As bodies pile up, India’s leaders face rising public anger over second Covid-19 wave

New Delhi CNN  — 

Just six weeks ago, India’s Health Minister declared that the country was “in the endgame” of the Covid-19 pandemic. On Friday, India reported the world’s highest single-day number of new cases since the pandemic began, for the second day in a row.

India’s second wave, which began in mid-March, has devastated communities and hospitals across the country. Everything is in short supply – intensive care unit beds, medicine, oxygen and ventilators. Bodies are piling up in morgues and crematoriums.

India reported 332,730 new cases on Friday, marking the highest daily case count globally. The United States is second, having recorded a high of 300,310 cases on January 2.

A mass cremation of victims who died due to Covid-19 is seen at a crematorium ground in New Delhi, India, on April 22.

India’s population is roughly four times that of the US, and its daily cases still fall behind the US when adjusted for population size (in cases per million people).

But the fact remains, India’s total now stands at more than 16 million confirmed cases and nearly 187,000 related deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

“We’re going through pretty much the worst possible phase of the pandemic here,” said Chandrika Bahadur, chair of the Lancet Commission on Covid-19 India Taskforce, on Wednesday. “It has been bad for a couple of weeks, but now it’s reached a peak.”

And that peak shows no sign of falling off anytime soon. As India tumbles deeper into crisis, many are wondering: where are the country’s leaders?

State ministers and local authorities, including those in hard-hit Maharashtra, have been warning about the second wave and preparing action since February. In jarring contrast, there appears to have been a vacuum of leadership within the central government, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi staying largely silent on the situation until recent weeks.

In intermittent statements throughout April, Modi discussed the national vaccination effort and acknowledged the “alarming” rise in cases, but was slow to take containment measures besides ordering states to increase testing and tracking, and asking the public to stay vigilant.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Barasat, West Bengal, on April 12.

And he continued to praise the country’s success, even as states imposed new restrictions and hospitals began running out of space. “Despite the challenges, we have better experience, resources and, also the vaccine,” his office said in a press release on April 8. Two days later, he celebrated 100 million doses of vaccine administered nationwide, tweeting that they were “strengthening the efforts to ensure a healthy and Covid-19 free India.”

It wasn’t until Tuesday that Modi finally emphasized the urgency of the situation and laid out new measures in a late night address to the nation. “The country is again fighting a very big battle against Covid-19,” he said. “A few weeks ago, the conditions had stabilized – and then came the second wave.”

But by then, India’s outbreak was already the world’s biggest in terms of absolute daily numbers. Nearly 28% of all new cases worldwide in the past week have come from India, according to the World Health Organization.

The descent into crisis, and the administration’s scramble to respond, has shown “a complete arrogance, hubris of a kind, in terms of decision making,” said Harsh Mander, writer and human rights activist, on Thursday. “The government has completely and manifestly shown (a lack of) both competence and compassion.”

Building anger

Modi, who won a landslide re-election with his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019, enjoys immense popularity in India. Even last year, when India’s economy was battered by a stringent lockdown that brought the entire country to a halt, Modi largely escaped the scathing headlines and crushing opinion polls that other world leaders have had to face.

But this wave is far bigger than the last one. People are exhausted and frayed after more than a year of the pandemic. Patients and their loved ones, unable to get the necessary care, have resorted to pleading on social media for medicine and open hospital beds. And experts who cautioned for months about a potential second wave are frustrated that their warnings went unheeded.