- Barkha Duttaward-winning Indian television journalist and author.
The official COVID-19 death toll in India is reported to be around 429,000, but many researchers believe it is at least five times higher. India experienced a devastating wave of infections in April and May, and less than 10% of the population has been fully vaccinated. “When we watch what’s happening in the U.S. … it is astounding that people who have access to vaccines are choosing not to get jabbed,” says Barkha Dutt, an award-winning Indian television journalist and author. “It’s anti-science. It’s self-indulgent. It’s a very First World white privilege.”
AMY GOODMAN: The World Health Organization is warning over 100 million more people will be infected with COVID-19 by early next year as the Delta variant continues to rapidly spread. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke Wednesday.
TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: Cases and deaths continue to rise. Last week, the 200 millionth case of COVID-19 was reported to WHO, just six months after the world passed the 100 million reported cases. And we know that the real number of cases is much higher. As I said recently, whether we reach 300 million and how fast we get there depends on all of us. At the current trajectory, we could pass 300 million reported cases early next year.
AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the rest of the hour looking at the pandemic in three of the hardest-hit countries: the United States, Indonesia and India. Over the past four weeks, the three countries have accounted for over a quarter of all COVID cases recorded in the world.
We begin in India, where the official COVID death toll is reported to be around 429,000, but many researchers believe it is at least five times higher. India suffered a devastating wave of infections in April and May.
We go now to New Delhi, where we’re joined by Barkha Dutt. She is an award-winning Indian television journalist and author, and author of This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines. She’s an opinion columnist with the Hindustan Times and The Washington Post. Her latest piece for the Post is headlined “As an Indian, I am enraged by America’s refusal to set vaccine mandates.” Her father died of COVID in April.
First of all, Barkha, our condolences on the death of your father. Can you talk about what happened to your father — in fact, he had gotten one jab, or shot — is that right? — of the two shots — and how you feel about the level of resistance and hesitancy around vaccines in the United States, how you connect the two?
BARKHA DUTT: Thank you, Amy.
Yes, my father had one jab and was scheduled to have the second vaccine, in fact, in the week that he tested positive and eventually had to be hospitalized. Now, like, I think, many daughters in India today, I am haunted by the “what if.” You know, what if I had managed to get him a vaccine in time? The truth is that he got a vaccine just as soon as he could. The truth is also that while I’m enraged, as I mentioned in the Post piece, at what’s happening in the United States, I was also somewhat enraged with my own government for not having anticipated the ferocity of the second wave and not having moved quickly enough to order, procure and manufacture more vaccines.
That said, you know, when we watch what’s happening in the U.S. from, let’s say, Delhi, it is astounding that people who have access to vaccines are choosing not to get jabbed. And, you know, it’s anti-science. It’s self-indulgent. It’s a very First World white privilege, because large parts of the world do not have access to vaccines. And the crisis in my country is that we do not have enough vaccines. Otherwise, our vaccination program has been quite a smooth rollout. So there are serpentine lines of people waiting to get a vaccine, and our problem is there are not enough vaccines to go around.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Barkha, the Modi administration has pledged to have every adult vaccinated by the end of the year. How likely is that? And what needs to happen in order to make sure that there are sufficient vaccines?
BARKHA DUTT: So, just to give the audience some context, India otherwise manufactures 60% of the world’s vaccine. We have experience with mass immunization programs, which is why, you know, with the vaccines we have, our rollout has been pretty smooth. But we — and I need to underline this again and again, which is why my blood boils to see what’s happening in the U.S. — we simply do not have enough vaccines to go around.
So, to give you the numbers, we’re vaccinating, let’s say, on a good day, about 4 million Indians a day. We need to be vaccinating 9 million to meet the target that you just mentioned that has been set by the government itself — that is, all adults vaccinated by the end of the year. We cannot do that unless we have just an explosion of vaccines in either the production pipeline or the market.
And at the moment, rich countries, Western countries, have, in a sense, captured most of the vaccines. They have vaccines in surplus. And if their own citizens are not ready to use these vaccines, they need to send them over to countries that need them more.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Barkha, you’ve reported extensively from all across India about the impact the pandemic has been having, and also, of course, therefore, the urgency of getting vaccines. Can you explain what you’ve seen and, in particular, the impact of the poor — on the poor? As oxygen supplies have run out, you’ve talked about people lining up on the streets and dying on the streets waiting for oxygen, also increased numbers of people now below the poverty line. Could you talk about that?
BARKHA DUTT: Yes. It’s important to sort of say that we might be in what some call the lull before the next storm. But certainly what we have emerged from is a nightmare like one I have never lived through in my adult life. You know, we were told that this virus is the great equalizer. There could be no bigger lie.
In the first wave of the pandemic, we saw millions of poor Indians having to leave the cities and walk, walk back to their villages during the lockdown, because India opted to close down public transport, in complete panic, when COVID-19 first hit us. And I documented that journey. And, you know, the humanitarian catastrophe was significantly, I would say, greater than the medical emergency.
