry that saving perhaps millions of lives is more important than protecting their already excessive profits. To me, this is not a huge debate, this is common human morality.”
“On Friday,” reports Mike Ludwig for Truthout, “Sanders and other leading Democrats joined more than a dozen public health, labor and faith organizations in delivering a petition with two million signatures to Biden demanding the U.S. drop its opposition to the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organization. Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Tammie Baldwin and seven other Democratic senators sent a letter urging Biden to support the TRIPS waiver earlier this month.”
The foot-dragging was not relegated to the Biden administration. Tech billionaire and self-styled COVID expert Bill Gates, whose vast fortune relies largely on intellectual property rights, thinks helping poor countries by lifting intellectual property protections on vaccines and other COVID-related medications is a bad idea. Try to contain your shock, friends.
Fury in the face of this reluctance to assist India and other nations because of pharmaceutical industry financial considerations has been swift and severe. Will Bunch, writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer, gave voice to that rage in a Sunday column: “No one can deny there has been an urgent need to inoculate America — an epicenter of the world pandemic for more than a year — but at this moment where vaccine hesitancy in Trump-y red states and counties is becoming a bigger U.S. problem than vaccine supply, Team Biden has been painfully slow to switch to a … humanitarian mode. In [State Dept. spokesman] Price’s words, it’s hard not to hear a phrase that has dragged down our nation since Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. America First.”
The pushback finally motivated the Biden administration to act, though not nearly to the degree advocates like Senator Sanders were hoping for. According to NBC News, the administration will “immediately provide raw materials for Covid-19 vaccines, medical equipment and protective gear to help India respond to a massive surge in coronavirus infections…. The United States is also pursuing options to provide India with oxygen generation and related supplies.”
On Tuesday, in response to the outcry, the Biden administration announced that it would “begin sharing its entire pipeline of vaccines from AstraZeneca once the COVID-19 vaccine clears federal safety reviews, with as many as 60 million doses expected to be available for export in the coming month,” according to the Associated Press.
While the decision to share the AstraZeneca vaccine is welcome news, the TRIPS waiver was not included in the administration’s list of actions.
It is difficult to overstate the tragedy of all this. Once again, capitalism is served before the people… or, put another way, the people are being served up to capitalism. Again.
Biden has exceeded expectations among most progressives in his first 100 days, but this debacle is a stark reminder of the capitalist neoliberal heart still beating away at the ideological core of his administration. Biden is wrong to delay sending all the help that is possible to the world, as is Gates.
This is a global calamity that requires a global response, not hiding behind the fiction of borders and the profit dreams of avarice.