Globetrotter

Facebook's new name is more than a rebranding — could it herald a dystopian future?

On October 28, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched a new company brand, Meta, at the annual Facebook Connect event. According to Facebook, "Meta… brings together our apps and technologies under one new company brand. Meta's focus will be to bring the metaverse to life and help people connect, find communities and grow businesses."

Is the launch of Meta merely an attempt at rebranding Facebook after the considerable hit its image has taken with the revelations of Facebook whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang? Is it to move away from its sullied past and present to an alternate universe, the metaverse that Facebook will create in the future? Does the company want its users to forget about its hate-filled Facebook pages, which fuel the company's ad-driven business empire, by moving the focus away from the Facebook brand? Or is this move aimed at winning back the young viewers that it is "losing traction" with?

Facebook's internal documents, made public by Haugen, reflect this desperation to win back the young users, and they even talk about focusing Facebook's attention on preteenschildren in the age group of 10 to 12—who are viewed as a "valuable but untapped audience." More importantly, Facebook seems to follow the same logic as the cigarette companies do by targeting children and getting them hooked on smoking. Both Facebook and these cigarette companies seem to believe that once they hook these children onto their products, they stay hooked for life, providing these companies with captive, lifelong customers. Or, in the case of Facebook, this means selling the data of their users, those hooked on Facebook, to advertisers for the lifetime of these users.

The general reaction to Facebook's Meta—or its metamorphosis to the metaverse, described as "a hybrid of today's online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world"—has ranged from cold to bewildered. For most users of Facebook, their knowledge of science fiction is meager. So the universe as a metaverse that seamlessly transitions from the real world to the virtual world might be quite an alien concept for a majority of people. This is in spite of meeting during the pandemic on various platforms as boxed, talking heads.

Meanwhile, those with a serious bent of mind and knowledge of literature, who find Facebook's existing world already a dystopian one, are more likely to connect Meta to the prefix in the title of Kafka's Metamorphosis. In this dystopian novel, the protagonist wakes up one morning as a human-sized cockroach; seen another way, his avatar changes to a cockroach in his metaverse. This potentially Kafkaesque alternative reality has provided fodder for some of the many memes mocking Meta since Facebook announced its launch. This main selling point of the metaverse seems to be the creation of virtual spaces where users can "get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create." These experiences are made possible by using a variety of augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) devices. While Facebook's messaging seems intent on proving Meta's "cool" factor, it is the reception of the news that has been chilly.

Before we dismiss Facebook's Meta, we need to also remember that it comes with a major cash flow that Facebook has accumulated, combined with Meta's market capitalization of nearly $1 trillion. As a company, Meta is still a 1,000-pound gorilla in the metaverse of Wall Street. And Facebook alone has a user base of nearly 3 billion, with billions of users on other companies owned by Facebook, such as WhatsApp and Instagram. How many of them are unique users is a different question, but any company that captures the eyeballs of half the world's population, and has a mountain of cash, cannot be written off.

There are two questions for Facebook, and yes, I am going to call it Facebook for now and not Meta. What is the metaverse that it is planning to build? And does it have a business model? In other words, will it get the young audience it has lost? And can Facebook sell either virtual "properties" or "commodities" in the metaverse for real money, apart from AR/VR devices like Oculus, which the company launched in August?

Let us look at the concept of the metaverse itself. As Zuckerberg himself explains, the difference between playing video games on a keyboard or a gaming console and the metaverse is the immersive experience. With the metaverse, users can use different devices, including special glasses, haptic gloves or suits, and can see or touch objects in the virtual world and "are able to immerse themselves in digital content rather than simply viewing it" by using these AR or VR devices. And yes, there have been enough books and films made on such futures. Those interested can read Isaac Asimov's Robot series, which is focused on robots, but takes the metaverse of virtual/augmented reality for granted. The more recent iteration on this, and from where the concept of the metaverse as a virtual reality that is an expansion of the internet takes off, is Neal Stephenson's 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash.

There are two possibilities of the metaverse: one is to see it as a version of the real world where people can meet, work or play in the real world but with the help of augmented reality/virtual reality created by using different devices. That is, people will be able to visit different places in the world with their friends, meet in their offices, and even visit their doctors, all while sitting at home. The second is that a person can live as an avatar in an online virtual universe that has similar or different rules to the real world, a superior version of Second Life, backed by Facebook's huge earnings and market power.

Second Life, set up in 2003, had many of the same goals as Meta. It is still popular among a small set of users, numbering nearly a million. It is an immersive universe—which promotes interaction among its user avatars—that can have a number of worlds with their own different rules and subcultures. It even has a currency, called the Linden dollar, which can be used within this universe, but not outside it. There is still an ongoing debate about what the fundamental purpose of Second Life is: is it an immersive platform or a gaming world?

Both these possibilities exist in Facebook's Meta. An obvious driver of Meta as an immersive platform is the possibility of working from home. All tech companies are discovering that working from home is an attractive option for their workers. But the company loses the creativity that is available in the collective and controlled environment that an office space provides where employees meet and talk about their work. Zuckerberg's Meta could sell office property that allows people to "come into work," but in a virtual space rented or owned by the company as an office in Meta. This will force people to be in the "same space" as their colleagues while providing them with the luxury of avoiding a long commute or relocating to where the company offices are. Zuckerberg could sell or even rent space in his Meta and make a business model out of it. Or people themselves can rent such spaces, choosing where the space is a customizable virtual lounge to meet their friends, the same way people rent Zoom rooms.

The other business model that Zuckerberg can explore with regard to Meta is to have properties, gadgets, tokens, and a host of props that can be sold for Meta cash, which would be used in the various versions of the universe and still have value in the real world in dollars (or Facebook's money, Libra). This would be unlike the Linden dollar, which can be used only in Second Life.

Both spaces could fall prey to relentless advertising, Facebook's fundamental business model. In which case, the metaverse will be an immersive space for bringing people in primarily for advertisements. Given the immersive nature of the metaverse, there is a real possibility of Facebook building an even more dystopian world filled with advertisements and fake news, so that people's eyeballs can be captured and sold continuously to the advertisers.

The gaming world is more difficult for Zuckerberg to cash in on. The gaming industry has been decades in the making and has taken off during the pandemic in the same way that online platforms like Zoom and OTT platforms like Netflix have. There are more than 3 billion gamers in the world, who spend a huge amount of time on their gaming consoles. It is the gamers who have driven high-end PCs and laptops, which have then resulted in other technological evolution relating to high-end graphics, including video editing. This has driven Nvidia's graphic processing units and a range of Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications. For the gamer generation, Zuckerberg and Facebook are again not seen as cool. They are unlikely to be attracted to Zuckerberg's version of the metaverse.

Of course, with his bags of cash, it is possible for Zuckerberg to attract companies that can make these games for his brand. If Meta can attract a set of well-known gaming companies to the platform, will that power Zuckerberg's version of the metaverse? Will such gaming companies give up their independence to Facebook? That is not an easy question, as, after all, cash has its allure: of more cash!

The short-term goal of Facebook was to get away from this image of a sleazy company promoting hate and fake news. But it is also focusing on the new era of connectivity and AI tools that we are entering, which can help power game-like alternate universes intersecting with the real one. But here is the Achilles heel of the U.S. companies: the U.S. is far behind China and South Korea in the 5G race and much poorer in its broadband penetration from many European countries. Can the U.S. overcome this deficit with the state spending on its digital infrastructure?

Can Facebook also overcome its image as a toxic social media company and build a second life for itself with Meta? Facebook can still wield a lot of power and influence, but with its aging user base, it may slowly dwindle in importance. Society may punish Facebook for selling hate and fake news, but of course, only after it has inflicted enormous damage to the world's social fabric. The caution here is that virtual reality can also be a toxic space, as we know from the misogyny in a significant section of the gaming community. Will Facebook, with its history, add to that and build a dystopian Meta?

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

How Facebook’s algorithms promote hate and drive toxic content

Facebook has been in the limelight for two issues of late—both damaging from the company's perspective, but in terms of public interest, each has its own level of usefulness. The news item with less long-term significance but more sensational media appeal is that what was supposed to be a small configuration change took Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp down for a few hours on October 4. It affected billions of users, showing the world how important Facebook and other tech giants have become to many people's daily lives and even to the operation of small businesses. Of course, the much more significant news is the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former employee of the company, who made tens of thousands of pages of Facebook's internal documents public. These documents showed that Facebook's leadership repeatedly prioritized profits over social good. Facebook's algorithms polarized society and promoted hate and fake news because they drove up "engagement" on its platforms. That the platform is tearing apart communities, and even endangering teens, especially girls, for not having "perfect" bodies, apparently mattered not a jot to Facebook.

The Wall Street Journal has published detailed exposés quoting Facebook's internal documents and Frances Haugen, who has also appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" and in congressional hearings. "The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook," Haugen told CBS correspondent Scott Pelley on "60 Minutes." "And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money."

The 37-year-old data scientist has filed eight whistleblower complaints against Facebook with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with the help of a nonprofit organization, Whistleblower Aid. These complaints are backed by hard evidence: tens of thousands of internal Facebook documents Haugen had secretly copied before leaving Facebook.

Why is this big news when these issues relating to Facebook have been raised time and again, and were more prominently highlighted after revelations regarding the data firm Cambridge Analytica and Facebook became public in 2018? Did we not already know how Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms have become powerful instruments today that help promote hatred and divisive politics? Have the UN investigators not held Facebook responsible for the genocidal violence against Rohingyas in Myanmar? Were similar patterns not visible during the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 2013 and 2017?

The big news is that we now have evidence that Facebook was fully aware of what its platform was doing. We have it from the horse's mouth: internal Facebook documents that Haugen has made public.

