On Wednesday, World Health Organization South-East Asia tweeted, “WHO does not identify viruses or variants with names of countries they are first reported from. We refer to them by their scientific names and request all to do the same for consistency.” In their tweet, they tagged the Press Information Bureau — Centre’s nodal agency for media communication — and several leading Indian media houses. This was to ensure that the message goes home, not only to the media outlets, but also to a whole lot of columnists who have been commenting on the subject, mostly critical, in Indian and foreign publications.
WHO came out with this clear and categorical statement as it had become the norm for a large section of the so-called intelligentsia to term B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus as an “Indian Variant.” Calling the mutated strain the ‘Indian variant’ is the same as terming it the ‘Indian virus.’ This categorisation of associating it with the name of a country, India in this case, was patently wrong on multiple levels. It yet again smacked of an agenda-setting narrative of another kind.
B.1.617 variant of Covid-19 is not the "Indian variant". (Photo: Reuters)
Before going into that, consider this first: Last year, when former American President Donald Trump called coronavirus the “Chinese virus”, he was under heavy criticism for making a racist slur. Later, when he termed Covid-19 as “Kung Flu” in his election rallies, critics all across the world slammed it as a blatant racist joke. They held a high moralistic position and the world at large refrained from following Trump’s terminology of the pandemic. The critics, at home and abroad, were broadly right in their position against naming a country, for it had far serious implications, both short and long term.
Now, aren’t the same set of people who were so angry and critical of Trump’s terminology, today freely and aggressively using the term “Indian variant”? Isn’t it racist anymore? Is it not against a country anymore? Or is it not against the people of that country anymore?
Ironically, the “Indian variant” terminology and why India should be a matter of global concern (in this case, the western world), became a free-flowing liberalist argument. They conveniently forgot their own line of argument from about a year ago.
Even after the WHO publicly cautioned people to not identify the virus on a country-specific basis, why haven’t the so-called vanguards of moralistic and journalistic principles from the western world hesitated to describe the deadly second surge in India as a result of an "Indian variant"?
Hours after WHO tweeted, The Washington Post headline read, “Indian Coronavirus variant has now spread to almost 50 countries, says WHO.” The New York Times headline read, “Covid-19: W.H.O. Warns India’s Homegrown Virus Variant May Be Highly Contagious”. When and where did WHO talk about the “Indian Coronavirus” or “India’s homegrown virus”? The Washington Post and The New York Times perhaps would never answer that, nor would other publications — domestic or foreign.
When they talk about the Indian variant, they don’t simply intend to give a name to the newly mutated virus to simplify a scientific name for easy understanding. It is done so to stigmatise a country and its people. And then comes the real intent: to blame a government for 'allowing' a new variant to emerge. Not just the government, but also its political leadership — Narendra Modi in this case.
Pick up any western or Indian publications, and their authors will seek intellectual validation from the western academia/intelligentsia. It is obvious where the gun is trained. Once that narrative has been established, other Indian media organisations, wittingly or unwittingly, follow that line. Little do they realise the harm that they do to their nation and their people. It is not just to the people living here, but a vast mass of Indian diaspora across the world, who risk being stigmatised and face hostile situations.
Nobody argues that the government(s), Centre and the states, failed to augment health infrastructure to counter the devastating second wave of Covid. But, it is also a fact that nobody could have anticipated that this wave would surge like a tsunami, completely overwhelming the health infrastructure. India has suffered enormous losses, whose implications — economic and social — would be felt for a long time.
But, if the current Indian situation was treated and narrated like that, nobody would have a problem. The problem is about setting a line and narrative, where the lines between anti-Modi and anti-India blur.
They seem to go by the dictum that public memory is short, and believe that the line they push would become the accepted public narrative, serving their purpose. They don’t realise that common people go by their own wisdom, not by what some try to force-feed them.
Those peddling the “Indian variant” term would not answer one basic question: how do they know that the B.1.617 variant emerged from India and didn’t come from outside? A response to that doesn’t suit their narrative.