The Cover Story
How the Pandemic Is Reshaping India
By Billy Perrigo
Reporter, TIME

Braving the monsoon rains in western India is difficult enough when you don’t have to wear a mask and think about social distancing. But that’s exactly what my colleague Neha Thirani Bagri found herself doing in early August, when she went to a protest outside a municipal building in Pune to see if she could find families of COVID-19 patients who were unable to find a hospital bed.

There she met the family of Kashinath Kale, who died in July after a six-day search in vain for a bed with a ventilator. “He knew he was going to die,” Kale’s wife Sangeeta told Thirani Bagri later, holding a framed photograph of her husband. “He was in a lot of pain.”

Writing about how the pandemic has changed a country as large and varied as India was always going to be a challenge, but from the outset we knew that some people’s experiences would speak to wider trends. Kale's story, for example, shows the public health risks of a virus coursing through a country with only 0.55 hospital beds per 1,000 people.

We also wanted to understand why Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been riding high in opinion polls despite the soaring number of COVID-19 cases and looming economic devastation, so we sought out somebody who still supported the government despite going through huge personal hardships. “I was interested to see how the pandemic had changed the way people viewed the Indian government, and Narendra Modi in particular,” Thirani Bagri says.

Thirani Bagri found that person in Rajkumar Prajapati, a migrant laborer who had been thrown into debt by the lockdown, but still supported Modi in part because of his Hindu nationalist politics. “It turned out that the opinion polls were borne out in the reporting,” Thirani Bagri says. “There were definitely some people who were angry they had got nothing from the government. But it did play out in the way that we expected—many people were still supporters of Modi for one reason or another.”

But with India's caseload now at 3.3 million and rising fast, the goodwill may not last. “I fully expect that at some point, unless things really change course, India will have more cases than any other place in the world,” says Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute. With a population of 1.3 billion, he says, “there is a lot of room for exponential growth.”

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