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What the F is: going on in India?

A quick summary

COVID-19 cases in India have spiked dramatically in the past weeks, and at the time of writing, there are 20.3 million active cases reported. That's close to the entire population of Australia. There have been 222 408 COVID-related deaths in India, including many young people. Experts say that the numbers are hugely underreported, and it is expected that the true figures are 'far higher'.

Why did cases spike?

It's said that the spike can be attributed to a surge of contagious variants of the virus, as well as the decision to allow large crowds to gather for Hindu religious festivals and political rallies for the upcoming state elections.

Why is the death rate so high?

What's even more concerning than the spike in cases is the spike in COVID-related deaths. Many deaths can be attributed to a lack of oxygen and beds in hospitals and the inaccessibility of COVID tests. There is limited transparency in the Indian health system, so we are currently unable to access information about why supplies, beds, and tests are so low. Indian health officials have refused to comment.

A bit more info

VICENews made a short, 7 minute video showing what's going on in India. In it, you can hear from a crematorium worker who has been working almost non-stop, arriving at work at 7 am to leave 24 hours later, at 7 am the following day. He says workers barely have time to sleep, eat, or drink. He says "we're not sure when it will be our time, we're not sure if we'll be the next ones to be cremated here."

What about the Australians in India?

If you've only heard a little bit about the crisis in India, it was probably about the Prime Minister refusing to let Aussies back in, even threatening jail time and fines for anyone who tried. Here's what's going on.

On Monday 3 May, the federal government announced a complete ban on people entering Australia from India. This includes Australian residents, who may face up to five years in jail and/or a fine of up to $66 000. The restriction was put in place for a two-week period and will be reviewed on 15 May.

The Deputy PM and Nationals leader Michael McCormack has walked back the threats of jail time, saying "Nobody's going to be jailed. We made that decision based on medical advice. We didn't want planeloads of people coming back and swamping our quarantine system." So which is it? Your guess is as good as ours.

Other countries have imposed a travel ban on people entering from India, including the US and many Eurpoean countries, but they have all ruled to allow citizens to return home, unlike the Australian iteration of the ban. A legal expert says that the Morrison government’s new crackdown on returning Australians in India is potentially “discriminatory” and may constitute a breach of the law.

The Prime Minister has continued to defend the ban despite significant backlash this week. He insists that progress is being made in the quest to bring Aussies home from India, and says that the ban was necessary to prepare Australia's quarantine system for the surge in India. We can't help but recall every time the PM has said that quarantine is a state issue. He seems to suddenly have a lot to say on the matter.

Is this a race issue?

The ABC reports that while the number of cases acquired in India is surging in Sydney hotel quarantine, it has not surpassed the number of those acquired in the US. Despite that, this is the first time Australia has made it a punishable offense for citizens and permanent residents to return home.

Up until now, Aussies have been allowed to come home from any country, and while it was notoriously difficult to secure a flight (that wasn't cancelled), it was allowed. Until this week, the imposed two-week hotel quarantine had been sufficient as a safeguard against COVID.

Many critics are asking, Australia already has some of the strictest COVID procedures in the world, why was a total ban, with a legislated punishment, necessary?

Peter Hartcher wrote this article for the SMH (a Fairfax publication), somewhat defending the PM against the calls of racism, claiming that the ban is not racist, but that it's a result of Australia's complacency. He appears to suggest the fact that ScoMo sent India shipments of emergency aid means there is 'no racism here'. Here's the quote:

Morrison might have flirted with the odd Trumpist idea a while ago, but this was not the aim of the India decision. The policy is to protect against COVID. In fact, Morrison last week announced the first of several shipments of emergency aid to India, including ventilators and oxygen concentrators.

He argues that the ban is 'nothing new' and that the only difference, which the 'media jumped on', was that, this time, there are penalties specified in the Biosecurity act (the fines and jail time). The author goes on to say:

The Morrison government is not racist, but this is the sort of conduct that you’d see from a racist regime.

Critics of the government's actions have crossed political lines, including Dr Jagvinder Virk, leader of the Indian Australian community and prominent Liberal supporter, Federal Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi, and, most shockingly, prominent conservative media commentator Andrew Bolt, who said the policy was "so mean and irrational that I must also blame racism. I can't believe we would impose such a travel ban on white Australians fleeing, from, say England."

Scott Morrison continues to dig in his heels and has not mentioned revising the policy as of today, Wednesday 5 May.