On Sept. 17, India celebrated a milestone in its vaccine distribution when 25 million people received the shot over the course of one day. That day, the country was also celebrating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 71st birthday. Government officials and Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, hailed this sudden surge in vaccinations as a “gift” from the Prime Minister. However, many citizens were unconvinced by this gesture, especially in light of India’s response to the pandemic over the past year and a half.
The state of affairs in India remains grim. Several outlets in the region report on the reality of the pandemic in the country. A Scroll investigation revealed that behind what was deemed a “massive success” in Bihar, a state in India, health care personnel and officials in charge of data entry in many districts, “were under tremendous pressure to perform.” The investigation revealed that those vaccinated “offline” from the previous days were added to the list on Modi’s birthday. The details were taken down on paper but not uploaded on CoWIN, the app used by Indian citizens to book appointments for vaccination dates.
At USC, where approximately 5% of the student body is from India, many students have personal experiences with the country’s vaccine distribution efforts. Some students said their journeys to the United States were full of challenges in order to receive two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Students from India said they recall feelings of loss and desperation while looking for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds, caring for sick and dying loved ones and feeling frustrated by a lack of clear public health guidelines in their home country. They believe that Modi’s recent birthday “gift” to the public was a gimmick to save face.
“Vaccination is a basic health initiative and it is the duty of every prime minister to ensure that all citizens get it,” said Yash Gupta, a graduate student studying computer science. “He should have been more careful with his words. That showed that he wanted to take credit for the effort of frontliners in the country.”
Gupta, who is from Gurgaon, India, believes that the decision was a political move for Modi to get votes in India’s next election in 2024.
But Modi has been widely criticized throughout the world for his government’s COVID-19 response. While India’s urban middle class searched for oxygen cylinders or hospital beds for their loved ones, Modi’s silence sat poorly with his constituents. For many, his speeches on self-reliance reeked of death and negligence.
Somnath Sarkar, a business-owner and a U.S. citizen with an Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) said that he is “very scared” for his relatives in India as the country continues to weather the pandemic.
According to Sarkar, many Indians were also outraged over India’s vaccine diplomacy efforts and felt that choosing a date that would boost Modi’s popularity was like a “criminal offense.”
Until the second wave of coronavirus infections in April, India distributed almost 65 million vaccines to countries like Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Bangladesh and Nepal. The New York Times reports that India exported vaccines to show its regional power in South Asia and neighboring countries which may have swayed to China’s influence, and demonstrate its dominance to the rest of the world.
Citizens were outraged when India exported vaccines ahead of the deadly second wave of coronavirus infections, and some believe the handling of the pandemic will continue to be a major topic during the 2024 parliamentary elections.
“In April, my grandmother, who is a cancer patient, got infected with the coronavirus … We desperately searched for hospital beds but found nothing,” said a graduate student studying mechanical engineering at USC, who spoke anonymously to Annenberg Media due to fear of repercussions against his family in India. “She could not even get vaccinated because of a scarcity. Giving out vaccines that are already free as ‘gifts’ is of no use now. It is nothing but propaganda.”
However, the announcement also reminded some members of the Indian diaspora of the huge economic gap between India’s rich and impoverished, which contributes to vaccine accessibility.
“A lot of places give vaccines for free anyway. What’s the point in calling it a ‘gift?’” said Yasshvi Nandu, a junior majoring in business administration. “Rich people have it easy. Students who were planning on going abroad to study took up free vaccines in government hospitals, which people who could not afford it needed.”
For India’s government, pulling off a public health feat is an attempt to promote favorable thoughts for Modi’s political party. By the end of May, more than 27 million had been infected by COVID-19 and 300,000 people died, while experts suspect that the actual numbers are much higher. The daily average rose to 400,000 on a day, at one point. Neeraj Sood, vice dean of research at the USC Price School of Public Policy, said that Modi’s vaccine announcement makes political sense.
“Politicians typically take credit for doing things for the public,” said Sood. “It was definitely a politically motivated move to vaccinate 20 million Indians on the Prime Minister’s birthday. It is not out of the ordinary.”
Sood believes, however, that some good came from this politically calculated move because millions of individuals were inoculated. Some students feel similarly.
“I think such an act would be considered facetious here, but maybe in India it would have a positive impact as it would mean that people are getting vaccinated,” said Sakura Rapolu, an Indian American senior majoring in computer science.
However, many believe that leveraging public health for political capital is not ethical.
“In India, the CoWIN app disproportionately marginalized communities, which are not technologically adept or those with lower income,” Sood said. “Using a campaign to promote public health and political ambitions to get votes for your party is not cool.”
But Modi does have his supporters. For some, his handling of the COVID-19 crisis was commendable and the pledge to vaccinate a huge portion of the Indian population on his birthday was a welcome decision.
“Considering India’s weak infrastructure and corruption among government officials, he managed well,” said Sanmay Mukhopadhyay, a U.S. citizen who holds an OCI. “The Indian and western media are very biased against him. I am pleased that so many people got vaccines on his birthday.”