It’s Dangerous to Be Taken in by Propaganda in the Time of Corona

The projection that the cases of coronavirus in India is low because of the Modi government's efforts is extraordinarily insensitive as well as smug.

As India prepares itself for one of the most devastating global pandemics in 100 years, the impending battle is not being helped by propaganda that Narendra Modi and his government’s leadership are the reasons for the very low number of COVID-19 infections in the country.

This projection is extraordinarily insensitive as well as smug. Insensitive because of the shocking stories of life and death from China, Italy and Iran and Spain; smug, because it is unrealistic to avoid a global pandemic, about which scientists have very little knowledge, in an inextricably interlinked world.

This is ironic, considering that Modi himself asked people to be not complacent and to remain “alert and cautious” in his address to the nation. Yet, his speech itself has become a propaganda tool just as his other speeches in the past. Celebrities and influential personalities called the idea of a “Janata curfew” a “bold” move and a “masterstroke.” BJP spokespersons referred to the idea of clapping and banging plates as brilliant thinking as it draws from the ringing of bells in the Hindu tradition which would lead to the killing of viruses and bacteria.

But the propaganda machinery had begun its job before, as soon as the second phase of COVID-19 began: how Modi was leading not just India, but also the entire South Asian region, and how the Australian prime minister had commended him for suggesting a G-20 meeting.

Then, as put out by the social media page “Nation with NaMo”(with 1.4 million followers, and the originator of many of the WhatsApp forwards that people are bombarded with daily), it was about how India sent an entire “makeshift lab” to Iran which will be donated to the Iranian government, or how countries like Iran and Israel are seeking India’s help, which is also a reflection of India’s “rising global stature.”

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After that, it was about how India has evacuated more citizens than any other country in the world, which is a “reflection of the Modi government’s commitment to protect every Indian.”

According to another widely-circulated forward, the primary reason for India’s low numbers is that the government was the first to start screening and impose travel restrictions from mid-January, when “most of the world had very little clue of the virus then.” Modi himself claimed at the SAARC meeting that the screening of inbound passengers from mid-January itself and increasing travel restrictions, “a step-by-step approach”, is what “has helped avoid panic.”

SAARC leaders take part in a videoconference on the Coronavirus pandemic on Sunday. Photo: Screenshot from MEA YouTube channel.

The reality, unfortunately, is far less fantastical than what is imagined through propaganda.

When India issued travel alerts to China on January 17 or the screening of passengers from China on January 21, it was not the first country to do so. Japan and the US had already issued travel advisories, and the WHO had issued notifications to hospitals. The US, Russia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong had all started screening passengers either before, or along with India. The list also includes developing nations like Bangladesh and Nigeria, and those like Italy and South Korea, which subsequently were to be some of the worst hit.

India imposing travel restrictions from China on February 4 (or from Iran later) was again not unique at all. On January 30 itself, the WHO had declared a Global Health Emergency which prompted a slew of travel restrictions announced by various countries like the US, Iraq, Singapore, Vietnam, Mongolia, Russia, Italy immediately, and before India. India’s further travel bans from March 13 came after the WHO declared the disease a pandemic on March 11, which had led to many other countries also imposing restrictions at the same time.

The same is the case with the evacuation of over a thousand citizens by India. Along with many developed countries, nations like Thailand, Turkey and our small neighbor, Sri Lanka, have all evacuated their citizens. Moreover, India has always in the past tried to bring its citizens back, and it is not a practice started by the Modi government. The most famous case, of course, is the flying out of 1,70,000 Indians, over 480 air trips – the largest evacuation exercise in the world, from war-torn Kuwait in 1990.

And as with everything else under the rule of Hindutva, even the act of evacuation is shockingly communalised, where Muslim pilgrims are supposed to express gratitude to Narendra Modi as if they are not citizens of India.

