Reporting On The Crisis In India with Niha Masih | Crooked Media
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May 12, 2021
What A Day
Reporting On The Crisis In India with Niha Masih

In This Episode

  • The coronavirus crisis in India continues to escalate, with the World Health Organization warning of a potentially more transmissible variant and the country reporting over 240,000 deaths. To get a better sense of the situation on the ground, we spoke with Niha Masih. She’s a Washington Post reporter in New Delhi.

  • And in headlines: Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip kill over 33 Palestinians, missile launches by Hamas kill two in Israel, and the NRA’s bankruptcy filing is thrown out by a federal judge. Plus, Erin Ryan fills in for Akilah Hughes.




Gideon Resnick: It’s Wednesday, May 12th.


Erin Ryan: I’m Erin Ryan, in for Akilah Hughes.


Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day, where we’re admitting to taking horse drugs to get ahead in podcasting.


Erin Ryan: You know what, before people judge us, I think that they should consider just how hard podcasting can be on your joints.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I’ve gone arthritic over the last two years. On today’s show, a firsthand view of the devastation caused by the pandemic in India.


[clip of Niha Masih] It’s not always that journalists run out of words, but this is one of those situations, unfortunately.


Erin Ryan: That’s Niha Masih, a Washington Post reporter in New Delhi. She’s been covering the crisis there, which, hard to believe, continues to get worse and worse.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I mean, there have been recent reports of bodies washing up on the banks of the Ganges, concerns about the spread of COVID-19 beyond major, more-resourced metropolitan areas which already struggled, and the World Health Organization raising alarm about a potentially more transmissible variant. The country has reported over 240,000 deaths, and most experts unanimously say that that is a vast undercount.


Erin Ryan: It’s really, really tragic to see yet another government of yet another country just be caught on its heels like this.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, it really is. So I had a one-on-one conversation with Masih so she could better describe the situation on the ground.


Niha Masih: I have spent some time outside a hospital and I’ve seen people coming in, in ambulances, on two wheelers, in auto rickshaws, helpless, without being able to find a bed. The hospitals are full and they unfortunately have to turn, turn people back. And some of these people are often very critical, and if they don’t get help soon, they probably end up dying. So that kind of scene I have personally not seen before, ever, including in the first wave—there were some hospital bed shortages in the first wave in some places, but it was never this dire. There are burial grounds and cremation grounds that are running chock-a-block. In some burial grounds, they’ve had to dig up graves that have not fully decomposed, to accommodate incoming dead bodies that are not stopping. Crematoriums, who’ve fun out of wood because they don’t have, because of the sheer numbers. In the last two days, we’ve seen videos of corpses floating in rivers in north India, which are suspected to be COVID-positive bodies. It’s not clear where and when they were dumped in rivers. So honestly, I don’t know if words like ‘nightmare’ or ‘hell’ are adequate to sum up the situation. But one word that I see a lot of people using is: helplessness.


Erin Ryan: It’s really tough to watch another country become the epicenter of the pandemic because, you know, Gideon remember, a year ago the US was the global epicenter and we were hearing people use words like ‘nightmare’ and we were hearing about hospitals running out of beds. And it’s just terrible to see another place going through that. And there’ve been a lot of different factors playing into why and how India’s surge has been so devastating. Masih reported on one of those: a major Hindu religious festival last month. What did you have to say about that?


Gideon Resnick: I mean, she said for one thing, that the government was called upon to actually cancel the event due to the fear of spread.


Niha Masih: So Kumbh Mela, as it’s called, is a major religious festival for Hindus, and it takes place in several different locations. The participants include regular devotees, but also tens of thousands of priests who come from various parts of the country. And one of the main rituals of this is taking a dip in a holy river. And there are certain dates that are considered auspicious. So if you see, it has all the makings of a super spreader event: a very, very large congregation of people, millions, impossible to enforce COVID protocols here, and people are taking a dip in a particular spot. And the main events were held in April, which is when the second wave was devastating parts of the country. The government was called upon to cancel the event by experts and doctors and opposition parties, but they chose not to. It was only on April 17th, after two of the main rituals had concluded, that the prime minister appealed to devotees to say that: now we should observe the rest of the festival in a symbolic manner. But that was too late. What we don’t know is how many people got infected, and how much the virus spread.


Gideon Resnick: Right. And Masih added that an epidemiologist told her that because of this event, different variants of the virus were able to actually jump geography’s after those worshipers went back home.


Erin Ryan: Yeah, it kind of reminds me of what we were hearing in the very early days of the pandemic in Italy, when they were shutting down different regions and people were taking trains to get out before the lockdowns. And reminds me of last summer in the States, the Sturgis rally was held despite all advice from public health experts. And it’s just, it feels like nobody is learning any lessons that should be governing how people behave around this. Masih also had to deal with COVID herself recently.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that’s right. And when she told me about her experience, it was pretty easy to see how this moment India is going through right now is much different compared to last year.