By prioritizing posts that promote "engagement"—meaning people reading, liking or replying to posts on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram—Facebook ensured that people stayed on its platform for much longer. Facebook users could then be "sold" to the advertisers more effectively, by showing them more ads. Facebook's business model is not promoting news, friendly chitchat among users, or entertaining people. It is selling its users to those who can sell them merchandise. And like Google, it has a far better understanding of who its users are and what they may buy. This is what provided Facebook with 98 percent of its revenue in 2020 and has made it one of the six trillion-dollar companies (as of September 2021) in terms of market capitalization.

Testifying before Congress on October 5, Haugen said that "Facebook uses artificial intelligence to find dangerous content," Ars Technica reported. "The problem is that 'Facebook's own research says they cannot adequately identify dangerous content. And as a result, those dangerous algorithms that they admit are picking up the extreme sentiments, the division[s].'"

That this was happening is widely known and has been discussed, including in my own columns. Facebook's response to this criticism was that they were setting an independent supervisory board for oversight and employing a large number of fact-checkers. This and other processes would help filter out hate posts and fake news. What they hid was that all these actions were simply cosmetic. The driver of traffic, or what a person sees in their feed—or, in Facebook's terms, what they engage with—is determined by algorithms. And these algorithms were geared to promote the most toxic and divisive posts, as this is what attracts engagement. Increasing engagement is the key driver of Facebook's algorithms and defeats any measure to detoxify its content.

Haugen's congressional testimony also highlights what the real problems with Facebook are and what governments around the world must do in order to protect their citizens: to make Facebook accountable, not by censoring hate speech and fact-checking misinformation posted by individual users, but rather by targeting their algorithms' tendency to enable the dangerous high-engagement content. "This is not simply a matter of certain social media users being angry or unstable, or about one side being radicalized against the other," she said. "These problems are solvable… Facebook can change, but is clearly not going to do so on its own." While addressing the U.S. Congress about what can be done to regulate Facebook nationally, Haugen also acknowledged the problems Facebook's algorithms have caused worldwide. The solution, therefore, must also be global. In her testimony, she said that Facebook's meager proposed self-reforms would be insufficient to making the company accountable for its actions until they are made fully transparent. Facebook is hiding behind "safe harbor" laws that protect tech companies like Facebook, who do not generate content themselves, but provide their platform for what is called user-generated content. In the U.S., it is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allows these tech companies to "moderate content on their services"; in India, it is Section 79 of the Information Technology Act. Both countries are considering reforms.

In the U.S., "a Section 230 overhaul… would hold the social media giant responsible for its algorithms," Ars Technica reports. In Haugen's words, "If we had appropriate oversight, or if we reformed [Section] 230 to make Facebook responsible for the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions, I think they would get rid of engagement-based ranking.… Because it is causing teenagers to be exposed to more anorexia content, it is pulling families apart, and in places like Ethiopia, it's literally fanning ethnic violence." The key problem is not the hateful content users generate on Facebook; it is Facebook's algorithms that drive this poisonous content to a person's Facebook feed continuously to maximize the company's advertising revenue.

Haugen added:

"Facebook wants to trick you into thinking that privacy protections or changes to Section 230 alone will be sufficient. While important, these will not get to the core of the issue, which is that no one truly understands the destructive choices made by Facebook except Facebook. We can afford nothing less than full transparency. As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change Facebook will not change. Left alone, Facebook will continue to make choices that go against the common good, our common good."

Of course, the widespread prevalence of toxic content on Facebook's platforms is helped by its willful neglect of not having language classifiers—the algorithms used to detect hate speech—for content that is not in English and is created in other languages. Even though Hindi is the third most spoken language in the world and Bengali is the sixth, according to Haugen, Facebook does not have enough "hate speech classifiers" in these two languages.

I have previously written why divisive content and fake news have more virality than any other content. Haugen's documents confirm what analysts including myself have been saying all along. The algorithms that Facebook and other digital tech companies use today do not directly code rules to drive up engagement. These companies instead use machine learning, or what is loosely called artificial intelligence, to create these rules. It is the objective—increasing engagement—that creates the rules that lead to the display of toxic content on the users' feeds that is tearing societies apart and damaging democracy. We now have hard evidence in the form of the leaked documents that this is indeed what has been happening. Even worse, the Facebook leadership and Mark Zuckerberg have been fully aware of the problem all along.

Not all the harm on Facebook's platform, however, was caused by algorithms. From Haugen's documents, we find that Facebook had "whitelisted" high-profile users whose content would be promoted even if they violated Facebook guidelines. Millions of these special users could violate Facebook's rules with impunity. I had earlier written on evidence provided by the Wall Street Journal about how Facebook India protected BJP leaders in spite of repeated red flags relating to their posts being raised within Facebook itself.

This is not all that Haugen's treasure trove of Facebook's internal documents reveal. Reminiscent of cigarette companies research on how to hook children to smoking, Facebook had researched "tweens," who are children in the age group of 10 to 12. Their research was on how to hook the "pre-teens" to Facebook's platforms so that they could create new consumers for its platforms. This is despite their internal research showing that Facebook's platforms promoted anorexia and other eating disorders, depression, and suicidal tendencies among teens.

All these facts should damage Facebook's image. But it is a trillion-dollar company and one of the biggest in the world. Its fat cash balance, coupled with the power it wields in politics and its ability to "hack" elections, provides the protection that big capital receives under capitalism. The cardinal sin that big capital may not tolerate is lying to other capitalists. The internal documents that Haugen has submitted to the SEC could finally result in pushback against social media giants and lead to their regulation—if not strong regulation, at least some weak constraints on the algorithms that promote hate on these social media platforms.

A decade-old quote is at least as relevant now in light of these recent Facebook developments as it was when then 28-year-old Silicon Valley tech whiz Jeff Hammerbacher first said it: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." This has long been the beating drum driving the march of social media giants to their trillions.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Are Bezos and Musk launching a new space age — or just a U.S. space grab?

The space race was once between two countries—the Soviet Union and the United States. It is now (at least on the surface) between three billionaires—Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Two of them—Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, and Bezos, founder of Blue Origin—recently rode their respective companies' suborbital flights (meaning that they cannot be considered proper spaceflights, as they did not reach a stable orbit around the Earth). Branson's space ambitions seem to be limited to developing a market for the exotica of space tourism. Elon Musk and his company SpaceX have been playing for the long haul, with a series of rockets and launches already to the company's credit, including to the International Space Station. Bezos and Blue Origin also fall into the latter camp.

Behind this apparent show of rich kids playing with their expensive space toys, there are bigger forces at play—namely, that big capital is entering spaceflight, hitherto the exclusive domain of nation-states. While it appears that three men with deep pockets are funding their respective space ventures, the reality is that it is the U.S. taxpayers who are funding these space efforts. In this new space age, the U.S. is also proposing to ride roughshod over the space agreements that space is a "global commons." The U.S. would like to convert space into its "final frontier," under the premise that space belongs to any country that can mine its riches.

Many people take for granted that the U.S. was the winner of the space race against the Soviet Union, since they beat the Soviets to the moon. But what is overlooked in this narrative is that the space competition is not simply about who sent the first man to the moon, but also about who built the better rockets.

Strangely enough, it was the fall of the Soviet Union that brought forth information that Soviet technology produced rocket engines that had consistently outperformed the American ones. Today, the Russian-produced rocket engines—RD-180 and RD-181—still power U.S. rockets. The Atlas rocket line, which is the mainstay of U.S. heavy-lift launch vehicles, uses RD-180 engines. Atlas is owned by United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. When Orbital Sciences (now a part of Northrop Grumman) was looking for launch vehicles for its Antares program, they used Soviet-era 40-year-old, mothballed NK-33 rocket engines. After one of them blew up due to cracks in the aging engines, Antares switched their rocket engines—to yet another engine designed and produced by Russians, the RD-181.

In 1992, just as Russian rocket engines were becoming the mainstay of the U.S. space program, the U.S. imposed sanctions on the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Russia's Glavkosmos. Glavkosmos was Russia's space marketing arm for selling cryogenic rocket engines and technology. These sanctions were only withdrawn after ISRO developed its own cryogenic engine technology. Russia's contribution to India's rocket program was the seven cryogenic engines that it sold to ISRO, a part of the N1 upper stage of the Soviet Union's moon mission.

Why did the Soviet-era rockets perform better than the U.S. rockets? It is because the Soviets had mastered what is called the closed-cycle rocket engines well before the Americans. For any rocket capable of spaceflight, it needs both fuel—e.g., kerosene, hydrogen, or methane—and a burning medium, such as oxygen. Meanwhile, in an open-cycle engine—Saturn V of the Apollo program was an open-cycle design—a part of the fuel does not reach the main combustion chamber. It is used to power a turbo-compressor pumping fuel and oxygen and exits directly into the atmosphere. This results in a loss of efficiency for the engine, which then has to be compensated by carrying more fuel.

In a closed-cycle engine, or what is called "staged combustion," the products of the first-stage combustion powering the turbo-compressor are fed to the main combustion chamber, avoiding any loss of fuel. The Soviet engineers had solved the problem of materials that had to withstand the extremely harsh conditions of injecting the products of oxygen-rich combustion into the main combustion chamber. The U.S. engineers thought that this was simply not possible and were shocked when, while visiting Russia in the '90s, they were shown the mothballed engines of the ill-fated N1 project, the Soviet attempt at the moon shot. These were the engines that Orbital Sciences tried to use for their Antares program, christening them as AJ-26, before they switched to the more advanced Russian RD-181 engines.

Following the Ukraine crisis of 2014, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on many Russian companies. However, it still uses rocket engines sourced from Russia for its space program, both civilian and military. After the U.S. space shuttle program was shut down in 2011, taking U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station and bringing them back was left to Russian Soyuz rockets. It was only after SpaceX developed its space shuttle that the U.S. again had a spacecraft for carrying its astronauts to the International Space Station.