Propaganda suppresses facts at a vital juncture

More critically, propaganda completely suppresses facts at a vital juncture (not just about trivialities like India building a lab and donating it to Iran, which did not happen). Thus, while there are 6,000 Indians in Iran (till March 18), only 591 have been evacuated.

Very worryingly, the story of over 250 Indian pilgrims testing positive for COVID-19 in Iran appeared in the media before the government confirmed it. These pilgrims, as well as their healthy family members, are forced to stay dangerously together in hotels. The plight of these people (one of whom had died) who do not speak the local language and have run out of resources is nothing to take pride in. Unsurprisingly, the pilgrims feel that India has abandoned them.

The Central government policy of not bringing back those citizens who have tested positive as well as the healthy without a disease negative certificate (almost impossible in countries which are themselves overwhelmed, and which do not test without symptoms) is inhumane and needs serious discussion. Instead, it has been buried under an avalanche of propaganda about the Modi government’s commitment to protect every Indian.

The most vital question so far, which has also been buried in the complacency about the low numbers, is the need for more widespread testing. Yet the propaganda tells us about the “world’s most efficient and reliable testing systems” and the “insane level of efficiency” when it comes to setting up labs (even when there were only over 50 testing labs for India’s size). On March 13, India had only tested 5,900 people, and by March 17, 11,500 samples were collected. This is abysmally low and is only above Pakistan (from data for 28 countries).

While India cannot hope to test at the level of a South Korea, with 5,500 tests (per million people), or China with 2,820 tests (per million people), its 8.5 tests per million people is almost 12 times less than Vietnam, a country which is similar to India in terms of per capita income.

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The more troubling statistic is that a third of the total tests in India was conducted in Kerala alone, a state which is only 2.5% of India’s population. Serious question marks are thus raised by public health experts about the possibility of thousands of undetected cases, and whether India is testing enough amidst the exponential rate of growth of cases seen in many nations with stronger health systems.

After all, the director-general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus himself had said: “We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test.” And all the success stories so far have been built on enhanced testing.

Holding the government accountable

But propaganda never allows the most important questions to be raised in the midst of a crisis. As is the wont with this government, any questions asked of it are immediately termed anti-national. As BJP ideologue Swapan Dasgupta put it, the demand for more tests is “India bashing”. Never mind that the ICMR’s epidemiology chief virtually admitted that India is not testing more because that would mean more positive cases and the need for more isolation facilities. And never mind that tough questions about low testing have been directed at other governments too, most notably the US and Japan. In Japan’s case, there have been concerns that the low numbers are a result of low testing (still 15 times that of India) to hide the severity of the disease for the sake of not hampering the Tokyo Olympics.

If these questions can be raised about Japan – a nation which is arguably more prepared than any other in dealing with disasters – questions can be raised about the preparedness of India, which has one of the lowest public health expenditure percentages in the world and an acute shortage of physicians.

A visitor wearing protective face mask outside a brokerage in Tokyo, Japan, March 2, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato

It is here that questions have to be posed. Like why people run away from quarantine facilities. Why there is an acute lack of transparency about the numbers of tests. Why the private sector was not allowed to test patients for the coronavirus. What the protocols are for testing community transmission. There are also wider questions, such as what Sugata Srinivasaraju asks – about the incongruity between the prime minister providing leadership to SAARC while his government changes the provisions of the State Disaster Response Fund to the detriment of the states. After all, the states are in the forefront of the fight against COVID-19.

A disease like this cannot be fought with dangerous delusions or callous propaganda. Neither can it be fought with another of our recent afflictions, the belief in the superiority of one’s culture and civilization. This was also in abundantly visible since the crisis broke out.

These are times that demand all governments be kept on their toes, even when their legitimate work is encouraged. These are times when even Chinese citizens rejected the propaganda of their nation’s authoritarian leader.

And these are times which require utmost humility and a cogent plan of action, something that was sadly missing in the prime minister’s address to the nation.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University and tweets @nmannathukkaren.