Niha Masih: I’m sure as journalist, of course, I always hate to be the story, especially at a moment like this, when there is so much, you know, so much worse happening to people. I don’t yeah, I don’t have to, you know, my own case was was mild, thankfully, and I recovered in home isolation without having to need a hospitalization or require anything that I needed to be running around for. But yes, I must say that, for instance, getting a test organized when I first felt symptoms was not as easy as it was, you know, last year. I’ve tested many times previously and it was it was always, you know, very smooth, and I would get a result in like four hours. This time, I had to ask a friend to help me find the test, as many private labs were not doing testing. So testing took some time. The result came two days later, which is also, you know, a period where you wonder, like, should I, should I be medicating, should I wait for the result to come? Again, I was lucky and privileged to have access to doctors on call. But yes, I think just sort of the feeling of not knowing whether you may need help, and whether you will get that help, is a fear that a lot of people who contract COVID right now are feeling. And I think I did, too.


Erin Ryan: And in another great example of leaders not learning their lesson from what other countries have gone through, recently there have been calls for another national lockdown, but political leadership doesn’t seem like they’re going to do that.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I mean, as of now, No. Masih told me that it has been left to state governments, and two dozen or so, have their own lockdowns at this point. And then part of the reason for the resistance to another national lockdown, as Masih described it, is actually how the last one went.


Niha Masih: India went in for a very hard and strict lockdown at the end of March when it barely had a few hundred cases. While it did help in stopping the spread of the virus and gave time to, you know, the administration to ramp up health infrastructure, the consequences for the economy were devastating. It was announced at a four-hour warning, leaving tens of millions of migrant workers stranded in cities without any food, without any income, or a way to get back home. And that really sort of, you know, set off a humanitarian crisis, which, the effects of which we still feel. People were walking thousands of miles to reach their villages very far away. And even after the lockdown was lifted, it took a very long time for the economy to sort of, you know, fully reopen. And it hadn’t until, and then, of course, the second wave came. So that’s one of the reasons why the government has been hesitant.


Gideon Resnick: Well, we’ll continue to follow this story and we can link to Masih’s reporting’s so you can read all of her work. But that is the latest for now.


Gideon Resnick: It’s Wednesday, WAD squad, and for today’s temp check, we are discussing two corporate White House vaccine collaborations that were announced yesterday. First, Biden announced that Lyft and Uber will offer free rides to vaccination sites—there are some important terms and conditions there. And secondly, McDonald’s has announced it will pitch in by adding Department of Health-approved “We Can Do This” branding to its coffee cups and delivery orders. The cups and labels will also direct customers to to learn how to get appointments. So, Erin, how are you evaluating this good corporate citizenship?


Erin Ryan: Well, Gideon, not since Starbucks’s incredible “Get Your Annual Pap-uccino” [laughter] and Hardee’s “Check Your Pros-tater Tots” promotion has a corporation done so much to further the cause of public health. You know, I think the only way that McDonald’s could have gone further and had more of an impact with this brave display of cup messaging, is if they’ve gone as far as Dairy Queen did when they did their “Colonoscopy Awareness” Sundaes.


Gideon Resnick: Wow. Wow. These are all dates I remember fondly, and promotions I remember fondly. And you’re right. You know, those companies led the way here. And it’s time for the Golden Arches to maybe go a step further. The thing that I found really funny in terms of those terms and conditions, is apparently the Lyft statement on this includes a, what it is, is it includes a code for $15 off a ride.


Erin Ryan: Wait! $15!?


Gideon Resnick: Yes. That’s it. Which, listen, if this helps one person get a vaccine, I think the job has been done. But the idea that this was sort of, you know, free carte blanche rides to vaccination sites, when really it’s Lyft being like: here is a code to go five city blocks—is pretty, pretty funny and pretty telling about, you know, the car companies we all know and love.


Erin Ryan: So you’re suggesting that Uber and Lyft are getting more value out of this wave of good PR of “Free” quote unquote, rides to vaccine sites, than the people actually taking the rides are getting in value from them?


Gideon Resnick: I might be I, I might, I might be implying. I could be implying something of the sort. But just like that, we have checked our temps. Stay safe. Get your shot, no matter how you do it. That’s just the best way to do it, is getting it. And we’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: Israel continued to conduct air strikes on the Gaza Strip yesterday, which, as we went to record last night, had killed at least 33 Palestinians, including children. These attacks came as retaliation against rockets launched by the Palestinian militant group Hamas towards Tel Aviv and Israel, which killed two people. Earlier this week, Hamas gave Israel an ultimatum to withdraw its security forces in Jerusalem after days of police violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. As of recording, UN officials say over a thousand Palestinians have been injured by Israeli forces, and riot police continue to storm the mosque for a third consecutive day. Several international groups have condemned Israel for its indiscriminate airstrikes and violence against Palestinians. While the White House released a statement yesterday describing Biden’s, quote “unwavering support for Israel’s security.”


Erin Ryan: Feel like that is an issue where many progressives diverge from the Biden White House statement.


Gideon Resnick: To say the least.