The U.S. Congress has decreed that U.S. companies will have to phase out the Russian engines from their military launches by the end of 2022. This is where Bezos and Musk come in, as both are vying for the future launches that the U.S. military and NASA are planning. Though it appears as if Musk and Bezos are developing the rockets using their own money, it is still NASA that is footing the bill. NASA pays upfront development costs and, later, price per launch.

If the rocket engines are the key to any serious space program, where does the U.S. stand in this new space age? ULA has had to switch to the U.S.-made engine as per the new NASA requirement. It has chosen the BE-4 rocket engine from Bezos' Blue Origin, though ULA is reportedly unhappy with delays by Blue Origin and the lack of "attention and priority" the company is putting on the engine. The other rocket engines in the fray are from Musk's SpaceX. Orbital Sciences still appears to be tied to Russian engines for its cargo services to the space station. So the U.S. rocket engines seem to be restricted to BE-4 from Blue Origin and SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket/Raptor engines. The American space race is essentially a two-horse race between the two super-rich billionaires.

How do Bezos and Musk fund their space ventures? The public believes it is with money that the 'visionary' billionaires have made as a result of their acumen for entrepreneurship—they represent a version of Ayn Rand's 'heroes' from her novels. The brutal truth is that Bezos as a capitalist has squeezed his workers, increasing their workload so much that they are unable to even take bathroom breaks. Amazon pays its workers wages that are "close to the poverty line for a family of four" and need to be supplemented by social welfare. The company has destroyed the small retail sector, and it competes with its own suppliers with Amazon-branded products and is "crushing them with competitive pricing."

Musk claims to be the other visionary by developing Tesla, the electric car of the future. While the existing automakers were slow to develop electric cars, Tesla has an edge of being the early mover and cashing in on the environmental regulations in various countries that demanded that automakers earn carbon credits by selling a certain percentage of their output as electric cars. For example, in the first quarter of 2021, almost all of Tesla's profits came from carbon credits it sells to other automakers. Since Tesla makes only electric cars, it has surplus carbon credits that it sells for a profit to other automakers. The crucial component of electric cars is the batteries, which Tesla outsources to others. One of the key battery suppliers to Tesla is Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL), which is the largest lithium battery manufacturer in the world. Its owner, Zeng Yuqun, has a net worth more than that of Jack Ma of Alibaba. What Musk has is a huge social media presence, which he has leveraged in hyping up his auto, and now space, ventures.

The other disturbing aspect of the new space age ushered in by the space billionaires is the U.S. policy of grabbing space for its private companies. This violates the Outer Space Treaty. The U.S. position is that whether or not outer space is a global commons, its commercial exploitation is open to all. This is a position the U.S. had on seabed mining in international waters as well. Such a policy privileges the powerful and technologically advanced states and is another way of blocking the essence of the global commons.

Behind this hype of a new space age is the reality of a new space grab. This is what Bezos and Musk represent: a new space age in which the billionaires can leave this world they are destroying in the hope of discovering new lands to conquer and again destroy.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

The great scientific crusader who debunked the biological myths about race

On July 4, Richard Lewontin, the dialectical biologist, Marxist and activist, died at the age of 92, just three days after the death of his wife of more than 70 years, Mary Jane. He was one of the founders of modern biology who brought together three different disciplines—statistics, molecular biology and evolutionary biology—that mark the discipline today. In doing so, he not only battled crude racism masquerading as science, but also helped shed light on what science really is. In this sense, he belongs to the rare group of scientists who are equally at home in the laboratory and while talking about science and ideology at a philosophical level. Lewontin is a popular exponent of what science is, and more pertinently, what it is not.

Lewontin always harked back to what being radical means: going back to fundamentals in deriving a viewpoint. This method is important, as it makes radical inquiry a powerful tool in science, compared to lazier ways of relating positions to certain class viewpoints. What is the relation between genes and race, class, or gender? Does social superiority spring from superior genes, or from biological differences between the sexes? As a Marxist and activist, Lewontin believed that we need to fight at both levels: to expose class, race and gender stereotypes as a reflection of power within society, and also at the level of radical science, meaning from the fundamentals of scientific theory and data.

Richard Lewontin and the population geneticist and mathematical ecologist Richard Levins shared a passion for biology, social activism and Marxism. It is not so well known that Lewontin's close friend Stephen Jay Gould—the paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and popular science writer—was also a fellow Marxist. All three of them fought a lifelong battle against the racializing of biology and, later, sociobiology, which sought to 'explain' every social phenomenon as derived from our genes. Evolutionary biologists E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins—and many others—believed that humans are programmed so that society merely expresses what is already embedded in our genes. Through their eyes, white races are superior because of their genetic superiority; as are the rich. In India, there is also a genetic theory of caste to explain the supposed differences between caste groups. And as long as there are significant differences between groups of people—based on class, race, gender or caste—biological 'explanations' for these differences will be offered.

One of Lewontin's pathbreaking works was to find out how much genetic diversity exists within species. This was at a time when we did not know how many genes humans had. Lewontin's inspired guess was 20,000, far smaller than what most biologists thought then and remarkably close to what is known today. Most biologists then also believed that races had significant biological differences, which was one of the reasons why they thought that there was a much larger number of genes carrying different traits. Lewontin and geneticist John Hubby used a technique, protein gel electrophoresis, developed by Hubby, to quantify the genetic diversity in fruit flies. At that time, fruit flies were the favorite target for testing genetic theories in the laboratory. This pathbreaking exercise traced evolution at the species level to changes at the molecular level—a foundation for the field of molecular evolution—using statistical methods. The result was startling. Contrary to what most biologists believed, the exercise showed a surprising amount of genetic diversity within a given population and further revealed that evolution led to stable and diverse populations within a species. Later on, Lewontin used this method on human blood groups, to show that the result of stable genetic diversity held true for humans as well. The other result of the human blood group study was that it showed that 85.4 percent of the genetic diversity in humans was found within a population, and only 6.3 percent between 'races.' Race was not a biological construct but a social one.

Lewontin went on to co-author a paper along with Stephen Jay Gould on how evolution is not directed to develop every feature that we see in an organism today, but is also the result of accidental offshoots accompanying a specific genetic change that occurs due to evolutionary pressure. Gould and Lewontin likened it to spandrels in architecture. When an arch is carved out of a rectangular wall (say, a door), the triangular part left between the arch and the wall is called a spandrel. This is also what happens when domes rest on rectangular structures. That these spandrels are then carved and decorated is not the reason for their existence, but once created, they can be used for other purposes. Similarly, in species, nature makes use of accidental offshoots of an evolutionary change, just as those who built arches or domes do with spandrels.

What distinguished Lewontin's popular and scientific writings were his ability to connect the larger issues of science to society and his critique of the crude reductionist understanding of biology. He called it the Cartesian fallacy: that if we can break up the parts of a whole into its constituent parts and find the laws of the parts, we can then assemble the whole and understand it fully. Of course, this Cartesian viewpoint is no longer viable even in physics, let alone to explain chemistry from physics, biology from (organic) chemistry, or society from biology.

Why, then, does this view recur, particularly in understanding inequalities in society? Lewontin traced this repeated attempt to give biological explanations for inequality to the deep structural inequalities within society. This hydra-headed monster will rear new heads again and again as long as structural inequalities exist in society. This was the battle that he and his close colleagues fought against, racism, the fallacy of putting stock in IQ tests, and sociobiology, which sought explanations for all social inequalities in biology, i.e., that inequalities were preprogrammed in our genes.

This was the lifelong battle that he carried out not only in his specific field of biology but also in the larger domain of sciences. His ideological struggle against racism, class and imperialism was not separated from his science. He saw it as an everyday struggle within sciences as well as outside them, to be fought at both levels: at the level of society as well as at the level of science. He did not simply argue that race was a wrong way of looking at societal differences but showed it with hard experimental data and a theoretical framework to explain that evidence. This was his integrity as a scientist and as a social activist.

A large number of progressive scientists in the United States came together in the late '60s and early '70s, forming an organization called Science for the People. It has been revived recently. The organization was a reflection of the anti-racism and anti-war movements in the United States of that time. Their discussions on science and society paralleled what science and social activists were experiencing in India that led to the people's science movement, and resulted in the formation of the All India People's Science Network. In the U.S., Science for the People decided to become more of a movement within the scientific community, while the movement in India decided that it should be a larger people's movement not only on the issues of science and society but also by building scientific temper in society.

The recent Netflix film "The Trial of the Chicago 7" depicted the '60s struggle against the Vietnam War. Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, was one of the people who was charged in the trial by the U.S. government with "conspiracy charges related to anti-Vietnam War protests in Chicago, Illinois, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention." (A much better film is the older HBO movie "Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8," which is available on YouTube.) During the trial, the Chicago police assassinated Fred Hampton, an important Black Panther leader there who was helping with the defense of Bobby Seale. I will let Lewontin and his close comrade Levins, co-authors of Biology Under the Influence, tell us in their words how they related to these movements:

"We have also been political activists and comrades in Science for the People; Science for Vietnam; the New University Conference; and struggles against biological determinism and 'scientific' racism, against creationism, and in support for the student movement and antiwar movement. On the day that Chicago police murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, we went together to his still bloody bedroom and saw the books on his night table: he was killed because of his thoughtful, inquiring militancy. Our activism is a constant reminder of the need to relate theory to real-world problems as well as the importance of theoretical critique. In political movements we often have to defend the importance of theory as a protection against being overwhelmed by the urgency of need in the momentary and the local, while in academia we still have to argue that for the hungry the right to food is not a philosophical problem."

