Delusion of ‘infallibility of the government’ is the real tragedy we face as COVID cases surge
The tragedy really is that our fight against the virus remains as directionless and as mired in self-congratulatory propaganda optics of the establishment as ever
Just as the country marked the first anniversary of the draconian Covid lockdown imposed on 23 March 2021, the poignancy of the occasion was brought home by Covid surging once again in large parts of the country, as if to show the mirror to our Prime Minister who on 17 February 2021 proclaimed – “At the beginning of this (COVID-19) pandemic, the whole world was worried about India's situation. But today India's fight against corona (coronavirus) is inspiring the entire world …….”
It is not the author’s case that no progress has been made in the country to shore up diagnostic and therapeutic capacities to treat Covid cases, or in mobilizing a large number of medical and non-medical personnel to control the pandemic. The question is - to what effect?
That there is yet another surge in Covid cases is neither surprising nor a tragedy because it was expected and it is in the nature of pandemics to behave likewise. The real tragedy is that our fight against the virus remains as directionless, and as mired in self-congratulatory propaganda optics of the establishment as ever. More than a year later, Prime Minister’s valorization of India’s fight against Corona still cannot mitigate the shortage of hospital oxygen supply in cities like Mumbai and Pune. The woeful lack of preparation is evident in the reports that public hospitals are putting two Corona patients to a single bed; and that oxygen beds are being laid out on the outside, and the time of writing one Corona patient is dying every five minutes in the state of Maharashtra. That, there isn’t news about states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and many others hardly owes to the robustness of health services in these states, but rather to utter dysfunctionality of health infrastructure.
The private health sector yet again appears to have performed a Houdini act. It shall be back though with fortified rate lists, as the situation worsens to facilitate maximal advantage – the boogey of ‘price caps’ notwithstanding. Wondering, why the government should be bothered about how much is being charged by the private hospitals from COVID patients, the President of ‘Telangana Super-speciality Private Hospitals Association’, Bhaskar Rao couldn’t have put it better when he said in July 2020:
Only those who can afford treatment will come to us. There are enough government hospitals to provide free and affordable treatment to other Covid-19 patients. …... Only if the government hospitals are insufficient to tackle the huge number of cases, the patients will come to private hospitals ….
The government isn’t sitting idle. With the able assistance of “experts” is preparing in earnest to deflect any responsibility that were to fall on its shoulders for the unfolding mayhem. Doing good public health is not simply a techno-managerial exercise. Health and allied sciences apart, good public health entails taking along experts from a wide range of technical and social science disciplines simply to be able to understand the nature, behavior, and the science of disease, as a guide to action. Above all, eliciting active cooperation, and winning the confidence of the people at large through science based, transparent decision making processes, and unwavering accountability towards their wellbeing constitute the glue without which rest of all shall come unstuck.
The big question however is – with a government that suffers from delusions of its own infallibility amidst glaring devastation on multiple fronts; when the “experts”, the bureaucracy, and the managers of ruling party (at the Centre or in the states) unashamedly foreground ‘Covid-inappropriate behavior’ of the people as an important causative factor, and, when authorities get used to treating the people themselves as ‘pests’, what accountability can the people expect? Was this to be sought, guidance of a good social science scholar with knowledge of health issues would have helped make the authorities realize that much of what they perceive as ‘Covid-inappropriate behavior’ of the people is actually a fiat-accompli enforced by the conditions of their living, which have become all the more insufferable due to the pandemic and the way it has been managed.
Meanwhile, wisdom dictates that it is the ‘Covid-inappropriate behavior’ of the authorities themselves that need be put to hard questioning. Even as these lines are being written news comes in that in the city of Indore policemen mercilessly beat up a man in front of his eleven year old son for not wearing a face mask. In an order passed by it, the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi has ruled that even a private ‘vehicle’ is a ‘public place’, and hence a person must compulsorily wear a mask even while driving alone in a car. Needless to say, that the high and mighty in India have utmost reverence for the seeming deference of Corona virus to the processes of ‘democracy’ and its’ eminently ‘democratic’ lynchpins. There seems no other reason to explain how and why the Prime Minister, his men, and other ‘frontline warriors’ of India’s democracy are authorized to organize rallies and road shows where let alone the plebeians, a face mask would be impossible to locate on any of these eminences. Call it a ‘conundrum’, or call it ‘mixed messaging’, one is left wondering if the site of a ‘political rally’ or a ‘road show’ is a ‘private place’?
As regards the scientific fervor of government’s anti-Covid efforts right from the word go, the examples of how it has undermined the very essence of the ‘Science’ of ‘Epidemiology’ are a legion. These hardly need an elaboration as they seem to be immaterial to the designing of anti-Covid strategy, especially as the scientific community, which ought to have led the people in this regard, seems to have given up, either out of despondency, or out of complicity. With the Prime Minister asserting that “highly educated and skilled people were spreading terror and violence in the world”, and the terms ‘terror’ and ‘violence’ lending themselves as synonyms for any form of questioning under this regime, the portends for the scientific community couldn’t have been clearer.
It needs be borne in mind here that the Government and its agencies like Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Indian Council of Medical Research, and National Centre for Disease Control themselves suppressed information on mutant corona variant community transmission for over 3 months before the surge acquired its present proportions. Even the modern medical system in the country has kept pace with the Yoga and Cow medicine experts by continued use of over 20 intervention therapies none of which has shown any evidence of effectiveness despite one year of pandemic and crores of cases. The versatility of India’s fight against Corona added some ‘black humor’ to the prevailing mendacity when it sent even the World Health Organization (WHO) scurrying for cover from it. During the commercial launch of his acclaimed Covid cure – Tab Coronil, ‘Lala’ Ramdev announced in the presence of Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare, Harsh Vardhan, that his claim had even been certified by WHO. This was duly denied by WHO. Interestingly, a prominent Indian scientist, and former head of the country’s supreme medical research body – ICMR, Soumya Swaminathan is WHO’s Chief Scientist. India’s ‘National Pride’ couldn’t vie for a better exposition.
As regards the ‘Covaxin’ vaccine saga, this author couldn’t wish more that it shall ultimately prove to be ‘efficacious’ and ‘effective’ in altering the course of the pandemic. This notwithstanding the fact that license was granted for its use even in the absence of verifiable ‘Scientific’ evidence regarding its’ ‘safety’ and ‘efficacy’ in public sphere. Continuing lack of scientific evidence apart, with less than one percent of eligible target group having been covered by ‘two’ doses, the vaccine rollout is mired in bureaucratic red tape and digital mess, with vast marginalized population remaining at the edge of access to healthcare as ever. This however does not deter an assumed ‘sense of protection’ for the haves. One can only hope that this does not further confound the fight against Corona. Acute vaccine shortage is being reported from many states triggering a blame game between the Centre and the states, but the Prime Minister is lionizing himself and his government for India reaching out to other countries with vaccine diplomacy.
It would be worse than being naïve were one to presume any element of inadvertence in the present state of affairs. These attitudes are built into the genome of this regime, besides the fact that the regime has proven endearment to use precisely such situations to drive its divisive politics deeper into the body and soul of India. ‘Inhuman indifference’, and ‘motivated irresponsibility’ have been sine-qua-none of Modi government’s response to Covid. For this regime the pandemic is yet another tool to browbeat those who live by the sweat of their brow.
Speak up now my friend, for it is your and my life that is on the line.
( The writer is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health. Views are personal)