The Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has lifted all restrictions on imports of vaccines from anywhere in the world so long as they have been declared safe for use by the drug regulators of that country. In doing so the government is throwing to the wind notions of self-dependence as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads like wildfire across the country, reversing the gains of the past weeks.
Officially described as the ‘second wave’ – though in some states it represents the ‘fourth wave’ – the pandemic has forced the Maharashtra government to impose a 24-hour curfew-like restriction just short of a lockdown. While public transport has been kept open and certain categories of occupations are exempt, like health workers, the government has announced that no one will be allowed to move out of their homes for the next 15 days. A cash grant of INR1,500 (USD20) will be issued to all licensed street vendors and cycle-rickshaw pullers to compensate them for the loss of income and tide them over the next two weeks. Similar cash grants were ordered for low-income groups as part of a package that will cost the state government INR 50bn (USD685mn). Shutting down Maharashtra, a state that has a large number of manufacturing facilities including auto and auto ancillaries, will inevitably have an impact on the national economy, though its impact is difficult to quantify immediately. What is certain is that consumption will take a short-term hit, though pent-up demand could retrieve the situation in the third or fourth quarter of the year if infections are under control by then.
Elsewhere in India too, the pandemic has left its mark on the economy and society. In the hill state of Uttarakhand, millions congregated to observe the Ardha Kumbh, a holy Hindu ceremony occurring every six years that involves taking a dip in the Ganga river. As the infected made their way back home, in Delhi, hospital beds could no longer accommodate the sick and banquet halls normally used to host weddings had to be turned into hospitals. In Gujarat, people have stood in long queues to buy oxygen cylinders. In some parts of Uttar Pradesh, crematoriums have had to give out tokens and allot time slots to manage the cremation of dead bodies.
At a meeting with chief ministers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi argued against lockdowns as a strategy to break the chain of infection, and instead focused on testing and micro-containment zones. However, the time for that arguably appears to have passed.
So far, even through the election campaign for five states that ends on 29 April, political parties have stayed clear of using the management of the pandemic to score political points. But as the federal administration struggles to beat the raging pandemic, concerns are being voiced by opposition leaders about whether the strategy to manage it was flawed. Although voting is over in most states, the surge in the pandemic could affect the outcome of the closely fought West Bengal assembly where political parties are still campaigning. Some reflection of how governments managed the outbreak might be visible in the results due 2 May. These elections, however, will have only a marginal direct impact on national politics. With migrant labor returning home as factories shut down, recovery from this round of infection-control measures might take longer than expected, causing an unpredictable setback to the economy.