Biology Under the Influence, a collection of essays by Levins and Lewontin published in 2007, was dedicated to five Cubans—the Cuban Five—who had infiltrated Cuban American terrorist groups in Miami that were actively supported by U.S. agencies. They were then serving long prison sentences in the United States.

Lewontin and Levins were both Marxists and activists and fought a lifelong battle against racism, imperialism, and capitalist oppression. They brought their Marxism to biology and its larger philosophical issues. They dedicated their 1985 book, The Dialectical Biologist, to Frederick Engels, "who got it wrong a lot of the time but who got it right where it counted." This also applies to Lewontin, who also got race, class and genetics right where it counted.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Canada is waging an all-front legal war against Indigenous people

Canada is developing a new image: one of burning churches, toppling statues, and mass graves. There are thousands more unmarked graves, thousands more Indigenous children killed at residential schools, remaining to be unearthed. There can be no denying that this is Canada, and it has to change. But can Canada transform itself for the better? If the revelation of the mass killing of Indigenous children is to lead to any actual soul-searching and any meaningful change, the first order of business is for Canada to stop its all-front war against First Nations. Much of that war is taking place through the legal system.

Canadian politicians have said as much, adopting a motion in June calling for the government to stop fighting residential school survivors in court. A long-standing demand, it has been repeated by Indigenous advocates who have expressed amazement in the face of these horrific revelations that the Canadian government would nonetheless continue to fight Indigenous survivors of systematic child abuse by the state.

To get a sense of the scope of Canada's legal war on First Nations, I looked at a Canadian legal database containing decisions (case law) pertaining to First Nations. I also looked at the hearing lists of the Federal Court of Canada for ongoing cases. My initial goal was to identify where Canada could easily settle or abandon cases, bringing about a harmonious solution to these conflicts. Two things surprised me.

The first was the volume and diversity of lawsuits Canada is fighting. Canada is fighting First Nations everywhere, on an astoundingly wide range of issues.

The second thing: Canada is losing.

The Attack on Indigenous Children and Women

In his 1984 essay "'Pioneering' in the Nuclear Age," political theorist Eqbal Ahmad argued that the "four fundamental elements… without which an indigenous community cannot survive" were "land, water, leaders and culture." Canada fights Indigenous people over land, water, fishing rights, mining projects, freedom of movement, and more. The assault on Indigenous nations is also a war against Indigenous children and women.

In the high-profile case of First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada et al. v. Attorney General of Canada, laid out in detail by Cindy Blackstock, "the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act alleging" in 2007 "that the Government of Canada had a longstanding pattern of providing less government funding for child welfare services to First Nations children on reserves than is provided to non-Aboriginal children." The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) found in favor of the First Nations complainants in 2016.

Note that this isn't about the history of residential schools. It's about discrimination against Indigenous kids in the present day. "In fact, the problem might be getting worse," writes Blackstock, compared to "the height of residential school operations." As evidence, she refers to a 2005 study of three sample provinces showing a wide gap between the percent of First Nations children in child welfare care (10.23 percent) compared to a much lower rate for non-First Nations children (0.67 percent). In 2006, following the Canadian government's repeated failures to act on the inequity described in this report (which also included comprehensive suggested reforms that had both moral and economic appeal), Blackstock writes, "the Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations agreed that legal action was required." The CHRT was very clear in its 2019 decision that the federal government should compensate each victim the maximum amount, which addressed the victims as follows:

"No amount of compensation can ever recover what you have lost, the scars that are left on your souls or the suffering that you have gone through as a result of racism, colonial practices and discrimination."

In May 2021, Canada, which has spent millions of dollars fighting this case, tried to overturn the CHRT's ruling.

Canada's war on Indigenous children is also a war on Indigenous women. The sterilization of Indigenous women, beginning with Canada's eugenics program around 1900, is another act of genocide, as scholar Karen Stote has argued. Indigenous women who had tubal ligation without their consent as part of this eugenics program have brought a class-action suit against the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, both of which had Sexual Sterilization Acts in their provincial laws from the 1920s in Alberta and 1930s in British Columbia until the early 1970s, and Saskatchewan, where sexual sterilization legislation was proposed but failed by one vote in 1930. A Senate committee found a case of forced sterilization of an Indigenous woman as recently as 2019.

The Legal-Financial War on First Nations Organizations

As Bob Joseph outlines in his 2018 book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, Canada first gave itself the right to decide Indian status in the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857, which created a process by which Indigenous people could give up their Indian status and so become "enfranchised"—which they would have to do if they wanted to attend higher education or become professionals. The apartheid system was updated through the Indian Act of 1876, from which sprang many evils including both the residential schools and the assertion of Canadian control over the way First Nations govern themselves. In 1927, when Indigenous veterans of World War I began to hold meetings with one another to discuss their situation, Canada passed laws forbidding Indigenous people from political organization and from raising funds to hire legal counsel (and from playing billiards, among other things). The Indian Act—which is still in effect today with amendments, despite multiple attempts to repeal it—outlawed traditional governance structures and gave Canada the power to intervene to remove and install Indigenous governance authorities at will—which Canada did continuously, from Six Nations in 1924 to Barriere Lake in 1995. As a result, at any given moment, many First Nations are still embroiled in lawsuits over control of their own governments.

Canada controls the resources available to First Nations, including drinking water. In another national embarrassment, Canada has found itself able to provision drinking water to diamond mines but not First Nations. This battle too has entered the courts, with a class-action suit by Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Curve Lake First Nation, and Neskantaga First Nation demanding that Canada not only compensate their nations, but also work with them to build the necessary water systems.

Canada dribbles out humiliating application processes by which Indigenous people can try to exercise their human right to housing. When combined with the housing crisis on reserves, these application processes have attracted swindlers like consultant Jerry Paulin, who sued Cat Lake First Nation for $1.2 million, claiming that his efforts were the reason the First Nation received federal funds for urgent housing repairs.

Canada uses the threat of withdrawal of these funds to impose stringent financial "transparency" conditions on First Nations—the subject of legal struggle, in which Cold Lake First Nations has argued that the financial transparency provisions violate their rights. Canada has used financial transparency claims to put First Nations finances under third-party management, withholding and misusing the funds in a not-very-transparent way, as the Algonquins of Barriere Lake charged in another lawsuit. An insistence on transparency is astounding for a country that buried massive numbers of Indigenous children in unmarked graves.

Win or lose, the lawsuits themselves impose high costs on First Nations whose finances are, for the most part, controlled by Canada. The result is situations like the one where the Beaver Lake Cree are suing Canada for costs because they ran out of money suing Canada for their land. When First Nations are winning in court, Canada tries to bankrupt them before they get there.

Land and Resources Are the Core of the Struggle

The core issue between Canada and First Nations is land. Most battles are over the land on which the state of Canada sits, all of which was stolen and much of which was swindled through legal processes that couldn't hold up to scrutiny and are now unraveling. "[I]n simple acreage," the late Indigenous leader Arthur Manuel wrote in the 2017 book The Reconciliation Manifesto, this was "the biggest land theft in the history of mankind," reducing Indigenous people from holding 100 percent of the landmass to 0.2 percent. One of the most economically important pieces of land is the Haldimand tract in southern Ontario, which generates billions of dollars in revenue that belongs, by right, to the Six Nations, as Phil Monture has extensively documented. Six Nations submitted ever-more detailed land claims, until Canada simply stopped accepting them. But in July, their sustained resistance led to the cancellation of a planned suburban development (read: settlement) on Six Nations land.

Many of the First Nations court battles are defensive. Namgis, Ahousaht, Dzawada'enuxw, and Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw First Nations have tried to defend their wild fisheries against encroachment and pollution by settler fish farms. West Moberly, Long Plain, Peguis, Roseau River Anishinabe, Aroland, Ginoogaming, Squamish, Coldwater, Tsleil-Waututh, Aitchelitz, Skowkale, and Shxwha:y Village First Nations challenged dams and pipelines. Canada has a history of "pouring big money" into these court battles to the tune of tens of millions—small money compared to its tens of billions subsidizing and taking over financially unviable pipelines running through Indigenous lands—including that of the Wet'suwet'en, whose resistance sparked mass protests across Canada in 2020. The duty to consult First Nations on such projects is itself the outcome of a legal struggle, won in the 2004 decision in Haida Nation v. British Columbia.

First Nations who were swindled or coerced out of their lands (or water, as with Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 Independent First Nation's case against Winnipeg and Ontario for illegally taking their water from Shoal Lake for use by the city of Winnipeg starting in 1913) fight for their land back, for compensation, or both. The Specific Claims Tribunal has 132 ongoing cases. In Saskatchewan in May, the tribunal awarded Mosquito Grizzly Bear's Head Lean Man First Nation $141 million and recognition that they never surrendered their land as Canada had claimed they had in 1905. In June, Heiltsuk First Nation won a part of their land back.

First Nations also fight for their fishing rights in courts and out on the water, as settler fishers have physically attacked and tried to intimidate Mi'kmaw fishers on Canada's east coast. In June, on the west coast, after the British Columbia Court of Appeals found against Canada, the federal government announced it wouldn't appeal, dropping a 15-year litigation that restricted Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations fishing quotas.

Decolonization Just Might Be Inevitable

Why does Canada keep fighting (and losing) even as its legitimacy as a state built on theft and genocide crumbles? It's not merely the habits of centuries. It's also the absence of any project besides the displacement of First Nations and the plunder of the land. Canada could take the first step to ending all this by declaring a unilateral ceasefire in the legal war. Too few Canadians understand that this would actually be a very good thing. First Nations lived sustainably for thousands of years in these extraordinary northern ecosystems. Then the European empires arrived, bringing smallpox and tuberculosis among other scourges. Local extinctions of beaver and buffalo quickly followed, as well as the total extinction of the passenger pigeon. Today's settler state has poisoned pristine lakes with mine tailings, denuded the country's spectacular forests, and gifted the atmosphere some of the world's highest per capita carbon emissions (seventh in the world in 2018—more than Saudi Arabia, which was 10th, and the U.S., which was 11th). Indigenous visionaries have better ideas, such as those presented by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Arthur Manuel, or for that matter the Red Deal and the People's Agreement of Cochabamba.

