Covid-19 is an opportunistic animal: it rushes through open doors and never forces those that are closed. When all access is denied—by social distancing and masks, isolation, or the vaccine—the virus disappears. The pandemic reflects our behaviors, and the statistics reveal less about the lethality of the virus than about our will to block its path. A world map of the pandemic is thus like a photograph of our individual and collective cultures, of our dominant discourses, and of the policies that influence and even determine our attitudes in the face of the illness.
Current attention is focused on India, traditionally a country of grand catastrophes, where the pandemic is raging. We would like to believe that the Indians are victims only of new Covid variants that are more contagious, more deadly, and resistant to the vaccines. But this would appear to be too simple an explanation. The violence of the pandemic is extraordinarily variable from one Indian state to another. Consider the state of Kerala in the south (35 million inhabitants), where the number of infections and of deaths per capita is not dramatically different from some Western European nations. The same goes for the vaccine rate: 17 percent of the population in Kerala has received at least one dose, for example, compared with 22 percent in France. But in Uttar Pradesh, in the center of the country, the vaccination rate is 1 percent. The rate for the whole country is only around 7 percent, while India is by volume the No. 1 producer of vaccines in the world. The observer is left to count cremations, the number of which has risen at a dizzying rate; the result is that the number of victims by states is far greater than the official numbers, in which no Indian has the least confidence.
How do we explain that Kerala’s situation is more comparable with Europe’s than with the rest of India? Traditionally it is a well-governed state with a competent elite, composed initially of the Maharajas, then of parties that call themselves social democratic but would be the equivalent of the Democrats in the United States. The population of Kerala is entirely literate, its men and women benefit from the same rights, and it is well-served by reputable hospitals and clinics. Three great religions—Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity—are found there in about equal numbers; Kerala avoids the escalation of sectarian strife common in the rest of India. For all these reasons, the virus confronts obstacles in Kerala that do not exist in the rest of the country, even as the same variants circulate there as around the country.
If variants are not the dispositive factor, then why is the pandemic more vicious elsewhere? First, there is the civilization factor. Indians are ferocious individualists. Every Indian is a dissident, said V. S. Naipaul. At the other end of Asia, a Korean does not need to be forced to wear a mask; he will do it spontaneously, because Koreans are so inclined. In India, the opposite is the case. On a map of the world, and even within each country, mask-wearing and other precautionary measures exactly reflect the degree of individualism, of anarchy or of social conformism—and the virulence of the pandemic by locality derives from this.
Of course, the government’s approach is an additional and decisive factor. All things considered, nothing delights the virus more than governmental inconsistency; recall the initial politics of denial on the part of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Unfortunately for India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose denial. This is surprising, since, when he was first elected in 2014, he was considered rational and favorable to his country’s scientific, economic, and social progress. The exercise of power has turned him into an autocrat who falsifies statistics on inflation, economic growth, and now Covid. He is obsessed with the exercise of absolute power from one election to the next, and with the elimination of the historic rival party, the Congress Party, whose sin is to be social democratic and secular—which Modi, a Hindu nationalist, is not. The consequences for the pandemic are immediate, since the government frequently organizes vast campaign gatherings and mass pilgrimages. The virus celebrates.
Around the world, people would like to help the Indians to contain the virus. But how? The pandemic is endogenous, civilizational, religious, and partisan. A former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, from the political Left, has proposed “privatizing” the fight against the pandemic because the state is incompetent. Modi rejects this proposal because it comes from the other side. For the virus, the future in India is therefore bright for the coming months and perhaps even years; India is a danse macabre. Recall Modi’s slogan, “Make in India,” referring to his signature manufacturing initiative. No one imagined then that the virus would take him at his word.
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