India: Anatomy of a Disaster

One never wants to see the words “mass crematorium” in headlines, and yet here we are.

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

If the COVID numbers currently coming out of India were accurate, it would be terrifying. We’re looking at one of the worst upswings in cases in any country so far. People dying outside of hospitals. Mass crematoriums to deal with the dead. That shit we were worried about in America last April? If the numbers were accurate, we could say that shit is coming true in India right now.

The numbers are not accurate. The numbers are way, way worse. We don’t even know how bad it is over there. No one does. Doctors have been ordered to obscure cause of death. Families are not telling people about infections. It’s bad. It’s real, real bad.

What the fuck is going on?

As the various articles on this humanitarian catastrophe will tell you, India seemed to have shit under control. Cases never surged as they did elsewhere. So the country relaxed their precautions and social distancing requirements and BAM, fuck, second wave, oh boy, it’s here. Damn.

I’m not an epidemiologist OR an India expert so maybe everything I’m about to say is bullshit but that last paragraph sure sounds like an explanation that blames individuals (for not social distancing) and the Indian government (for not enforcing social distancing) which look, that second thing is probably true, but the whole story does a really good job of making India into India’s problem. Like it happened in a vacuum.

It did not.

One big reason for the surge is likely the double-mutated COVID strain tearing through India right now. We’ve seen each mutation in another strain, but not both at the same time. Which means the variant is likely both more infectious and more deadly.

The million-dollar question for the past few months has been: does the vaccine protect against variants? And the answer is, for India anyway, that it does not matter. India’s population is barely vaccinated. 8.7% of the population has one vaccine, just 1.6% have both vaccines.

If you know a little bit about where vaccines comes from — where they’re made — this seems very weird to you, because 60% of the vaccines used in the world get made in India.

And the Serum Institute of India (SII) has been cranking out vaccines as fast as it can. Hell, it started cranking vaccines out before they’d been approved, gambling that they would be approved and they could immediately start selling those bad boys to everyone. It paid off. The vaccines were approved, they’re selling like hotcakes…but not to India.

India is manufacturing two versions of the vaccine — and we’ll get to that in a second. It has promised 1.2 billion doses of the two vaccines they’re manufacturing to other countries and the WHO. They’ve talked to the UK and other countries about maybe being a little late with those doses. It’s unclear whether anyone is going to be flexible on these contracts. You hope so, but then again I’ve met people.

(The population of India, if you were wondering, is 1.34 billion. Those vaccines haven’t been manufactured yet, but they’re on their way. Just, not to the Indian people.)

Blame the company if you want to. But that company is operating in global capitalism, and the rules of staying solvent to make vaccines another day is: you sell that shit to whoever will buy it.

And the people who bought it were not the Indian government.

When I started researching this, I assumed India was selling vaccines to wealthy countries, which would make for a very neat illustration of the hideous disparities in outcome we’re seeing. In America, over 40% of people have received one dose, and a quarter of us are vaccinated.

That’s not quite what’s happening. It’s way more convoluted than that.

India is not manufacturing Pfiver or Moderna’s vaccine. Instead, they’re cranking out Sputnik V and Covaxin.

Sputnik V comes from where you’d expect it to come from, and has some of the, um, quality control issues you might expect as a result. Brazil recently rejected a large batch of Sputnik on those grounds. Slovakia found that the contents of the vials they received did not match the composition of the Sputnik vaccine. The EU and America have yet to approve the vaccine.

(Russia claims all of this is political and a result of American pressure on countries to reject the vaccine. I don’t pretend to know what’s going on here, but it’s sus.)

Covashield, developed by Oxford and Astrazenica, and Indian-developed Covaxin are far less controversial (though the Indian government rushed Covaxin’s approval in a way that worries some people). And — good news! — scientists believe they’re both effective against the India mutation.

None of these vaccines use mRNA technology — Sputnik is a DNA-based vaccine while Covaxin uses inactivated Coronavirus and Covashield uses a viral vector. More traditional vaccination methods come with a huge advantage — all three vaccines can be stored at higher temperatures than the mRNA bois. This is really important because developing countries don’t have a bunch of super-cold freezers just lying around.

The bad news is that means if India keeps vaccines for itself, other developing nations pay the price.

The vaccine divide we’re seeing is a lot more complicated than “America is taking all the vaccines.” It’s more like, the developed world gets copious amounts of mRNA vaccines while developing countries fight over one fine vaccine and one vaccine that’s hopefully fine but also maybe not, oh boy, we’ll find out soon enough. 85 million people have or will receive the Sputnik vaccine soon.

Vaccines require raw materials and America has used the Defense Act to hold onto really quite a lot of those materials. Yesterday, it declared an intention to send said materials to India, which is a lovely gesture that would have been a lot more useful BEFORE the country’s COVID cases exploded.

The US is also holding onto 60 million doses of Covashield (the Astrazenica vaccine), which is yet to be approved for for American citizens. The Biden administration formerly rejected the idea of parting with this stockpile. Today, begrudgingly, Biden said he’d release 10 million of those vaccines right away, and the rest by June. 60 million doses is a drop in the bucket compared to what India needs, and ten million is insulting.

Oh, also they aren’t all going to India.

…this is going to get a lot worse, isn’t it.

Picture Sources:

Aerial shot of fires

Joe Biggs

Hospital Workers

Writer, videographer, journalist with opinions. Come, let us walk into the apocalypse together. She/Hers. I’m on Twitter: @LauraJedeed