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India experiences record-breaking COVID-19 wave amid dangerous political climate

As countries across the world are continuing their vaccination efforts, India is descending into chaos due to mismanagement by its political leaders. With more than 330,000 reported cases in a single day, India has surpassed all records of daily COVID-19 cases to date. Most Indian cities are running out of oxygen cylinders and ventilators as the death toll rises to more than 2000 deaths a day. To add to this, there is a critical shortage of vaccines paired with the rise of a new double mutant virus strain. COVID-19 patients are increasingly using social media websites to look for available hospital beds and oxygen. Adolescents and young professionals are preparing online databases of essential resources in the absence of any help from the government.

In the midst of this, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is still holding rallies ahead of state-level elections. In the state of West Bengal, the BJP has promised to make COVID-19 vaccines available for free as long as it wins the election. People have criticized  this strategy since the BJP is ruling at the national level and already has the power to distribute free vaccines in the state. According to official data released on April 23rd by the Ministry of External Affairs, India has been exporting vaccine doses to other countries. This comes at a time when India’s own citizens are struggling to get vaccinated. India is now looking to import vaccines despite being home to the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world. Reuters has reported that “India will start receiving Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine by the end of May,” yet with death rates skyrocketing, even a one-month waiting period seems highly lethal. 

Over a phone call in February 2021, President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to “work closely together to win the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.” Less than three months later, the U.S. was refusing to export raw material to India for vaccine production because of the Defense Production Act (DPA) still in effect. As reported by The Hindu, Biden invoked the DPA earlier this year to facilitate domestic vaccine and PPE production to “prioritize domestic consumption”. After facing pressure from Indians and Indian-Americans, the U.S. finally released a statement on April 25th saying it will export resources to India.

Within India, the response to COVID-19 has been highly politicized. According to NDTV, some BJP politicians were recently caught “trying to export 60,000 vials [of Remdesivir] despite an export ban.” Remdesivir is a drug widely used in the treatment of Covid patients although its effectiveness has been debated. This drug was allegedly prevented from being distributed in Maharashtra, the worst-hit state in India. Many citizens are also complaining about medicines and vaccine doses being redirected from Maharashtra to BJP-ruled states. Such partisan politics could be a reason behind the recent uptick in cases and deaths reported in Maharashtra.

Another anticipated problem is the pricing of the COVID-19 vaccine across the country. There are two main vaccines in supply right now: Covaxin and Covishield. Both of them are being manufactured within the country. Starting on 1 May 2021, all citizens above the age of 18 will be eligible for vaccination. However, Hindustan Times has reported that “While one dose of this two-dose vaccine will cost 600 (rupees) for private facilities, it will cost 400 for the state governments.” This price range is largely unaffordable for most Indians. Pfizer has offered to distribute its vaccine at a “not-for-profit price,” with one spokesperson saying that they “remain committed to make (their) vaccine available for deployment in India’s immunization program.” However, they are still in discussions with authorities and it might take a long time for the distribution to begin. During this particularly ominous time, we can only wait to see if the U.S. will cooperate with India to speed up vaccine production.

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