Under Indigenous sovereignty, Canadians could truly be guests of the First Nations, capable of fulfilling their obligations to their hosts and their hosts' lands, rather than the pawns of the settler state's war against those from whom the land was stolen.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

A disastrous vaccine shortage worsens the COVID crisis in India — as Modi repeats Trump's mistakes

If the month of April was marked by images of endless rows of burning funeral pyres from major Indian cities, the images of floating bodies in the Ganges River near the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in May were a grim reminder of the unchecked spread of the virus in rural India where a majority of Indians, without access to basic health care, vaccines or infrastructure, have been fighting the virus.

The second surge of the virus in India has wreaked havoc in the largely unconnected and inaccessible rural areas, and according to an analysis by Down to Earth, these areas have accounted for "more than half of India's… COVID-19 deaths" in April. There is not only a lack of information and facilities provided by the government to the rural population on how to protect themselves against the virus but also a lack of access to medical facilities or even vaccines, which had led to the rural areas being left completely vulnerable to the virus.

In India, efforts to vaccinate enough people to create the much-needed herd immunity and manage the number of infections and deaths in the country during the second wave have been marked by confusion and a lack of planning by the government, especially the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the center that has mostly left it to the states to figure out how to vaccinate their residents. The result is that vaccinations have become a privilege that seems mostly unattainable by the poor and marginalized populations of the country. According to a doctor that I spoke with, Dr. Harjit Singh Bhatti, "it is mostly a privilege vaccine meant for the rich and influential… the system is anti-rural and anti-poor."

The question those working on the ground in India are asking is how the vaccines will reach people, especially the poor—who in most cases have no access to the internet or do not have the digital know-how to book vaccine appointments. And even those with internet access and tech-savviness still face the difficulty of trying to register for a vaccine on the government's CoWIN website, which is reported to be difficult to navigate and subject to technical glitches and long wait times.

The Privilege of Getting Vaccinated

Dr. Bhatti works in a private hospital in New Delhi where he has been responsible for treating COVID-19 patients. While treating them, one thing became clear to him: the system wasn't set up to treat the poor and the marginalized. To help this section of society, he and some other doctors have started an initiative, DoctorsonRoad for rural India, to help create awareness about COVID-19 and vaccines and also provide basic facilities for rural Indians to fight the virus.

Bhatti says India's vaccine rollout is mostly meant for the privileged and that "the system wasn't set up for the poor people who have to walk 100 kilometers to access health care. The irony of the situation is that, even when they reach [health care facilities], there isn't any help available because these centers in rural areas don't have the requisite resources or manpower or are not operational," says Bhatti, who is also the national president of Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum. According to him, there is a lack of adequate testing taking place in rural areas, which contributes to the undercounting of cases. Furthermore, even if the tests do take place, the results can come seven to ten days later, and Bhatti says that by then a patient may have passed away from the virus—but these deaths are not included in the official COVID-19 death count due to the lag in test results.

"The vaccination policy wasn't meant for the poor, underprivileged and those living in rural areas. Look at the government's intention. There are two vaccine manufacturers [the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech], and Sputnik V will be manufactured by Dr. Reddy's Laboratories for about Rs 1,000 [almost $13], and we don't know what price they will eventually sell it for and if the [state or central] governments who procure it will bear the entire cost for it. Can a middle-class or a poor family of five in India afford to pay so much for vaccinations when they don't have a livelihood due to lockdowns? The system is anti-rural and anti-poor," he says.

In an interview with the Economic Times published on May 15, Dr. Anurag Agarwal, the director of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research's Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology and the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics, said, "Vaccination levels… [in rural areas] are not going to be good… I am not adequately informed to comment on the rural side, in terms of personal direct knowledge or insight or access to data. I know that India has very large hinterlands, I know that facilities there are very poor. Just like any other rational person, I would worry about rural India."

Talking about the lack of awareness about how to treat the virus, Bhatti says, "There is no proper death registration in rural areas, and no proper diagnosis of the virus is taking place, so many of the deaths due to the virus are not counted into the figures." He adds that many people living in rural areas and slums in urban centers don't have access to masks and soap and don't know how to isolate a person who has been infected. For most of them, isolation is a privilege they cannot afford, with many family members living together in a small room.

In Manipur, a hilly state in northeastern India, Sadam Hanjabam and his team from Ya All, a nonprofit organization working with the youth and the LGBTQI community, have been trying to organize medical aid for people there through crowdfunding. He talks about the difficulty in getting to a medical facility in the face of an emergency and the lack of clarity on vaccines. "The medical clinics—which in most cases are privately owned—are located in the city center, and to get there, people in rural areas have to take some sort of public transport. But during lockdowns, public transportation is not available, and getting medical help in such a scenario is increasingly becoming a challenge." In India, while there is no national lockdown in place presently, various states have implemented lockdown measures.

Hanjabam talks of the stigma attached to getting sick with COVID-19, leading to many in rural areas hiding the fact that they are sick. "This is accounting for the rise in deaths."

"I am not vaccinated. We were told that vaccinations for [people age] 18 and above would be available by May 17, but very few slots are available [in Imphal, Manipur]. I don't think I will be vaccinated anytime this year," he adds.

"The vaccination centers are also not properly managed. The crowding at these centers by people waiting to get vaccinated has led to fear of getting infected by the virus from visits to these vaccination centers," says Hanjabam. According to him, since there are very few shots available per center, those in rural areas who don't know how to book appointments have already lost hope of getting vaccinated.

Prime Minister Modi, meanwhile, issued a press release on May 15 and "asked for augmentation of healthcare resources in rural areas to focus on door to door testing and surveillance."

According to Down to Earth, while more than "65 percent of India lives in rural districts, as per the World Bank… only 37 percent of beds in government hospitals are in rural India, according to the National Health Profile 2019."

In urban India, the situation is no better. Ambalika Banerjjee, a senior lawyer who lives in Mumbai, has been trying to book an appointment to get vaccinated for most of May. "Why did the government open up the vaccinations for all adults if they didn't have sufficient vaccinations?" Banerjjee says.

"I have been spending three to four hours to get an appointment without much success. The CoWIN website is hard to navigate because you can't move away from your laptop for a moment, otherwise you have to start the login process again. The right to a vaccine is a right of every citizen; instead, it is being treated as a privilege. I am willing to pay up to Rs 900 ($12) for a shot [administered through a private hospital]. It's not even like it is being provided for free," says Banerjjee.

The pricing of the vaccines depends on many factors including a person's age, the type of hospital it was administered by (whether public or private), and the way in which it was procured (whether it was purchased by the center, state, or private sector, and which vaccine manufacturer sold it).

The Reality of the Vaccine Rollout

India started its vaccination drive in mid-January, offering it to the priority groups of frontline and health care workers. The second phase saw the vaccination of people 60 years and over and those between 45 and 59 with underlying health conditions. By April 1, vaccination had opened up to all people 45 years and above, and by May 1, the country opened up registration for vaccinations to all adults over 18, in spite of facing vaccine shortages. In fact, many states have had to shut down vaccination centers in May with the shortage persisting.

Currently, the center is responsible for providing the states with 50 percent of all COVID-19 vaccine doses produced by two private Indian manufacturers: Bharat Biotech, which, along with the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology, developed Covaxin; and the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, which is producing Covishield (licensed from AstraZeneca). The center bought 50 percent of the vaccine supply to offer it to states for free, leaving the other 50 percent up to states and private hospitals to buy directly from the manufacturers. Out of the 25 percent of the vaccines being procured by private hospitals, however, "very little" is reaching the rural areas, according to an analysis by the Times of India.

The crippling shortage of vaccines, meanwhile, has forced state governments to float global tenders for the procurement of vaccines, resulting in states being pitched against one another to ensure that their citizens are inoculated. Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has pointed out in a tweet how this procurement strategy portrays a "bad image" of the country, saying that the process should be centralized instead.

If the global community of vaccine manufacturers and countries had been approached by a united "'India' rather than individual states, our bargaining power" would be much greater, he further tweeted, because the central government "has much more diplomatic space to negotiate with their countries." Indeed, Pfizer and Moderna have reportedly refused to "deal with [the] Indian states for vaccines."

India's vaccination program is hamstrung by its lack of centralization twofold—not only by how successful the central, state, and private sector are in procuring the vaccines, but also in the pricing offered by manufacturers to each buyer. Manufacturers are quoting different prices for the vaccines to the central government, state government and private hospitals. India's highest court has questioned the "rationale" behind this "differential vaccine pricing." The center while responding to this has maintained that "the difference in the prices fixed for Central government, state governments and private market are because of the volumes sought by them," Business Today reports.

While the majority of states have decided to provide free vaccines to adults, those getting a shot from a private hospital will most likely have to pay out of their own pocket, even as most countries have made vaccination free for their citizens. Talking about the implications of the differential pricing or the increase in prices for vaccines being provided to state governments and private hospitals, economist R. Ramakumar told Firstpost in an interview, "It will have major implications in the way that it will push and exclude millions of poor people in India out of access to this health measure."

The central government, while facing pressure on vaccinations, has come up with a new plan where it claims that it will have 2 billion vaccines available between August and December to vaccinate the whole population by the end of 2021, which seems ambitious to say the very least.

How Lack of Action Has Cost Lives

As of June 1, 3.3 percent of India's population was fully vaccinated as against 40.7 percent of the population in the U.S. or 10.5 percent of the population in Brazil.

