A Postcard From Mumbai

The Dobi Ghat
The Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat in downtown Mumbai. A million pieces of laundry hand washed every day and returned to their owners with nary a mix up.


Count me as one of those of European ancestry who have a fascination with India.

I have only been there once, but the country and it’s peoples got deep into my soul long before I was physically in the country. Maybe it was a little too much Gunga Din when I was a kid. Trust me when I tell you that no movie, no television show, no amount of E.M. Forester or Rudyard Kipling can prepare you for the experience of actually being there. The term “an assault on the senses” was coined especially for India.

When COVID hit the world in early 2020 it was assumed by many that India would be hit particularly hard. Rampant poverty combined with a billion plus people combined with third world conditions even in the midst of modern cities seemed to be a recipe for contamination that might take down the world’s largest semi-democracy.

Instead India wasn’t hit too badly. Many theories were put forth for this paradoxical situation including that Indians spend more time outdoors, weren’t as obese, the population is relatively youthful, and most interestingly that because Indians are exposed to more diseases on a daily basis they have built up a natural immunity not just to coronaviruses but to many pathogens.

Or in laymen’s terms, Darwin was right.

Begrudgingly the government did institute several restrictions on gatherings, asked the population to mask up, and in general took the same steps that most developed countries had taken to slow the growth of the pandemic. There seemed to be an attitude of “while we’ve got this licked, we want to help the rest of the world”.

But India, like so many other democracies around the world, is now ruled by a populist quasi tyrant, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is Modi who at first dismissed COVID, continued to hold super spreader events like political rallies, railed against the actual science of COVID, and who now has taken the extraordinary stance that social media companies should not just take down but ban any message critical of his response to the crisis. Remind you of anyone else?

So it’s no surprise that Modi disregarded the experts who came to him three months ago saying all signs point towards a huge upturn in cases about to hit the country. Instead he doubled down on the notion that things were only getting better, lifting all restrictions on gatherings. The northern town of Haridwar held one of the world’s biggest gatherings this month, with millions of people celebrating the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela.

On Monday India reported it’s largest single day number of infections, 350,000. 2800 people died of COVID on that day alone. This after a full week of infection rates north of 200,000 per day the previous week. Hospitals are jammed, oxygen has become scarce, and crematoriums have become so backed up with bodies they are forced to stack them like cordwood.

Several Indian states have disregarded the federal government’s antipathy towards doing anything to solve the crisis and taken measures of their own. Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, has banned any gathering of more than five people, all non-essential commerce, and limited even essential services to restricted hours. The response from the federal government to these measures has been scorn. The response in the real world has been a leveling off of COVID cases.

The Indian government has been able to vaccinate about 10% of the population which would be great were it not for the fact that that still leaves over a BILLION PEOPLE unvaccinated. This in a country that produces more vaccines than any other in the world, but they are hindered by greed (foreign countries are willing to pay more for vaccines) and a lack of the raw materials and native intellectual property that prevents the factories from being able to produce more for themselves.

On Sunday President Biden announced the United States would be sending more of the raw materials needed for vaccines as well as more rapid diagnostic test kits, ventilators and personal protective gear. There has also been a push for the US to release millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for export to India. Of course the biggest problem with that is these doses were manufactured in that infamous Emergent lab in Baltimore and might be contaminated.

Well at least that would get them off our books.

But the biggest problem might be the intellectual property issue. This sounds bizarre I know, but those vaccines that we’ve been jabbing in the arms of Americans have proprietary formulas. Those formulas don’t want to be given up by their creators, or more to the point the companies those creators work for, who profit handsomely from their use. Both India and South Africa have appealed to the World Trade Organization for a temporary waiver to an international intellectual property agreement that would give poorer countries easier access to generic versions of coronavirus vaccines and treatments.

The Biden administration, in a conciliatory nod to Big Pharma, has said no.

This is not the time for the pharmaceutical companies to be lining their pockets. Yes, they have a right to make a profit off their discoveries, but we are talking about a worldwide pandemic that can be brought to a halt if everyone gets vaccinated. Making the formulas available to everyone, well, call it the price you pay for ripping off the world’s economies with your outrageous pricing on all your other drugs and vaccines. This is one of those greater good moments. Agree to allow poorer nations access to the formulas now and the next time you want to charge $200 a dose for a pill that cost you two cents to produce we might look the other way.

Of course their apologists are hard at work to come up with excuses why a temporary stay on the exchange of formulas would be a bad idea. Bill Gates, Microsoftie numero uno and ironically vaccine propogandist to the world has come out saying that it would be horrible if Pfizer and Moderna had to share their intellectual property. After all, these vaccines have to be tested and then they’d have to find a large enough facility to make the drugs.

You know, like the Serum Institute factory. In India. Largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world. Yeah I know, his hypocrisy is as creaky as an 8086 computer running MS-DOS.

With luck Modi will see the sense in the restrictions and impose them on the rest of the country. With luck Big Pharma will see the sense in allowing a temporary easing of intellectual property agreements. With luck the supplies sent by the US will help alleviate the distress of the Indian people. That’s a whole lotta luck to ask for a country of over a billion people to get. But they deserve it.

And in the end, as with all good Bollywood movies, we dance.

Shapiro Out

PS If you are interested, here is the video I made of my trip to India in 2019