The resurgence of the Covid pandemic has been a bonfire of vanities. As 2021 began, the country’s narrative was relentlessly positive and even triumphal. The ruling party’s national office bearers’ meeting in February 2021 hailed the victory of the country over Covid “under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership” of the prime minister. Since the home front was fine, the ministry of external affairs embarked on an ambitious programme to sell and give away Indian vaccines with a view of winning friends and influencing people.
In the face of this massive calamity, the political leadership has been leading from behind. It called off the Kumbh in Haridwar after the akharas walked out, and political rallies in West Bengal were curtailed only after the high court demanded that the Election Commission act.
Hubris will always extract a price. There are facts on the ground that no amount of the customary government spin can blind us to – the scramble to get oxygen cylinders, people dying in hospital parking lots, crematoria burning the dead through the night. Unlike the first round, the ill are around you in almost every locality and so are those who have passed away.
There is desperation in the air, as may have been felt by the populace of a plague-hit city in olden times – you are on your own. Instead of coping as a coherent, democratically governed society, we have had to revert to family and jati networks. States refuse to give other states oxygen and the Centre’s technique is spin and more spin.
Instead of managing the crisis, the effort seems to be on managing the news. Government spokespersons have patted themselves on the back for working to ensure increased beds and oxygen supply, attacked Maharashtra government’s misgovernance, and singled out the Gandhi family for spreading misinformation.
In March 2020 certain “experts” advised the government that a brutal lockdown would finish off the virus. Since then Clouseauesqe characters have been running the show in the country. Decisions have been fitful. The PM can be faulted for electioneering in the time of Covid, but the many decisions he took were presumably on the basis of the “expert” advice. These very advisers failed him and the country again by ignoring the possibility of a second wave.
Policy did not go wrong; there was no policy. There was no effort to forecast the path of the pandemic, to plan for contingencies like the one we confront now, no effort to create stockpiles of drugs, oxygen, a fool-proof testing regime, and an infrastructure for rapid mass immunisation. Ever wondered why countries like the US and Canada have purchased vaccines far in excess of their population? It is because they have planned for the contingency that some vaccines may flop and others hit production roadblocks.
After the fiasco over rolling out an indigenous vaccine on Independence Day 2020, the “experts” decided that we, the pharmacy of the world, would supply vaccines to all and sundry even before inoculating our own vulnerable population. Just as the second wave got underway around March 20, we had vaccinated some 44 million people and exported 60 million doses. In terms of our 1.4 billion population, we had provided a paltry 3.3 doses per 100 persons, compared to Brazil’s 6.4 or the EU’s 13.1.
The current situation tells us that our governmental system – whether it relates to public health or the police – is just a thin veneer on an otherwise medieval society. That veneer is now wearing thin, whether it relates to civil society, law and order, and now in the breakdown of the public health system. And this is in the national capital. The plight of the people in the remoter parts of the country or even mofussil towns can only be imagined. But for that we still have the spin.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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