India is reporting around 3,000 deaths per day and is second only to the U.S. in the total number of COVID-19 cases that have been reported from the country so far.

Despite this, the central government's messaging has focused on controlling its image rather than on taking charge of the health crisis. It has denied its own failure and has made no effort to share useful information to prevent the spread of the virus, with India's health minister, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, even telling people to eat "dark chocolate to beat COVID-19 stress." More recently, he tweeted to support a rebuttal of a recent Lancet report criticizing the handling of the crisis by the government.

The misinformation and downplaying of COVID-19 by the right-wing Modi government is similar to that of America's former President Donald Trump, who said that people should consume disinfectants to fight coronavirus, only to later say he was being "sarcastic." Many other parallels can be drawn regarding the handling of the COVID-19 situation by Trump and the Modi government. The state governments in America were also left pleading with the federal government for basic medical facilities, as seen in India. Much like Trump, who was against calling for a national lockdown, Modi is now averse to the idea, even as experts feel it will help curb infection rates. This is mostly due to the criticism Modi faced of calling a lockdown on short notice during the first wave. Despite receiving a clear mandate, both the leaders squandered the faith of the people who voted them to power.

Meanwhile, India and its slow vaccination rollout have become a cautionary tale for the rest of the world. "The tragedy in India does not have to happen here in Africa, but we must all be on the highest possible alert," said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Ruhi Bhasin is an assistant editor at the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she worked as an editor and a senior journalist at the Times of India and the Indian Express covering politics, legal matters, and social issues. She can be reached on Twitter @BhasinRuhi.

How Modi’s privatization agenda fueled the COVID disaster in India

While the incompetence of the Indian government is starkly visible in its handling of the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis, its performance has been far worse on the vaccine front. The BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which seems to believe in the ideology of free-market capitalism, thinks that the market will magically produce the number of vaccines the country needs. This would explain why it has starved seven public sector vaccine manufacturing units—according to an April 17 article in Down to Earth—of any support instead of ramping up much-needed vaccine production.

The rights to produce the public sector vaccine, Covaxin, which has been developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech, have been given to the private company partner on an exclusive basis. The Indian government also believed that Serum Institute of India, another private sector company and the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, which has tied up with AstraZeneca for producing Covishield, would make vaccines according to the country's requirements without any prior orders or capital support. The government did not even see the necessity to intervene and prevent India's new Quad ally, the U.S., from stopping sending India supplies of the required raw materials needed by India for manufacturing vaccines.

The sheer negligence by the government is further highlighted by the fact that even though India has about 20 licensed manufacturing facilities for vaccines and 30 biologic manufacturers, all of which could have been harnessed for vaccine manufacturing, only two companies are presently producing vaccines. That too is at a pace completely inadequate for India's needs.

India has a long history of vaccine development, which can be traced back to the Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing, in Mumbai, in the 1920s. With the Patents Act, 1970 and the reverse engineering of drugs by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories, the country also broke the monopoly of global multinationals. It is this change, fought for by the Left, that led to India emerging as the largest generic supplier of drugs and vaccines in the world and becoming the global pharmacy of the poor.

Bill Gates recently spoke to Sky News in the UK regarding India and South Africa's proposal to the World Trade Organization on the need to lift intellectual property (IP) protection for COVID-19 vaccines and medicines during the pandemic. Gates claimed that IP is not the issue and that "moving a vaccine… into a factory in India… It's only because of our grants and our expertise that can happen at all." In other words, without the white man coming in to tell India and other middle-income countries how to make vaccines and provide them with his money, these countries would not be able to make vaccines on their own.

This is a rehash of the AIDS debate, where the Western governments and Big Pharma argued that developing generic AIDS drugs would lead to the manufacturing of poor-quality drugs and theft of Western intellectual property. Bill Gates, who built his fortune on Microsoft's IP, is the leading defender of IP in the world. With his newfound halo as a great philanthropist, he is leading Big Pharma's charge against the weakening of patents on the global stage. The role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of the World Health Organization, is also to dilute any move by the WHO to share patents and knowledge during the pandemic.

Indian companies are the largest manufacturers of existing vaccines by volume in the world, according to the WHO's Global Vaccine Market Report 2020. When it comes to measuring vaccine manufacturing by value, however, the global share held by multinational corporations or Big Pharma is much bigger than that of India. For example, as per the WHO report, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), with 11 percent of the global market by volume, generates 40 percent of the market by value, while Serum Institute with 28 percent of the market by volume has only 3 percent of the market by value. This shows that the patent-protected vaccines with monopoly pricing get much higher prices. This is the model that Bill Gates and his ilk are selling. Let Big Pharma make the big bucks even if it bankrupts the poorer countries. The Western philanthropic money of Gates and Warren Buffett will 'help' the poor Third World to get some vaccines, albeit slowly. As long as they get to call the shots.

The Modi government's approach to vaccines is based on the central pillar of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology—which serves as the ideological parent of the ruling BJP—that the task of the state is only to help big capital. Anything else including planning is seen by the right wing as socialism. In the case of vaccines, it means not to make any attempt to get the companies, both in the public and private sectors, to make necessary preparations for a quick vaccination program: to put in the money and provide the necessary supply chain. Instead, the government believed that India's private pharmaceutical industry would do all of this on its own.

It forgot that the Indian pharmaceutical industry was the product of public domain science—the CSIR institutions—the public sector and nationalist companies like Cipla. They all came out of the national movement and built India's pharmaceutical industry. It is institutions like the Haffkine Institute under Sahib Sokhey's leadership and the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) built under the leadership of Dr. Pushpa Bhargava that led to India's vaccine and biologics capacity. It is on this base that India's vaccine manufacturing capacity rests.

It is not niji (private) companies that built the vaccine capacity in India, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims. The private sector companies rode on the back of public sector science and technology that was built in the country between the 1950s and the 1990s.

The Indian government recently opened up vaccinations for all adults in the country on May 1. To vaccinate all the eligible population—above 18 years of age—India would require about 2 billion doses of the vaccine in order to give the required two shots per person. To plan for the production of an order of this size, apart from technology and capital support, India also needs to plan for the complex supply chain that is required for production. This includes raw materials and intermediate supplies such as filters and special bags. There are at least 37 "critical items" that are currently embargoed by the U.S. from exports under the Defense Production Act, 1950, a relic of the U.S.'s Korean War.

On April 16, Adar Poonawalla, head of the Serum Institute of India, had taken to Twitter to ask U.S. President Joe Biden "to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up."

If India puts together the production capacity of the Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech, Biological E, and Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, and the five other companies that have signed up to manufacture Sputnik V, developed by the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology, India could have planned for an annual production capacity of more than 3 billion doses. If it also included the public sector units idling under the Modi government, India could have easily boosted its vaccine manufacturing capacity to 4 billion doses and produced the necessary 2 billion doses and more in 2021. It would then have made it possible for India to completely vaccinate its target population and yet have enough left to meet its export commitments including for the WHO's Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT)-Accelerator program and its vaccines pillar of COVAX. What is missing is a planning commission that could plan this exercise and create the political will to carry it forward. Not a vacuous Niti Ayog—the public policy think tank of the Indian government—and an incompetent government.

Instead, the Modi government did not even bother to place an order with the Serum Institute until January 11, and that too for a measly 11 million doses. The next order of 120 million Covishield and Covaxin doses was placed only in the third week of March when the number of cases had reached a daily caseload of nearly 40,000, and India was well into its deadly second wave. The government seemed to bank on its belief in the magic of the capitalist market, which it thought would solve all its problems, without any real effort on the center's part.

India and South Africa have asked the WTO to consider waiving the rules relating to intellectual property during the pandemic, and further sought that knowledge, including patents and know-how, should be shared without restrictions. This proposal has been backed by the WHO and has huge support among most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The holdouts predictably are from the rich countries that want to protect the global vaccine market for their Big Pharma companies. Under pressure from the global community and the bad optics of the U.S. hoarding vaccines, the Biden administration has finally just decided to accept South Africa and India's initiative of a temporary patent waiver, after stonewalling it in the WTO until now. But this waiver is restricted to vaccine patents only and does not extend to other patents or associated intellectual property as South Africa and India's proposal had suggested. This is still a victory for the global public health community, though only a first step.

While India is spearheading the need to share know-how with all companies capable of manufacturing vaccines, it still has explaining to do as to why it has given an exclusive license to Bharat Biotech to manufacture a vaccine developed with public money and in public institutions like ICMR and NIV. Why is it not being shared under a nonexclusive license with both Indian companies and those companies outside India? Instead, ICMR is receiving royalties from Bharat Biotech from sharing its know-how exclusively with Bharat Biotech. Under public pressure, ICMR is now sharing its know-how with the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra's public sector Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, while giving Bharat Biotech six months' lead time with financial support money from the central government.

Modi had dreamed that India would be the vaccine arm of the Quad. He forgot that in order to compete with China, India needs a vaccine production base that not only takes care of its vaccination needs but also fulfills all its external commitments. China can do this because it has developed at least three vaccines already—from Sinopharm, Sinovac, and CanSino—that have been licensed to others. Their production is now being ramped up, and China is the largest supplier of vaccines to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And it has also managed to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, unlike India.

This is where the Modi government has failed and failed badly. An incompetent, vainglorious leadership, combined with the RSS belief in magical capitalism, has led to the disaster that we are now facing.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Why one state in India shows the promise of democracy as the world becomes more authoritarian

Just before the state elections in Kerala, in southern India, a television channel ran a program called "The Great Political Kitchen." The anchor went to kitchens across the state to talk to homemakers about their views on politics. In one kitchen, the anchor asked a woman about a dispute surrounding a temple in southern Kerala where the courts had ordered that women must be allowed full access to the temple premises in 2018. For the past five years, Kerala had been governed by the Left Democratic Front (LDF), which had taken a democratic position over this issue and had supported the entry of women into this famous temple. The right wing claimed this was evidence that the LDF government was against religious freedom; such a claim would not be restricted to the majority-Hindu population but could also be extended to other minority communities in India such as Christians and Muslims. The woman told the TV anchor, "I am a devotee [of the temple], but hunger won't go away if I cook and eat devotion. That's all I have to say about it."

