‘Clap our hands,’ says Modi, but India needs more to tackle coronavirus crisis

People watch Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus on TV screens inside a showroom in Ahmedabad, India, March 19, 2020.
People watch Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus on TV screens inside a showroom in Ahmedabad, India, March 19, 2020. © Amit Dave, REUTERS

India on Friday reported 206 coronavirus cases and five deaths. But with its population, poverty and poor public health service, the world’s largest democracy could be a COVID-19 ticking time bomb. So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation this week, Indians were looking for measures to tackle the crisis. They got populist symbolism instead.


On a sunny, spring afternoon in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a crush of people, followed by journalists, made their way to tables set up on a public ground to grab earthenware mugs filled with a promised coronavirus miracle cure: cow urine.

As musicians clanged cymbals and chanted Hindu religious verses on a blaring sound system, an attendee named Om Prakash gulped the bovine elixir before news cameras and extolled the virtues of cow urine in the COVID-19 pandemic age. “Gaumutra [cow urine] is effective against all forms of bacteria that harm us,” said Prakash, unconcerned that a virus, not bacteria, was the source of the latest global health crisis.

The highlight of the event organised by the All India Hindu Mahasabha came hours later, when supporters gathered before a poster of a multi-limbed monster – labeled “coronavirus” – pursuing Chinese people eating various types of meat. A cup of cow urine was symbolically placed near the poster monster’s lips as Swami Chakrapani Maharaj, the group’s saffron-robed religious leader, explained that the offerings were to calm the coronavirus demon.

While the cow is considered a sacred animal in Hinduism, public health experts in India have been at pains to get out the message that there is no scientific evidence to suggest the creature’s waste material has any medicinal properties or health benefits.

The March 14 gathering in the heart of the Indian capital was just one of many “gaumutra parties” – dubbed an Indian version of tea parties – held in parts of the country. Some have featured people smearing themselves with cow dung in a bid to ward off the killer virus. A number of these events were organised by members of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Others were held by organisations belonging to the Sangh Parivar, or family of Hindu right-wing groups to which the BJP belongs, whose millions-strong cadres of volunteers and supporters form Modi’s most loyal vote base.

The country so far has 206 confirmed coronavirus cases and five deaths, according to the latest government figures. Those are likely rise since India has among the lowest testing rates in the world. With its population of 1.3 billion people, poverty, inadequate public health and infrastructure, India presents a perfect storm situation if the virus spreads on a mass scale.

“India is one of the world’s most populous countries, it’s a key economic and strategic player, and its location is critical. If India is hit hard by the coronavirus, the stakes for the world are clearly stark,” explained Michael Kugelman from the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Given its high population density, social distancing is absolutely critical to contain the spread of the virus.”

The official Indian response on social distancing though has been schizophrenic. While many governments have been accused of failing to respond quickly and effectively enough to the COVID-19 crisis, Modi’s government faces a unique set of mixed messaging challenges, which are political and have little to do with public health or sanitation policies.

First case from China, early health measures

On the public health front, India had an early, robust response to outbreak when the first case, a student returning from China’s Wuhan province, was confirmed late January. Thermal screenings were immediately enforced on airline passengers flying in from China. International travel restrictions have been steadily tightened and by Thursday, India had banned incoming international flights.

Before the ban, news and social media were clogged with reports of unsanitary conditions of quarantine facilities and the lack of organisation, forcing the government to respond to the complaints of a section of the population with the means and resources to travel overseas and demand basic sanitation standards.

The travel bans though have only been implemented for people arriving from abroad. Within the country, there have been no restrictions on domestic travel, raising fears of a community spread that could overrun the country’s health system.

‘Dream moment for a virus’

On the issue of social distancing, a major concern in the world’s second-most populated nation, the Modi government’s response on public gatherings has sparked criticism from experts and concerned citizens.

This month in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, for instance, the chief minister repeatedly ignored calls from health authorities to cancel a religious fair that attracts millions of devotees every year. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu priest and member of the ruling BJP, maintained the nine-day Ram Navami Mela commemorating the birth of the Hindu god, Ram, in the city of Ayodhya would not be scrapped.

The ceremony this year appeared to be particularly charged since it marks the first Ram Navami celebrations after a controversial November 2019 Supreme Court ruling allowed Hindus to construct a temple on the site of 14th-century mosque in Ayodhya that was destroyed by Hindu hardliners. The state chief minister, Adityanath, was expected to kick off the celebrations on March 25 and a statue of Lord Ram would then be placed in a bullet proof glass case on the disputed site.

Every year, devotees take a dip in the sacred Sarayu River, a prospect that has raised alarm bells among Indians concerned about the spread of the coronavirus. “With crowds congregating on the banks of the Sarayu, performing ablutions in the river, it’s a dream moment for a virus,” moaned Salil Tripathi, author of “Offence: The Hindu Case,” a book on Hindu nationalism, in an interview with FRANCE 24 on Thursday.