In the second wave, because we thought there would not be a second wave, once again, it was the poor who were disproportionately hit. Most of them, families that I met, had to take loans, mortgage jewels, you know, family heirlooms, maybe sell the only piece of land that they have, just to be able to pay the exorbitant fees at hospitals, that then made them sign consent forms, which basically I call modern-day death warrants, because those forms said that if their loved ones were to die, let’s say, because there wasn’t enough oxygen in the hospital, there would be no legal liability that the hospital would have to face. And I literally saw people outside the shut doors of these hospitals dying on the streets, dying in ambulances, dying not from COVID, but dying, for example, because they couldn’t get a bed or because they couldn’t get access to oxygen.
So, we must recognize — and now we’re in the next phase, where, amid hopes of a recovery, you are seeing salaried Indian lose jobs. You are seeing, you know, daily wage workers unable to pay rent. You are seeing millions of poor children fall out of the education system as physical schools remain closed in large parts of the country. So, when we talk about COVID, we must stop saying that the virus is a great equalizer, because it is anything but.
AMY GOODMAN: Barkha Dutt, in the United States, there’s now discussion of the booster shot. It’s going to go first to the immunocompromised. Now pregnant women are recommended to have the shot, and it looks like children will be coming up next, under 12. The Wall Street Journal has reported that India is now looking to access Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson. Can you explain what the impediments are to reaching an agreement with these foreign companies to be able to get the mRNA vaccine in India, and what it means that they are so proprietary around their recipes, around their formulas?
BARKHA DUTT: Mm-hmm, a great question. You know, personally, I’ve been advocating a lifting of the impediments and getting these vaccines to us as soon as possible. In particular, the mRNA vaccines have been tested for children, and we know them to be safe. And like I just mentioned, our schools — we’re probably the only country in the world where, mostly, physical schools have not opened for more than 500 days. And because of the digital divide, because only 11% of India has access to a computing device, for poor children, this means no education. It means losing — for millions of poor children, it means no education at all, because — and then, in particular, for girls. You know, in homes where, let’s say, there’s one smartphone, it means the boy will get the phone, and not the girl, and those girls are then being pushed into child managers. So, I’m just explaining all of this to underline why that mRNA vaccine is so desperately important for countries like mine.
The impediment is that the government is refusing to basically sign off a waiver of the liability of these companies, should they be taken to court. And the argument is that that liability waiver has not been provided to Indian vaccine manufacturers. There are some of us who are saying give it to everybody, because that’s what countries around the world have done. But, unfortunately, you know, we are seeing a protracted negotiation over this indemnity clause, and it is unfortunate because I do not think we have the time to be quite this bureaucratic and slow-moving about it as we’ve been.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Barkha, before we end, the last issue of the medical debts that millions of Indians have accrued as they’ve treated people suffering from COVID, could you talk about that and the state of hospitals and clinics now dealing with COVID patients?
BARKHA DUTT: So, for the point at which we are, really, we’re sitting at the precipice of a third wave. We do not know what the nature of it would be. We are seeing localized waves in our country right now. What I mean by that is that instead of there being like this national sort of catastrophe, we are seeing this localized, and the maximum number of cases coming from specific states — the southern state of Kerala, the western state of Maharashtra and so on.
And in terms of the deaths, I just want to make the point that, again, we do not know a few things. Personally, my reporting makes it quite evident to me, and I think it’s evident to everybody now, that we have severely undercounted our dead. You know, we have seen mass graves of abandoned bodies suspected to be those of COVID patients in our northern heartland by the banks of the Ghaghara River. I’ve personally documented five such mass graves myself. We have seen underreporting and the absence of counting at cremation grounds and graveyards.
And, you know, it’s just important to say this, that we are a country where 1,300 people use die from tuberculosis, another 1,300 from cancer, every day. We are seeing a sharp fall in even the registration of those cases, which means that millions of Indians are not getting access to screening, to hospitalization for diseases other than COVID. And in my opinion, they are part of the casualty figures of this pandemic and should be counted as such. But we have no formal or official documentation of what might these fatalities be.
Public health experts are warning against the familiars of complacency that cost us so gravely in the second wave. They’re warning against that for the third wave. Nobody quite knows when the third wave will come. At the moment, the hospitals are not facing the kind of pressure and the kind of craziness that we saw, let’s say, in the month of May. So fingers crossed. We can’t afford to be complacent at all and desperately need those vaccines that so many Americans are refusing to take.
AMY GOODMAN: Barkha Dutt, we want to thank you so much. And again, our condolences on the death of your father.
BARKHA DUTT: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, you yourself had COVID. Award-winning Indian television journalist and author, founding editor of the independent digital news source Mojo Story. She is an opinion columnist with The Washington Post. And we’ll link to her latest piece, “As an Indian, I am enraged by America’s refusal to set vaccine mandates.”
Coming up, we go to Indonesia, where the COVID death toll has topped 112,000, with more than half the deaths occurring in the past two months. Stay with us.