Erin Ryan: Yes. We are now seeing the impact of last week’s ransomware attack that shut down the Colonial Pipeline, which moves roughly 45% of the East Coast’s fuel. A growing number of gas stations in Virginia, Florida and other states are reporting dry pumps and long lines. All right. Gasoline is the new toilet paper. You heard it here first. Georgia has also joined Virginia and North Carolina in declaring a state of emergency over potential gas shortages. According to Gas Buddy, an app that tracks fuel prices and demands—and that I just learned existed in reading this copy, I had no idea there was a demand for it, but, hey, people must be using it—as of yesterday afternoon, 8.5% of gas stations in North Carolina, and 7.7% in Virginia had no gas. Federal officials are considering additional ways to ease fuel delivery across the East Coast and are urging Americans not to hoard gas because it will exacerbate supply shortages. Also, do not hoard gas!


Gideon Resnick: No.


Erin Ryan: That stuff is very, very exploitable, and normal people shouldn’t just to have it around.


Gideon Resnick: Agree.


Erin Ryan: But that’s just, that’s, that’s not, don’t do it, guys. This incident illustrates just how vulnerable the country’s infrastructure is to ransomware attacks from cyber gangs we can only imagine look like much less good-looking versions of Neo and his friends from The Matrix.


Gideon Resnick: Yes. Where is Morpheus? We need to see him. Send thoughts and prayers to the National Rifle Association, whose bankruptcy filing was thrown out yesterday, potentially dooming the country’s biggest fan club for AR 15s. The NRA is facing a legal challenge from New York’s Attorney General Letitia James, who seeks to shut it down for fraud and self-dealing. Earlier this year, the NRA filed for bankruptcy as part of a scheme to move its headquarters from New York to Texas and evade the AG’s lawsuit. A federal judge has now declared that this filing was in bad faith. The end result of the bankruptcy proceedings then was just to cost the NRA millions of dollars in legal fees, and force it to go public with even more info about how its executives eat all of its money. Shouts to NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, who we now know decided to class up the standard gun guy outfit of jeans and military fatigues by once spending 300,000 company dollars on Italian suits in one shopping trip to Beverly Hills. Wayne, you freaking dog. [laughter] He also charged the company for private jet travel and lived for extended periods on a 108-foot yacht in the Bahamas, lent by a top NRA donor—truly, truly fighting the elites by becoming the worst version of them. The NRA will likely appeal yesterday’s ruling, but still, this does not bode well for their future.


Erin Ryan: I am feeling really, really bad tonight for all of the men who may have to find a new way to overcompensate. And women! Women in the NRA are also overcompensating, in a way that endangers the lives of everyone around them. I do not feel sorry for them. Good riddance. And I hope that we find out more embarrassing shit about them as this legal battle goes on, because what we’ve learned so far is pretty, pretty embarrassing.


Gideon Resnick: Pretty good. Yeah.


Erin Ryan: Yeah, it’s really, it’s really good stuff. Bewildered Texans who are currently yelling for help in the meat aisle at Kroger, we have good news—I’d imagine there, I don’t know how many of them there are, I’ve never really spent time in Texas but for those of you who are: state lawmakers in the House have approved a bill that would prohibit plant-based products from using the terms ‘meat’, ‘beef’, ‘pork’ or ‘poultry’ on their labeling. This means Beyond Meat would have to rebrand as Not Beyond Plant. The bill does consider the term ‘burger’ to be fair game, but only if it’s accompanied by terms like ‘meatless’ or ‘made from plants’ on the product’s packaging. Honestly, this all just illustrates how far back the U.S. is on soy literacy. Unsurprisingly, the bill is backed by livestock companies and is opposed by groups that advocate for vegetarian meat alternatives. The bill still has to pass Texas’s state Senate. If it does, it will likely be challenged by plant-based food producers on First Amendment grounds. Texas, what the fuck are you doing!? Do you not have other problems!? Why will, why do you refuse to govern? Do governing! Guys, this is not governing. This is like, this is like if your house was burning down and you were like, there’s a hose over there that I could use to put the fire out, but instead I’m going to sit here and paint my toenails. Come on, guys. This is ridiculous.


Gideon Resnick: A lot of people in the Texas house have painted nails at this point, we think. And those are the headlines.


Gideon Resnick: One more thing before we go. On the latest episode of Pod Save the World, Tommy and Ben talk about the escalating violence in Israel and Gaza with foreign policy analyst Rula Jebreal. They talk about the context for the latest outbreak of fighting in Israel and Palestine, and how we should be thinking about asymmetries of power. That’s on the new episode of Pod Save the World out today.


Gideon Resnick: And that is all for today. If you’d like to show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review, beware of mislabeled meats, and tell your friends to listen.


Erin Ryan: And if you’re into reading and not just receipts for NRA suit binges like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Erin Ryan.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And listen to McDonald’s about vaccines!


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, you could end up with a novelty cup that you can keep for generations.


Erin Ryan: [sings] Did somebody say immunity?


Akilah Hughes: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media.


Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.


Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers.


Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.


Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.