Sunday stay-home

Given the contradictory signals on social distancing, Indians concerned about the crisis looked to Modi to provide leadership and deliver an unambiguous public health message particularly on the politically charged issue of religious gatherings. Their hopes were raised this week when his office declared the prime minister would deliver a much-awaited Thursday-night address to the nation on the crisis.

In his 28-minute prime time speech, Modi called for a self-imposed janata [or public] curfew to be observed on Sunday from 7am to 9pm. “March 22 will be a symbol of our effort, of our self-restraint and our resolve to fulfil our duty in service of the nation,” Modi declared.

The prime minister then called on Indians to come to their windows and balconies at 5pm on Sunday to display their support for healthcare workers. “We will clap our hands, beat our plates, ring our bells to boost their morale and salute their service,” he added.

Modi also announced his government would be setting up an economic task force to “take decisions in the near future, based on regular interactions and feedback from all stakeholders.” But he provided no details of budgetary packages, allocations or measures to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic. He also failed to address the issue of dubious miracle cures advocated by some of his party members, nor did he mention bans on large religious gatherings such as the upcoming Ram Navami festival.

‘Grand symbolic gestures’, grand omissions

The rationale of a 14-hour voluntary lockdown on just one day with no policy initiative announcements failed to impress critics. “I agree he sent a calming message but honestly was expecting some economic announcement to help daily wage labourers, weaker sections of society etc.,” said Sumanth Raman, a TV anchor and doctor by training, on Twitter. “Staying home on Sunday and making noise at 5pm may not be enough.”

In his Twitter response to Modi’s speech, Tripathi listed the omissions. “Here’s what he should have said: 1. No Ram Navmi Mela 2. No exemption for any large religious gathering,” said Tripathi before concluding, “Applause is earned, not demanded.”

Kugelman was sceptical of the effectiveness of the Indian prime minister’s proposals. “We know Modi likes grand symbolic gestures. I would put this one-day curfew in that category. There are no public health benefits of this effort to gather at windows and balconies to recognise those on the frontline of the defence against the coronavirus. It’s not novel, people in other cities have done it by organising a campaign on social media, not having leaders call for it. Modi’s supporters will say it’s a grand, unique idea. But it’s not grand nor unique,” he noted. “That said, it is a useful way to bring the country together to show support for those working hard to combat the virus.”

In the end, the Ram Navami festival organisers on Friday announced the cancellation of celebrations following a public outcry from concerned citizens.

While welcoming the cancellation, Tripathi noted that Modi had missed a critical messaging opportunity. “It’s outrageous that the authorities waited so long to stop the congregation, and the prime minister missed the opportunity his speech provided to set the tone by saying such large gatherings, regardless of faith or purpose, should be postponed indefinitely,” said Tripathi. “At a time when world leaders were offering innovative policy measures, Modi only asked for a limited shutdown on a Sunday, that too voluntary, and asked people to applaud essential services workers. That's abdication of responsibility. Even other governments that were initially lethargic, like the UK and the US, are doing more.”

Meanwhile Kugelman was not surprised by Modi’s failure to address unproven alternate cures and health remedies to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, he was nevertheless dismayed by the Indian leader’s silence. “It is striking to say the least. He could have dedicated at least a sentence or two to say there are scientifically proven measures to tackle the health crisis and reject alternative measures that are not particularly effective,” he noted. “But it makes sense politically for Modi not to get into that issue. He has support from conservative members of the populace who genuinely believe in these cures.”

‘Old India’ to the rescue

Populist symbolism lacking in policy directives that could upset his hardline Hindu vote base has been Modi’s standard operating procedure since he entered office six years ago. The Hindu nationalist leader has faced international criticism over the human rights violations and anti-Muslim policies in the “New India”. As the country prepares to respond to the coronavirus crisis, experts hope that the public health structures of the old, socialist India will enable the world’s largest democracy to tide over the latest crisis.

In a Foreign Policy column published earlier this week, Sumit Ganguly of Indiana University detailed three past health crises – including the 1980s HIV crisis – that were efficiently managed by Indian state and central authorities. They “suggest that the country has an ability to mitigate dire health challenges even though it has displayed a lax attitude toward addressing routine public health needs”, Ganguly said.

The Indian state, Ganguly noted, has so far responded effectively and proportionately to the COVID-19 outbreak. “Despite all the efforts that the government has undertaken to contain the likely dispersion of the virus, it is, of course, entirely possible that an escalating spate of infections will take place through community spread. Once that happens, given the cheek-by-jowl living conditions of India’s cities and towns, the disease can sweep across the country like wildfire,” he warned. “The question then is whether New Delhi’s actions have bought its people enough time – and whether they will do their part by practicing social distancing and taking personal precautions.”

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