How Israel Helped India Build a False Narrative Of Victory Against COVID-19

As you may have seen or read, India is facing an unprecedented crisis. Hospitals have run out of medical supplies, crematoriums are overflowing; there is panic everywhere. Though no one has suggested that dealing with covid-19 would be anything but complex, understanding how India got to this point is quite a simple affair.

Instead of preparing hospitals and the population for a mutant strain giving its huge population, the Central government was focused on presenting itself as hardy, strong, and as pioneers in the field of vaccination.

Instead of learning from the failures of those countries (like the US, UK, Brazil, and South Africa) who struggled with vicious second waves, it focused on wielding influence over others by exporting the vaccines elsewhere.

Instead of promoting and encouraging social distancing and the wearing of masks, Indian politicians flouted health regulations, held rallies and religious events.

Israel-India: fighting covid-19 together

From the outset of the pandemic, both India and Israel attempted to use the pandemic as a way to further cement ties between the two nations, in substantive but also peculiar ways.

But at its core was an attempt to build a narrative of two countries using their technological prowess to the benefit of others. And to project each other’s greatness as advanced and caring democracies.

Throughout 2020, India hosted Israeli medical researchers and worked on co-producing rapid tests (said to be non-invasive audio based, breath analyzer/scent diagnostic kits for detecting COVID-19); the Israelis also contributed state of the art medical supplies to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to fight COVID-19.

Later, when the vaccines were developed, both countries also donated vaccines to other countries and used the pandemic to elevate their position as tech and research hubs and sought goodwill (aka vaccine diplomacy) as ‘giving’ nations. This was calculated PR.

(Israel purportedly stopped doing so when they faced criticism for neglecting Palestinians.)

An adoring media

Some in the Israeli and Indian media also helped disguise the many shortfalls and failures while exaggerating the gains, often amplifying government talking points.

Some examples:

Elite Israeli doctors help fight coronavirus in IndiaJerusalem Post, July 2020
India-Israel’s ‘game changing’ rapid Covid testing will be ready in days, says Israel envoyThe Print, October 2020
The curious case of India’s success in taming covid-19Mint, February 2021
Experts stumped by India’s dramatic drop in COVID casesTimes of Israel, February 2021

As recently as April 2021, just as India was on the brink of its current crisis, the Jerusalem Post carried an article titled: India or Israel? Meet the other ‘vaccination nation’.

Though it is a huge amount of people, just 1.7% of all Indians received the vaccine, barely reducing the risk and therefore making comparison with Israel, where 56% of Israeli citizens are fully vaccinated, ludicrous. And when one considers that just 0.9% of Palestinians have been fully vaccinated, the story collapses completely.

Still, the article continues to draw Israel and India’s achievements closer and strives for a new set of facts.

“We have a foundational, civilizational belief that we must share with everyone else, especially with the developing countries,” India’s ambassador to Israel Shri Sanjeev Kumar Singla told the Jerusalem Post.

“This belief is encapsulated in the Sanskrit term ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,’ which means that the world is one family,” he explained.

“COVID-19 has only reiterated this since it has shown that no country is an island, and we are not safe until everyone else is safe.”

Clearly a talking point straight from the top:

And repeated by both sides:

In a webinar hosted by the American Jewish Council (AJC) in August 2020, Israel Nitzan, the Israeli Consul-General to NYC, said:

“The story we will share today is in essence what Israel is all about and it is all what India is all about. And it’s also a central value in American Judaism, which is “tikkun olam” or “repairing the world.”

But as the crisis in India demonstrates, both countries were just engaging in shameless self-promotion.

Deep-seated inequality

From the beginning of the pandemic, the working class and poor in India were abandoned, neglected and killed through pitiful lock down measures. The poor continue to bear the brunt of the lockdowns.

Muslims were demonized and blamed for the spread of the virus.

“A new term, “corona jihad”, has been coined to describe this conspiracy. Videos showing Muslims spitting on vegetables and fruit, licking plates and smearing surfaces with their saliva are being circulated widely,” renowned academic Apoorvanand wrote.

Before long, Modi declared victory over the virus and complacency set in. But there was always talk about hidden death tolls.

In a country as huge and immensely unequal as India, a catastrophe was just one wedding party or election rally away.

In Kashmir, it has been even more irresponsible. Some weeks ago, with the onset of spring, the government encouraged tourism to Kashmir for a six-day Tulip Festival, as part of its attempt to promote normalcy in the region.

Over 200,000 tourists came, setting off another wave of covid-19 infections in the occupied region. This week Kashmir saw its highest daily number of covid-19 infections and deaths.

Likewise, in Israel too, the Netanyahu government was able to craft a narrative of success despite severe setbacks in the beginning and despite completely erasing Palestinians from the conversation.

Given’s Israel’s occupation, Palestinians remain Israel’s responsibility under the Geneva conventions.

As reported by the Borgen Project:

”The COVID-19 crisis in Palestine devastated its already inadequate Palestinian healthcare system. Gaza and the West Bank have a total of 375 ICU beds and 295 ventilators between them, for a population of over three million. The lack of available resources has severely hindered pandemic response in the territories, with health officials halting COVID testing in June due to a shortage of test kits in Gaza.”

At last count, just 0.9% of Palestinians were fully vaccinated; 56% of Israeli citizens are fully vaccinated.

Besides the moral and legal bankruptcy of this policy (and the sheer insanity of this stat itself) it is a public health calamity in waiting, as so many have repeatedly pointed out.

With its militaristic control over people’s movement, deep surveillance and small population, Israel will attempt to keep out the “undesirables”.

But for how long and at what cost?

Still, some segments of the Indian and international media continue to focus on Israel’s response to covid-19 as a model to replicate.

See how this slide show from Reuters India:

‘Aid’ vs ‘assistance’

While it has made overtures to foreign embassies in Delhi for assistance during this crisis, India insists it isn’t asking for donations but rather calling for help in the facilitation of economic transactions.

In other words, India is asking governments to help open supply chains, reduce bottlenecks and limit the bureaucracy behind attaining the supplies it needs.

It also means that they have resources and this disaster could have been averted had they prepared for it. It’s been more than a year since the pandemic began, after all.

India’s policy towards declining aid dates back to around 2004, when India decided to recast itself as a donor rather than a recipient of international aid.

So even though a number of countries have stepped forward to offer assistance, there are a number of ambiguities around this approach, including how this ‘assistance’ will be regulated, directed and managed. And with private entities involved, who will profit from it.

Countries that have come forward, include: Singapore, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Ireland and the US.

Israel is still not on that list, which might come as something of a surprise.

Over the past few days, Israeli media reported that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had discussed sending assistance to India and the Ministry of Health resolved to help, too,

But Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is yet to rubber stamp the deal.

Let’s see what happens over the next few days.

Until next time.

Azad Essa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York City. He worked for Al Jazeera English between 2010-2018 covering southern and central Africa for the network. He is the author of The Moslems are Coming (Harper Collins India) and Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books).

This article is a part of Essa’s newsletter series on India-Israel Alliance.