India: Protect Rights, Dignity Amid Covid-19 Crisis Ensure Equitable Health Care; Uphold Free Speech; Reduce Prison Population

India’s government needs to urgently address healthcare shortages amid the world’s fastest-growing Covid-19 crisis and ensure that vulnerable communities have equitable access to treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. Donors and diaspora groups that are rushing assistance to India should encourage the government to end curbs on free speech and to respect human rights in its pandemic response.
Following widespread criticism of its handling of the pandemic, with shortages in oxygen supplies and hospital care costing lives, the Indian government ordered nearly 100 social media posts to be taken down, saying they spread fake information. Most of the content targeted, however, had angrily criticized the government’s response to the crisis. Uttar Pradesh state’s chief minister has denied oxygen shortages and warned that charges would be brought under the draconian National Security Act against anyone, including healthcare workers, spreading “rumors” on social media to “spoil the atmosphere.”
“The Indian government should be focusing only in its efforts on responding to people desperately in need of help and dying for lack of medical care,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, what we find is a prickly reaction to legitimate criticism of its handling of the crisis, including by trying to censor social media.”
India’s new Covid-19 infections broke the global record, with over 320,000 cases recorded on April 27, 2021, plus nearly 2,800 deaths, bringing the total to more than 17 million cases since the pandemic began in 2020. The death toll is believed to be undercounted, and crematoriums and burial grounds are overrun. Several hospitals have called for emergency supplies as oxygen stocks fell short.
Social media in India are flooded with calls for help from families and hospitals running low on supplies. The authorities are scrambling to bolster a health infrastructure that is crumbling under the rising flood of cases. Community groups have also stepped up to support people who are struggling due to acute shortages in medicines, oxygen, ventilators, hospital beds, ambulances, and cremation and burial services.
A rights-respecting response to Covid-19 should ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all, Human Rights Watch said. The government’s censoring of free speech will ultimately limit effective communication about the pandemic and undermine trust in government actions.
Healthcare experts have criticized the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government for failing to invest in the country’s weak health infrastructure since the pandemic began. Although the authorities have advocated using masks and other public health practices, they conveyed contradictory messages by claiming that they have beaten the virus while allowing and participating in large-scale gatherings, including election campaign rallies. The government promoted a Hindu religious event in which millions of people participated.
Courts have repeatedly criticized the government for its failure to adequately address the pandemic. “You had all of last year to plan and take a decision,” said Sanjib Banerjee, the chief justice of the Madras High Court. “If it had been done, we would not be in this situation… We were lulled into a false sense of security only to be hit by this tsunami of infection now.”
Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which India has ratified, everyone has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” The right to health provides that governments must take effective steps to ensure that health facilities, goods, and services are available in sufficient quantity, accessible to everyone without discrimination, and affordable for all, including marginalized groups.
The government should immediately take steps to remove bottlenecks in supply chains of essential medical goods and services, and to ensure an adequate supply of oxygen, life-saving medicines, ventilators, and testing kits, Human Rights Watch said.
Because of the domestic crisis, the Indian government has temporarily suspended exports of vaccines produced in India. The United States is allocating to India raw materials critical for vaccine production so that Indian manufacturers can address the shortage of vaccines in India and elsewhere. However, the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Australia, and others should also end their opposition to India and South Africa’s proposal at the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Council, which next meets on April 30. The October 2020 proposal would temporarily waive certain intellectual property rules on Covid-19-related vaccines, therapeutics, and other medical products to facilitate increased manufacturing to make them available and affordable globally.
The Indian government has ignored calls from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for governments to release “every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners, and those detained for critical, dissenting views” to prevent the growing rates of infection everywhere, including in closed facilities, such as prisons and detention centers. Instead, the BJP-led government has increasingly brought politically motivated cases against human rights defenders, journalists, peaceful protesters, and other critics, and jailed them under draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws, even during the pandemic.
The Indian government should take immediate steps to release all those jailed on politically motivated charges for peaceful dissent and consider reducing prison populations through appropriate supervision or early release of low-risk category of detainees. Detained individuals at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus, such as older people, people with disabilities or with underlying health conditions, should also be considered for similar release, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Indian government should put people above politics and ensure that everyone gets the medical care they need,” Ganguly said. “The administration has called for citizens and international governments to help, but it cannot shirk its own responsibility to protect each and every life.”
As India faces the world’s fastest-growing number of Covid-19 cases, with 316,000 new confirmed infections on April 21, the highest single-day count in any country, and more than 2,100 deaths, the government’s response appears to have collapsed. A Lancet Commission report estimates deaths could reach 2,320 per day by the first week of June.
There are healthcare shortages everywhere, of testing capacity, medicines, ambulance services, hospital beds, oxygen support, even cremation or burial facilities. Phone calls, social media posts and WhatsApp lines are flooded with requests from people desperately hoping that someone can help their critically ill friends or relatives. Healthcare workers say they are exhausted and feel helpless.

Many had predicted a catastrophe in India when the pandemic first broke out last year, but it is the second wave that has proved far more devastating. Unfortunately, Indian authorities wasted a months-long opportunity while the virus had been contained when they could have bolstered the country’s extremely weak health infrastructure.
Instead, authorities provided mixed messaging. The government called for caution but allowed, and even backed, a Hindu religious event that has seen millions of people gather for an auspicious dip in the Ganges. Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to people to act with patience and discipline, but he and opposition party leaders are facing criticism for addressing huge campaign rallies during state elections.
“How is the government so oblivious to the reality on the ground? You can’t have people die because there is no oxygen,” the Delhi High Court said while hearing an appeal on oxygen shortages in hospitals this week, a challenge plaguing several states across India.
International human rights law guarantees everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to ensure access to health care for those who need it.
The Indian government needs to stop passing the buck, ensure collaboration between various federal and state entities, and act swiftly to address this worsening public health emergency. This means removing bottlenecks from medicine supply chains, supporting healthcare workers, ramping up vaccine manufacturing and distribution in an equitable manner, and promoting safe behavior. Only then will India escape a looming carnage.