The economists who let down India

The pandemic has mutated into a free market experiment in India and it is a total disaster

Indian social media is currently just an unending doom scroll of human desperation and suffering: people begging for available hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and Remdesivir injections.

If you want to know what kind of thinking — or, rather, lack of application of mind — is responsible for this catastrophe, look no further than Surjit Bhalla and Karan Bhasin’s opinion editorial published by the Indian Express (April 22, 2021).

On the 16th of January, Bhalla and Bhasin had essentially declared that the pandemic was over in India. However, now, they were forced to concede:

“we concluded, somewhat prematurely optimistically, that India was approaching herd immunity. We were wrong.”

They could have had the decency to apologise profusely for peddling false policy advice. Their reasoning and statistical modelling, in hindsight, had contributed to the nation’s false sense of security.

In January, a wave of COVID-19 was cresting in Europe. India could have used the three month of miraculous grace it had to prepare.

Instead, catastrophically, India let its guard down. It exported oxygen and vaccines, instead of stockpiling them. It didn’t enforce social distancing, allowing mega-religious gatherings such as the Kumbh. Most damning, reflecting the collapse of institutional independence, was the multi-phase election in Bengal.

The inability — or refusal — to plan for what was plainly inevitable has now resulted in the death of thousands of Indians and the collapse of its healthcare system. Moreover, letting the virus rip through a population of a billion, allowing it to mutate, imperils the entire global vaccination program — the only way to terminate the never-ending death march of the COVID-19 virus.

One could expect some contrition from the experts who declared that the epidemic was over in January. Instead, the authors, who relied on the Gompertz curve (we are told: “developed in 1825 to study trends in mortality”) now offer us further sage wisdom: there is no statistical evidence that mass gatherings, like election rallies, contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

This is a purely polemical position. It cannot be justified as legitimate opinion based on economics and statistics. It is, frankly, quackery.

If opinion like Bhalla and Bhasin’s were offered on Twitter, it would be flagged for Covid-related misinformation. Instead, a national newspaper, such as the Indian Express, is giving it credence as normal and acceptable.

A lot could be said about this species of feckless argument, best encapsulated by Donald Trump, that the virus can just miraculously disappear.

To begin with, the shocking casualness with which the economists have used the term “herd immunity”. It is a term from the literature of vaccination. Herd immunity, in its proper sense, is the outcome of a vaccination program. As the World Health Organisation puts it:

“WHO supports achieving ‘herd immunity’ through vaccination, not by allowing a disease to spread through any segment of the population, as this would result in unnecessary cases and deaths.”

Maybe, its eugenist “survival-of-fittest” fantasies amongst Western geneticists. Maybe, its just illiteracy. However, what is clear over a year into the pandemic is that is a completely wrong to think that “herd immunity” can be achieved by letting a highly dangerous disease just run through the human population. It maybe theoretically possible, but what is more likely are the scenes that are witnessing in Brazil, the United States, Europe and, now, India. Many countries which should have know better, especially the United Kingdom and Sweden, were stupid enough to try this out with disastrous consequences. Fortunately, as Israel and UK’s near-miraculous vaccination programs show, state-owned healthcare provisioning has been crucial to their success in getting vaccination done on a war-footing.

What is exceptional about the situation that is unfolding in India is the complete abdication of the Union government of its responsibility to plan and provide help to citizens. The latest is the bizarre announcement that individual states will purchase their own supply of vaccine at four times and more the price that the union government originally negotiated with suppliers. This policy cannot be supported by law or logic.

However, the plan is clear: the big share of the cost of the vaccine, perhaps the only place on Planet Earth, will now be born by individual citizens. I’m still scratching my head over this. There’s a smell test here that the design of policy doesn’t pass.

Modi is not Bolsonaro. To his credit, he has never said the virus is just some kind of ordinary flu and doesn’t warrant serious concern. Therefore, the question needs to be asked, who informed him that India has beat the virus? And who is behind this bizarre policy that is unfolding where the state is a by-stander to mass chaos?

India’s free market dance-with-death COVID-19 tango experiment doesn’t seem to be a casual accident borne out of state incapacity. If men like Surjit Bhalla (who according to his bio works for the International Monetary Fund and whose Twitter feed seems to be just trolling Dr. Fauci) have the ear of the Government of India, then this Mad Max style libertarian fantasy that is unfolding — where citizens are left to fend a pandemic for themselves — is one of design. Even the United States doesn’t appear wedded to Ayn Rand-style libertarianism enough to leave managing the pandemic to individual enterprise alone.

After India grew its economy 40 times between 1991 and 2018, going from $400 billion to almost $2.5 trillion, we thought the dark days where India and incapacity were synonyms were behind us. Yet, here we are. India is once again a nation of beggars.

It is the COVID-19 denialism of Surjit Bhalla and Karan Bhasin, disguised in the language of statistics, that is to blame for this.

Indian Gekiga.

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