India’s COVID Response Would Benefit from More Federalism
As the Delta variant spreads, India is still reeling from a second wave that pushed its healthcare system to its limit. As of this writing, India’s official case load is at 31.8 million with 426,000 deaths. However, due to undercounts caused by testing kit shortages and inadequate documentation, the actual death and case counts are believed to be even higher.
The world’s largest democracy became a global COVID-19 hotspot in March 2020, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rapid response, a nationwide lockdown, forced 1.3 billion people into their homes and suspended all services apart from those deemed essential.
The lockdown came at a cost, contracting what had been an expanding economy by nearly 24% and leading to mass unemployment. India’s shutdown was so abrupt that many workers from rural areas who migrated to the cities for work were stranded. With transportation services suspended, many attempted to travel thousands of miles on foot for home, suffering dehydration and hunger along the way. India’s governing principle of cooperative federalism makes the administration of such a massive and diverse nation possible. However, Modi issued the order unilaterally without consulting with state leaders, leaving them unprepared for the resulting migrations and welfare requirements.
Although brief, the lockdown was credited with the short-lived public health success over COVID. As cases declined, and election season for the lower parliament ramped up, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigned on a pandemic victory. Unfortunately, India did not take advantage of the time between surges to boost testing and treatment capabilities, so when the second wave hit, in part due to the new, more contagious Delta variant, the virus spread uncontrollably.
The second COVID-19 spike threw the country into chaos, with many Indians grimly remarking that “we flattened the curve on its y-axis, not the x-axis.” In contrast to the national directives issued early in the pandemic, Modi’s 2021 response left state governments to fend for themselves as each state sought access to remedies and vaccines for their populations. Meanwhile, Modi also attempted to censor and silence critics of his COVID response, prompting Freedom House to downgrade India from “free” to “partly free” in their 2021 Index. The BJP and its main opposition, the Indian National Congress (INC) continue to blame each other, opposing whatever the other side supports, and the Indian people suffer the consequences of their political brinksmanship.
This latest COVID upswing also has global implications. India’s Serum Institute is the largest producer of AstraZeneca vaccines under the COVAX program, and because India can no longer export these vaccines, people in low-income nations are facing vaccination delays that could prolong the pandemic for the rest of the world.
As India struggles with the effects of the pandemic, the global community should continue to provide aid and support to expedite their vaccination effort and support healthcare workers. While there have been calls for a second shut down, this would destabilize the economy, disproportionately affecting those living in poverty. The government should heed the advice in a recent report by the Lancet Covid-19 Commission, that another blanket lockdown would be counterproductive. Rather, the report suggests that India should implement a more federalism-based solution since state and local governments should have more autonomy to assess conditions in their own communities to develop optimal responses while minimizing disruptions to economic activity.
India almost hit its breaking point this spring and still faces the threat of a third wave if action is not taken. The world’s most populous democracy needs to mount a unified response, and the US should provide support, both through medical aid and economic investment and trade, to assist in their economic recovery while building closer ties to the emerging superpower. If successful, India’s recovery will provide a win for both federalism and democracy in a world where both are increasingly challenged, underscoring that even in the largest and most diverse nations, democracy and federalism are not only viable but superior systems.