Her response—which went viral—conveyed the mood of the recent election in Kerala, which was won by the LDF. The LDF won 99 of the 140 seats in the Kerala assembly elections; 67 of these seats were won by candidates of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It was the first time since 1980 that an incumbent party or coalition had been able to win a second consecutive term in Kerala.

Most people in Kerala were uninterested in the dangerous flippancy of the right-wing politics represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party—in power at the center in India—which is keener to talk about anything other than issues that concern people's material conditions of life such as the pandemic and its social impact on their lives. The LDF leadership, on the other hand, has been focused on the pandemic and on providing the materials necessary for relief to the people in the state during the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis that the country is witnessing presently. Mass organizations of the Left and community organizations joined the state government in efforts to take care of the people. As a result, Kerala has so far been able to tackle the pandemic crisis better than other parts of India.

Pandemic Relief

A comprehensive poll by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Lokniti shows that 73 percent of those polled said that they were satisfied by the performance of the state government. Led by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the LDF government's first term, from 2016 to 2021, was wracked by natural disasters (a cyclone in 2017 and floods in 2018 and 2019) and virus outbreaks (the Nipah virus in 2018 and the coronavirus pandemic), which have impacted lives globally. The government dealt with each of these crises in a similar fashion: through calm and scientific assessments of what had occurred, combined with announcing generous relief for the impacted people. This was true in all the calamities before the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the 2018 floods, which were the heaviest in a century.

The CSDS-Lokniti poll shows that the electorate went to vote with the good governance of the LDF in mind. Asked about the LDF government's performance in dealing with the pandemic, 72 percent said that it was either "good" or "very good." A remarkable 88 percent said that they were satisfied with the food kits distributed by the government to ensure that no one went hungry during the crisis.

Contrary to the attitude of the right-wing government of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the LDF government of Kerala adopted a science-based approach to tackle the pandemic. It expanded public health care facilities to meet likely increases in the number of cases. It carried out a vigorous "Break the Chain" campaign, urging people to adopt the basic practices (social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks) that are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus. Testing and treatment for COVID-19 in Kerala's government hospitals have been free and available to everyone who needs it.

To prevent mass suffering during the pandemic, the LDF government got the state's self-government institutions—which have been strengthened over the past few decades due to the efforts of Left governments—to cook and deliver food to those in need. The government provided food grain and grocery kits for free to every household to prevent hunger. The trade unions and mass organizations helped run these community kitchens as well as helped set up quarantine facilities and treatment centers.

Infrastructure

The right wing in Kerala has typically claimed that the Left is not equipped to build the state's infrastructure. But this time, the right wing had no grounds to make its typical complaints. Since 2016, the state government has not only improved the basic transportation infrastructure but has also built up other kinds of infrastructure needed by the working class and the peasantry.

There is a conventional attitude that suggests infrastructure is built to promote the interests of business alone. But this is not the case in the way Kerala's LDF government built its public infrastructure, including public housing—the government built 250,000 homes for the poor. There was a major focus on public education and public health care, both of which were enhanced, and a stronger public health care system in the state helped it to stave off the catastrophe that COVID-19 has wrought in the rest of India. For the first time in 25 years, students left private schools to return to the improved public education system. Improvements in facilities in public schools included providing sanitary pads for girls to encourage better attendance in school.

Roads, bridges, power lines, and a massive public sector internet project (Kerala Fiber Optic Network, or K-FON) to provide internet as a basic right to citizens have been a few of the key elements of the government's infrastructure work.

Election manifestos are often not taken seriously; this is, however, not the case with the LDF government. "We have fulfilled 580 out of the 600 items in the 2016 manifesto. Now we are placing before the people a manifesto with 900 promises," Chief Minister Vijayan said in March.

900 Promises

The pressing task for the LDF government is the same as before the election: to bring the second wave of COVID-19 infections under control. The Indian government of Prime Minister Modi has been hopeless, allowing the infection to run rampant while doing little to either build up the public health care system or to provide a proper vaccination program. In the first week of May, the seven-day average of doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in India was 1.9 million. At this pace, it will take until February 2024 to administer two doses of the vaccine to the entire adult population of the country.

Kerala's government is forced to buy vaccines on the open market. An important takeaway from this pandemic has been the need for the state to redouble its efforts to strengthen its public sector enterprises, such as the Kerala State Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited, which has been producing essential drugs at low prices for the government hospitals in the state. Kerala currently has a lockdown in place to bring down the rate of infection, which has been high due to the more contagious variants of coronavirus, including the triple-mutant Indian variant, that have been infecting people.

The CSDS-Lokniti poll showed that the working class and the poor as well as oppressed castes, including Dalits, voted overwhelmingly for the LDF; there is no doubt that their interests will play a leading role in shaping the government policy. That is why the LDF returns to power with a mandate to end absolute poverty by the formulation of micro-plans that target families who live with extreme poverty, including homelessness.

Hunger can't be eradicated by devotion. Only social action can eradicate hunger and hopelessness.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

Subin Dennis is an economist and a researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research's New Delhi, India, office.

The mismanagement of Covid in Brazil and India is triggering a hunger crisis

As Indians continue to scramble for survival through a deadly second COVID-19 wave and deal with an inadequate health care system that has failed them at every step, for a majority of the country living in rural areas and in slums in urban centers, food insecurity is proving to be a bigger struggle than protecting themselves against the deadly virus.

In one of Asia's largest slums, Dharavi, Mumbai, putting food on the table is proving to be a pressing challenge for the population of about 1,000,000 living in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. "Hunger is a major problem," says Nawneet Ranjan, founder of the nonprofit Dharavi Diary (Gyanodaya Foundation), who has been working in Dharavi for the last several years. "In the last six or seven years that I have worked here, I have never seen anything like this," he says, referring to the helplessness being felt by the marginalized sections of India's societies who have been facing increasing food insecurity, especially during the second wave. "Food is a bigger priority than sickness," he explains. He has recently started a crowdfunding effort to provide the residents of Dharavi with food supplies, especially the most vulnerable sections like single mothers, the elderly and the transgender population.

During the second week of May, India recorded more than 400,000 daily infections and more than 4,000 deaths, surpassing earlier records, and has overtaken Brazil as having the second-largest number of COVID-19 cases in the world (after the United States of America).

In the Global Hunger Index 2020 report, India's hunger crisis was considered "serious." India was in the 94th position among 107 countries ranked for their management of hunger; "[t]he situation is grim and the country is battling widespread hunger," an October 2020 Down to Earth article reported.

A study by the Azim Premji University's Center for Sustainable Employment released on May 5 estimated that "[t]he first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic shoved a staggering 230 million (23 crore) Indians below the poverty line," states an article in Business Today.

An Impossible On-the-Ground Reality in India for the Poor and Informally Employed

As with the case of the health care system in India, those facing hunger have had to largely depend on nonprofits or citizen efforts, which have come forward to provide food, medical supplies and other help for those already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic.

"People have lost jobs again. During the first wave of the pandemic in India, people from the slums went back to their villages. But there were no work opportunities there, so they came back to cities once things became better," says Ranjan. The number of COVID-19 cases had started to subside by December 2020, at the end of India's first wave. "They came back, and the second wave hit a few months later, and this time it was worse because they had already sold everything they had during the first wave," he adds. During the first wave, thousands of people who were employed in the informal sector, such as domestic workers, drivers, cooks or factory workers, were caught unawares as the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced one of the harshest lockdowns with short notice, leaving them completely unprepared. This led to the "exodus" of people who were left with no other choice but to walk thousands of kilometers in an attempt to reach their homes in rural parts of India.

"There is no testing here. The disease is spreading rapidly, but there is no acknowledgment among the people that they might be affected by the virus. They don't want to go to government hospitals, so they avoid getting tested. Unlike the first wave, they can't even go back to rural areas as the virus has spread there also," says Ranjan.

According to Ranjan, besides avoiding getting tested, there is also resistance to getting vaccinated and a lack of knowledge about how to book vaccination appointments. "[Some people] either don't want to get vaccinated or don't know how to since they don't have access to the internet to book appointments."

The situation is far worse in rural areas where there are next to no health care facilities.

While the central government has been criticized for the lack of nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19, some state governments have imposed lockdowns—which might be helpful for public health, but for the informally employed, these have added difficulties. In the Kolhapur district of Maharashtra, people left without work can only head out and look for temporary employment before 11 a.m., since a statewide lockdown takes effect between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. "In Kolhapur, people depend on the manufacturing industry for employment, which mainly includes the textile and automobile industry. With the lockdown in place, these factories have stopped operating and people no longer have any means to earn a living and feed themselves," says Sanket Jain, a journalist in India who writes about rural issues and has been working in rural areas to make education more accessible to children.

Jain explains why there is sometimes resistance by this population to get tested for COVID-19. "Looking at the oxygen crisis, they are really scared and are in denial about their symptoms. They don't have money to afford food—how will they afford oxygen cylinders?" he says.

"They are mainly surviving on certain government benefits and the food supply they are provided by nonprofits," Jain says. "Most of them only survive on eating rice and make it last for as many meals as they can," he adds, further pointing out that many families are down to eating one meal a day.

In both the rural areas and in urban slums, social distancing is something that people do not have the luxury to follow, and the lack of clear communication from the government about the importance of wearing masks and other safety protocols required to control the spread of the virus has contributed to its spread.

