India attracts pity, flak over Covid chaos

Vappala Balachandran

Former Special Secy, Cabinet Secretariat

History has never seen India being so universally pitied upon as now, as our Covid death toll has crossed 2 lakh. A national daily reported that this month alone, Covid has claimed over 35,000 lives so far, including more than 18,000 in one week (April 21-27). This figure has surpassed the previous record of 33,230 deaths, reported in September 2020.

It hurts our national pride when other countries pity us for the way our healthcare system crumbled from March this year onwards due to the shortage of vaccines and oxygen. That this has happened after our government proudly declared early in 2021 to have overcome the problem has surprised other countries. Their sympathy is on seeing the way people are dying all over India when indications had come even last year that India would face a second, if not a third wave, of this pandemic.

TV visuals beamed all over the world showed hapless people crying in front of hospitals which would not admit their relatives. Pictures at funeral ghats of forlorn families waiting anxiously in queues for hours because of multitude of deaths shook the world.

Never before had we received such humiliating international publicity. From the far right The Australian (April 25) to the centrist The Economist (April 24), blame was squarely laid on the Central Government and personally on the PM for their “complacency and distraction” which allowed things to “spiral out of control”.

Our High Commission’s protest rejoinder to The Australian on April 26 objecting to the words “arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence” drew furious reactions from readers who reproduced photographs of crowded election campaigns addressed by the PM and other BJP leaders and the photographs of mass cremations, saying that “people are dying like animals not getting oxygen”.

The Economist blamed the PM, quoting his declaration in January that “We not only solved our problems but also helped the world fight the pandemic.” It said that in early March, when Maharashtra complained of shortage of vaccine, his government far from helping, attacked the state government “in the hope of bringing it down.”

Yet, some sections in our media seem to be losing direction by deflecting our ire towards the US through a despatch by their US-based correspondent for a national daily (April 27): “US jolted into action, Biden phones Modi to promise all help”. The report said that the “Joe Biden-Kamala Harris dispensation” which was “slammed across the social, political, and business spectrum for perceived indifference to India” has sprung into action promising all help to India.

Justification for our expectation for quid pro quo was because India had helped the US when the then President Trump had requested our PM to rush hydroxychloroquine to them on April 5, 2020 despite our ban on its export the previous day. As a result, India shipped 50 million tablets to the US on May 1, 2020. Before this, an anonymous social media post had said that India’s National Security Adviser had conveyed to his US counterpart that “India could play the game better” if he “knew a trick of the game”. The post was based on an article in a business weekly on April 22 that a Mumbai-based pharma company was making highly purified ‘synthetic phospholipids’ for vaccine manufacturing in the US.

Does this shadowboxing absolve our leadership of not implementing the Empowered Group VI’s decision taken in April 2020 that the supply of oxygen should be ramped up to face the Covid pandemic and that the Department of Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade would look into the oxygen supply? The media had also reported that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health had in its report on November 21, 2020, highlighted the need for ensuring that the oxygen inventory was in place and its price controlled to meet the outbreak of Covid-19 and its management.

Although the Maharashtra Government issued an order on March 20, 2021, diverting 80 per cent of its oxygen towards medical use, the Centre chose to do that on an all-India basis only with effect from April 22, 2021. But this did not prevent the Union Health Minister from being aggressive with the Maharashtra when it requested for more vaccine supply after experiencing severe shortage as restive long queues started appearing for vaccination. Health ministry mandarins went on saying that enough vaccine was supplied to the state. As a result, the ‘Tika Utsav’ (vaccination festival) advocated by Modi from April 11 to 14 became a joke in Mumbai.

The same aggression from the Health Minister was experienced by former PM Manmohan Singh when he wrote a non-polemic letter to the PM on April 18, giving suggestions on how to improve Covid management. This compelled a respected industry leader to call for ending “our age of hatred”. He said that Singh’s “well-meaning letter provoked an uncharacteristic rant from the Union Health Minister.” Yet, he added that “many of Singh’s suggestions, already under evaluation for weeks, were part of the new strategy” announced on April 19 by the Health Minister.

The way top BJP leaders were holding mammoth rallies and road shows all over West Bengal with aggressive slogans and refusing to shorten their campaigns despite Covid, remind one of the invasions undertaken by the Huns into Europe in the fifth Century to overturn the Roman Empire.

Did it need a strongly worded reprimand from the Kolkata High Court on April 22 for the Central Election Commission to realise that mammoth crowds during the elections had posed severe health hazards? The HC said: “The Commission is not doing one-tenth of what TN Seshan had done.” It warned that if the commission did not take action, the court would. A stronger admonition came from the Madras High Court on April 26 that ‘murder’ charges should be framed against the EC for the way it allowed Covid norms to be flouted. Weren’t these avoidable?

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