Following some news articles announcing India had reached near herd immunity and widespread reports on the ground of services and businesses opening up , most of the country has once again locked down this month following a reported ‘surge’ in cases and ‘spikes’ in deaths and the herd immunity hypothesis being withdrawn [2/3]. The figures circulated on mainstream media sound huge but are small in the context of India’s total population. By my calculations using the government’s own cumulative data since March 2020, only 0.95% of the population (13.7 million) have tested positive for SARS COV2 and 171,000 of those cases had COVID 19 entered on their death certificates, which amounts to 0.0124% of the entire population; just over one every ten thousand [4/5]. To protect those vulnerable to fatal infection the remaining 99.9% have suffered lockdown and all the attendant hardships. 80% of India’s population work in the informal sector on a day to day, hand to mouth basis and many have again suffered a loss of income .
India has much greater public health problems than that posed by SARS COV2 which comes nowhere near the top ten causes of death, trumped by the following highly communicable diseases: diarrhoea at 720,000 deaths per annum, lower respiratory tract infections at 520,000 deaths per annum and tuberculosis at 450,000 deaths per annum . India has never locked down to prevent these fatalities which are a regular annual occurrence. So, why does the spread of SARS COV2 warrant locking down the population once more? In the light of the data presented above, the public health rationale doesn’t appear to make sense given a far greater burden is presented by other communicable diseases that proliferate unchecked.
Over the past six months, I’ve been fundraising for a foodbank to alleviate hunger caused by lockdown in Bodhgaya, a small Buddhist pilgrimage town in rural Bihar, India, where I lived for some years. Each week I’ve sent the weekly budget covered by our donations to 22-year-old Sunny Kumar who purchases the food wholesale, packs it with his relatives and friends into bags that they then distribute to the poorest in his village. Bodhgaya is almost entirely dependent on Buddhist pilgrimage trade that has been non-existent since lockdown began on March 12th 2020, but Sunny’s village especially so, as it comprises a mixture of mud and concrete dwellings on land adjacent to Mahabodhi temple occupied by petty traders, cleaners, grounds workers and other casual temple staff.
Until recently, the temple had reopened to monastics, domestic pilgrims, and tourists for a few months, raising hopes that soon the borders would open to permit international pilgrims from neighbouring Asian Buddhist countries to return and revive trade. However, this month the temple built around the sacred Bodhi tree once again closed. The town has a 7pm curfew, like many other areas of India. All educational institutions are closed from kindergarten to university. Remote learning is not available to the vast majority of children and young people, who are again falling behind and no longer learning. People are again suffering from lost employment and falling trade, their savings drained and sources of charity exhausted.
During the last food bank distribution, I discussed the situation with Sunny, both locally and India wide. He told me there were a tiny number of cases of COVID anyone knew of on the ground. One man he knew of had tested positive following common cold symptoms, yet his wife, parents and three children were all negative. They live in a cramped concrete and mud-walled dwelling so Sunny said many were discussing how it was possible that none of the man’s close family members were affected. The villagers share a mistrust of the government, the news media, and the government hospital staff he explained. Most ridicule the news coverage saying they are making a big problem out of a small issue to persuade people to take medicine they don’t need- the vaccination. There is great suspicion of the vaccine roll out and take-up is very low, he reported. What’s more, Sunny’s cousin’s 28-year-old friend died of a heart attack within a day of receiving the vaccine and was previously very healthy. He explained how the stories of ill health following vaccination are widespread so ‘nobody wants this medicine, it’s no good’. The nagar panchayats (town councils) have been setting up vaccination camps that have been closed down after a few days due to standing empty.
Having lost their traditional source of income, many men from the surrounding town left Bodhgaya to search for work in the cities when lockdown lifted. After returning home for the national festival of Holi with their families, most were barred from crossing state lines to search for work unless they agreed to be vaccinated, Sunny explained. Therefore, the villagers have decided that the new lockdowns, curfews, bans on interstate travel for the unvaccinated, and the ongoing closure of international borders are all measures being used to pressure people to accept vaccination. Most migrant workers are faced with little choice: they comply with vaccination or they and their families starve. Many have religious reasons for refusing the jab due to the sources of the ingredients used. However, most see no need for medicine unless they are sick, he explained.
The vast majority of Indian people live with a much higher level of risk to their health and well being on a daily basis than COVID could ever present to them, and the stories circulating about adverse effects of the vaccine outnumber those about people dying of COVID. He reported how many older people are ‘dying of a broken heart’ or depression now that they have lost their income and see no pathway to economic recovery. Many have stopped eating, cannot sleep and are suffering from serious mental health problems as the goalposts set by the government change constantly, and they can see no end to the current restrictions and ensuing poverty.
On the ground, it seems that the people of India have decided that lockdowns and other measures have little if anything to do with public health. The only state in India not in lockdown is running an election campaign right now. Sunny explained that most people believe after the election in West Bengal the whole country will be locked down to try and coerce the population to accept the highly mistrusted vaccines.
My heart burned with indignation after our conversation. I asked his permission to share his story and he agreed. In the last six months, Sunny has become a respected community leader at the tender age of 22. His organisation of the food bank has not only alleviated hunger in his village, but has also inspired his team of young volunteers with hope when they experience the gratitude of beneficiaries who would have had no other sources of support. We all expected lockdowns to be a thing of the past by spring 2021. If you have the ability, please consider donating to the food bank’s Just Giving page here.
A little money goes a long way in India. We have been feeding 20 households plus providing a hot meal to around 50 street children every Sunday for just £100 a week over the past six months. I dread to think what would have become of our beneficiaries without this project, and we thank all our previous donors from the Left Lockdown Sceptics readership for your outstanding generosity and kindness. Only international solidarity can break this horrific situation and as we have that, we can fight on.
1. Argwal, S. (2021). Indians must have no confusion about how we reached impressive Covid herd immunity. The Print https://theprint.in/opinion/indians-must-have-no-confusion-about-how-we-reached-impressive-covid-herd-immunity/591489/
2. FT (2021). With millions of cases, has India achieved herd immunity? Republished in the National Post https://nationalpost.com/news/world/with-millions-of-cases-has-india-achieved-herd-immunity
3. DW (2021) Coronavirus: Has India achieved herd immunity? https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-has-india-achieved-herd-immunity/a-56512000
5. JHU (2021) JHU COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University https://github.com/CSSEGISandData/COVID-19
6. Gokrhoo, S. (2021) 80% of India’s informal workers lost jobs during COVID lockdown, 63% survived on two meals a day, shows data https://www.firstpost.com/india/80-of-indias-informal-workers-lost-jobs-during-covid-lockdown-63-survived-on-two-meals-a-day-shows-data-9264141.html
7. India Institute For Health Metrics (2021) http://www.healthdata.org/india