Mismanagement and Surging Hunger in Brazil

Food insecurity has worsened across the world during this pandemic as more than 155 million people faced acute food insecurity in 2020, which is a jump of 20 million people from 2019.

Describing the situation for the vulnerable and "poor communities," Oxfam International says that the message from them is clear: "[h]unger may kill us before coronavirus."

According to the organization, "new hunger hotspots are also emerging. Middle-income countries such as India, South Africa, and Brazil are experiencing rapidly rising levels of hunger."

The gross mismanagement of the handling of the COVID-19 situation on the ground and lack of action based on scientific data during the pandemic by Brazil, much like in India, has not only led to the loss of lives from the virus on a massive scale but has also led to food insecurity emerging as another factor people have to fight against in order to survive.

With minimal government support, hunger has crippled those who were already struggling before the pandemic in Brazil and in India. The increased unemployment—especially among those employed in the informal sector—has been one of the main factors for hunger as the virus surges unchecked in both these countries.

Brazil's former president Dilma Rousseff has described the handling of the current COVID-19 crisis by President Jair Bolsonaro as "repulsive" and "genocidal" in a Guardian interview, further stating that this mismanagement had left the country "adrift on an ocean of hunger and disease."

"A survey by the Brazilian Research Network on Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security shows that more than 116 million people are facing food insecurity. Of these, the survey says, 43 million (20.5 percent of [the] population) do not have enough to eat and 19 million people (9 percent) are just starving," states an article in the Wire.

In 2020, "the director of the World Food Program's Brazil office, Daniel Balaban, warned that Brazil was moving quickly toward returning to the world hunger map, which it left in 2014. Countries figure on that list when more than 5 percent of their population live in extreme poverty," states Agence France-Presse.

The stories of hunger in Brazil are very similar to those in India where people are struggling to survive in the face of an indifferent government. Brazil had made great strides in overcoming hunger "in the first decade of this century, when one-sixth of the population was lifted out of poverty. For many now in Rio, its return is devastating," states a Reuters article.

A video report by Gustavo Basso for DW shows Celia Gomes talking about her struggle with feeding her four children on a daily basis. "I wake up with a feeling of being in agony. I jump out of bed and the first thing I do is thank God I am alive. I look at my children and think to myself, 'today I will bring home some food for them.' I leave the house early to fetch bread. There are days when I can't manage to bring them any." People in Brazil have also had to look to nonprofits for help to overcome hunger, much like in India.

The Government Response

In India, the Modi government has failed to respond to the crisis in every manner possible. Despite early warning signs of an uptick of cases, the government allowed the holding of superspreader events like the Kumbh Mela and the organizing of political rallies in several states. As the health care system became overwhelmed by the rising number of cases and India faced a shortage of ICU beds, oxygen supply and adequate testing, the Modi government distanced itself from the blame, instead prioritizing a parliament renovation plan over saving lives. With no end to the second wave, experts don't see any respite for India any time soon, with a third wave already being predicted even as the country is far from managing its second wave.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, Bolsonaro faces possible impeachment over his handling of the crisis. He has referred to the COVID-19 virus as a "little flu" and continued to ignore or take inadequate measures to control the situation, in the face of rising fatalities.

With the leaders in both countries refusing to accept the urgency of the situation before them, the marginalized populations already struggling are having to fight a dual fight: against the virus and against hunger.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Ruhi Bhasin is an assistant editor at the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she worked as an editor and a senior journalist at the Times of India and the Indian Express covering politics, legal matters, and social issues. She can be reached on Twitter @BhasinRuhi.

As India gasps to breathe, Modi abdicates responsibility

The COVID-19 pandemic continues its brutal march across India. Figures of new infections reached 355,828 on May 3—which accounted for more than 62 percent of the world's new infections on that day. As hospitals run out of beds, ICU capacity, and even oxygen, these factors have been contributing to the already skyrocketing death toll in the country. Dead bodies in mortuaries, crematoria and burial grounds speak of the awful toll of the pandemic.

India's daily numbers of COVID-19 cases have outstripped infection rates in other countries like the United States and Brazil. The end of the surge is nowhere in sight as more states and cities slip into the grip of the pandemic. The new confirmed cases are rising quite steeply in states like Karnataka, Bihar and West Bengal even as numbers in cities like Mumbai and Delhi are beginning to flatten. What is more worrying is that the positivity rates are rising quite steeply, indicating that the actual number of infected people is even higher.

After the first wave subsided in December 2020, the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory against the pandemic. Perhaps it truly believed in its own propaganda. At any rate, it was busy, chest-thumping on its great success. At the World Economic Forum in January, Modi said, "In a country which is home to 18 percent of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively." The BJP's National Office Bearers meeting in February applauded the Modi government's performance in keeping the first wave of the virus under check. "The party unequivocally hails its leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against COVID," said a press release issued by the BJP. This pyrrhic victory and these vainglorious claims are doubly painful as India grapples with a second wave that makes the first wave seem like a trailer.

The BJP was focusing on how to convert this so-called success into electoral victory in state elections when the second wave struck. As the numbers began to rise, the BJP decided that if it could not control the pandemic, it would try to control the narrative. It went on the offensive, with its troll army amplifying the message that the state governments have failed; people are to be blamed for abandoning the safety norms of masks and social distancing; everyone is to be blamed but the Modi government. This, notwithstanding the central government's signal of a return to normalcy by holding public rallies, election campaigns and huge religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela. If people did relax their adherence to the COVID-19 norms, they were only following the example of the leaders—Modi and others—on the dais during political rallies and roadshows, who appeared maskless while addressing large crowds during these events.

The first COVID-19 wave in India peaked around mid-September in 2020, touching nearly 100,000 new infections per day. It had gone down to about 10,000 by mid-February. This period should have been used to strengthen the public health system: increasing the numbers of hospital beds and ICU facilities, stepping up oxygen production and building a supply chain for delivery of medical oxygen. Tragically, the central government, which has centralized all powers under the Disaster Management Act, refused to prepare itself, or the states, or the public, for this second wave.

The worst failing in the current crisis is the lack of oxygen supply. When the lungs of patients are affected due to the virus, the most important medicine is oxygen. This shortage of oxygen has added to the rising death toll, as patients requiring oxygen are unable to get admissions in hospitals; they are dying as hospitals run out of oxygen; and oxygen cylinders are not available for home treatment. During the last week of April, several hospitals in Delhi reported that they had only a few hours of oxygen left. Failed oxygen supply has resulted in the deaths of patients in various hospitals, even in elite hospitals in the capital. If this is the situation in the nation's capital, and that too in elite hospitals, one can only imagine the plight of hospitals elsewhere in small towns and rural India.

That is the core of the current crisis. The major reason for deaths during a pandemic is when the number of serious patients outstrips the availability of hospital beds and the supply of oxygen. That is when fatalities start mounting. This is the case now in India.

In the first wave in India, the spread was limited to a few states, and to certain densely populated areas. This time, it is spreading across almost all states, and affecting a much larger cross-section of people.

Why didn't the government prepare for a rise of this magnitude? This government is, unfortunately, completely centralized; only the prime minister and his trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah, the home minister, can act. The other ministers are harnessed only to dismiss any criticism, even constructive criticism—from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example. Modi's sights were set on winning the elections in the east, particularly West Bengal where the BJP recently faced a decisive defeat. Modi continued to hold political rallies and only stopped when he realized the poor optics of being in electioneering mode amid a major pandemic. By then it was too late, and his poor handling of the situation on the ground led to his party's defeat in the West Bengal elections.

The central government has also failed to ensure a smooth vaccination rollout and has provided misleading information about vaccinations, which might not address the immediate crisis, but will help with controlling any future waves that may follow by creating herd immunity. The government's announcement about having vaccinated 157 million people as of May 3 is misleading. While 157 million vaccine doses have been given, only about 27 million people have received the two required doses as of May 3.

At the beginning of April, states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab were complaining about their vaccine supplies running low. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan dismissed these complaints by states as politicizing their "failures to control the spread of pandemic." The figures of vaccinations, however, reflect a different reality than the one claimed by the health minister and show that the number of vaccine doses given per day has indeed fallen drastically in mid-April in comparison to what it was in early April.

With the vaccine supply still constrained, the Modi government has failed to explain why it is now proposing that everyone above the age of 18 be vaccinated under the third phase of its vaccination drive. No explanation has been offered, nor a plan announced on how the country will ramp up its production and delivery to meet the expanded target.

The central government has mostly abandoned its responsibility to ensure that vaccines are available for the entire population, after its initial push to inoculate health workers and people above the age of 45. The government said that it will continue to provide 50 percent of the country's vaccine production to states and union territories for free under the third phase of the National Vaccine Strategy. The rest of the 50 percent will, however, have to be acquired by the state governments and the private hospitals from the two vaccine suppliers in India—Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. The center has also removed all price controls on vaccines, creating a competition for scarce vaccines among the states, which will ultimately benefit the private suppliers. Instead of a well-thought-out plan to increase vaccine production, distribute it centrally and vaccinate all the people, this appears to be a cynical exercise in abandoning the central government's responsibility and shifting the blame to the state governments for failing to vaccinate the people.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech, had developed Covaxin. There is no reason why ICMR-NIV should not have given licenses to other vaccine manufacturers, including half a dozen public sector units that are idling today, to ramp up production of this vaccine. Instead, the Modi government granted the rights to produce the vaccine, which was created with public-sector technology and public money to Bharat Biotech only. And no explanation has been given about why the Modi government refused to take issue with the United States on its denial to provide vital supplies for the production of vaccines in India until it reached the current crisis.

The Modi government believes in centralizing all political power in its hands and letting the "free market," led by big capital, solve the problems of the country. And if this policy fails, it can always blame the state governments, the anti-national forces and, finally, the opposition for its own failures.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

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