India’s Covid-19 Crisis Shakes Modi’s Image of Strength

Experts credit that lockdown, though flawed, with slowing the spread. But the restrictions were economically devastating, putting tens of millions out of work and imperiling many of Mr. Modi’s grandest ambitions, including turning India into a global power. He became fearful of locking down again.

After he eased many restrictions, infections rose, reaching almost 100,000 per day in September, but the health care system held. By the beginning of 2021, when infections had ebbed and the economy began to stagger to life, Mr. Modi and his team made a concerted effort to signal that India was back.

Many Indians shed their masks. They returned to markets and socialized. Even more restrictions were lifted. Covid-19 centers set up during the first wave were dismantled.

His party’s leadership declared in February that India had “defeated Covid under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.” In early March, Harsh Vardhan, India’s health minister, proclaimed India was “in the endgame of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Those who weren’t so sure were sidelined. India’s Covid-19 task force, which includes around 20 health professionals, had been meeting at least twice a month. But between Jan. 11 and April 15, the task force did not meet at all, according to three people with knowledge of their deliberations. Two said that the government simply believed the threat had passed.

Some scientists grew concerned with the official line that India, a nation of 1.4 billion, was approaching herd immunity, or the point at which enough people in the population are immune — either through vaccinations or through earlier infection — that the virus can no longer spread easily. V.K. Paul, head of the Covid-19 task force, said in January that “most of our highly populated districts and cities have had their run of the pandemic.”

The concerned scientists pushed back, according to the three people. Serological studies didn’t necessarily back up the idea, they said. Two people familiar with the research said the government cherry-picked results that suggested a move toward herd immunity.

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