Fudged figures, rampant profiteering, crumbling vaccination drive mark India’s descent into COVID apocalypse

It’s still not too late for govt to act. Let domain experts take over. Put politics aside. Divert all possible resources to help the distressed. Get bureaucracy to act without restraint

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Representative image
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Rahul Gul

If the citizens of a nation-state represent its soul, body and mind – which they surely do – India’s soul, body and mind are wilting by the hour due to the so-called second COVID wave, which in fact is a continuation of the COVID wave that hit us last year that the government of the day prematurely declared as having been ‘conquered’ earlier this year.

While it’s true that ‘COVID fatigue’ among a lot of people – who simply stopped observing measures such as masking up and social distancing – contributed to the monstrous revival of the disease in the country, it’s clearly the failure of the government to ramp up the health infrastructure even in major cities of the country, let alone the rural hinterland which is now literally as much up in flames as urban centres, during the last one year, which is responsible for the horrific situation at hand.

That’s because, quite clearly, it’s not COVID that’s killing people, but rather the lack of treatment for COVID.

As a result of this state of gross under-preparedness, thousands of terrified people are not even able to avail such a basic thing as clinical tests to determine whether a person is COVID negative or positive. One is not able to arrange for a RT-PCR test even in the national Capital, and the accredited laboratories are so swamped with the number of samples that their test results can no longer be trusted, even as little-known fly-by-night operators are duping unsuspecting people by simply collecting the money and disappearing.

As for government labs set up in schools and dispensaries, this columnist personally went to several of them recently in south Delhi for running a test on someone in the household displaying flu-like symptoms, and found all of them claiming they had run out of kits after one had spent hours under the sun in queues.

This situation in the capital of the country puts a huge question mark on the very basic figure of the number of people testing positive for COVID in the country officially put out every day by the Union government, now said to be below the earlier high of over 4 lakh. Indeed, the actual figure, as per some quarters, is estimated to be around ten times that, as reported in National Herald earlier.

This also gives the lie to claims made by politicians such as Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal that ‘positivity figures are falling’ and the number of infected people have ‘reached a plateau’.

This fudging of figures, which is what it really amounts to, extends to another crucial parameter which is also circulated everyday, which is the number of deaths in the country caused by COVID. Besides the govt-mandated practice to attribute deaths among a certain percentage of COVID patients admitted to healthcare facilities to their co-morbilities, there is a huge mismatch in the official death toll and the number of dead bodies arriving at crematoriums and burial grounds all around the country.

One had the misfortune of witnessing this first-hand at a relatively little-known cremation ground in Delhi in the last week of April, where over 30 funeral pyres were alight and bodies were arriving en masse in small transport vehicles like some commodity. There was no one to record the cause of death, and not even any semblance of respect for the dead, with the bodies simply being directed to a spot and set on fire using dung cakes. What about wood? ‘That used to be the case earlier, not now,’ a pandit simply said.

Some sections of the international media have already highlighted the alarming under-reporting of COVID deaths in the country. Recently, an analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington (IHME) said that COVID-19 has killed 6.9 million people worldwide, more than double the 3.2 million deaths that have been officially reported.

At 574,000 deaths, the US has reported more COVID-19 casualties than any other country. But the IHME report estimates the US death toll at more than 905,000 people — around 58% higher. As for India, the report says that the official number of deaths could be a third of the actual number due to under-reporting. As such, the actual number could be as high as 654,395.

The IHME added that India is estimated to surpass the US in terms of total COVID-19 deaths by September, accounting for 1.4 million deaths, according to its model. The actual number could be even higher.

What will surely contribute to a high number of deaths is the dawdling pace of COVID vaccination in the country, the only measure to save lives. As a result of the government announcing a ‘liberalised phase 3’ of the vaccination policy, throwing it open for those in the 18-44 age band, there is now a huge shortage of vaccines even for those aged over 45 and 60, who actually need it far more than younger people.

No appointment slots are available in vaccination centers even in the national capital, and when they are, the centers are hugely overcrowded, thus emerging as the new ‘super spreaders’ of COVID.

Reams have already been written over the issue of the unfair pricing mechanism of the vaccines. It is only if we return to the model of the national immunisation programme with procurement by the Central government and distribution by the states; vaccinate all people in India free of charge; and use powers under the Patents Act for issuing government authorisation, compulsory licensing or contract manufacturing in appropriate cases, that we can ensure that the vaccine rollout proceeds smoothly and doesn't turn out to be another disaster.

The vaccination policy, as it stand now, could well turn so chaotic that opportunistic sections of people could well plant fake vaccines in the system besides indulge in profiteering.

After all, there is profiteering going on even in conducting the last rites of a person, right in the national Capital. This columnist dealt with a person linked to a well-known firm acting as a wedding planner, which has now metamorphosed into a ‘last journey of life’ planner, who demanded Rs 35,000 to ‘arrange’ cremation of a loved one at some unknown village on the outskirts of Delhi. He demanded, and received, some advance payment, and after a decision was taken not to go there, he actually kept making intimidating calls.

Media reports and desperate social media posts have already revealed the shortage, leading to profiteering and fakery, of oxygen cylinders and concentrators, Remdesivir injections and even surgical gloves, with the police recently busting a gang recycling used gloves. What is relatively lesser known is how healthcare facilities are indulging in profiteering over admitting desperate COVID patients.

One personally encountered this when a loved one needed urgent hospitalisation. After dozens of calls and SOS messages to volunteers and information providers on social media platforms failed to generate any real lead, the person had to be admitted to a small time nursing home located in Faridabad which charged an astounding Rs 50,000 per day.

Another relative in the extended family, who was gasping for breath after contracting COVID, was admitted to a ‘community centre’ in Faridabad being run by ESIC Hospital there – a chain of nationwide healthcare facilities run under the aegis of the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment – after her family was forced to arrange for Rs 5 lakh as a bribe!

Anti-graft watchdog Transparency International India has, in fact, flagged this ‘second epidemic’ of corruption in the country, calling upon the government to set up district-level control rooms and take other measures to put a check on such issues.

Could another government have handled the COVID crisis better? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But one thing is for sure: it’s unlikely that another government would have gone ahead with conceptualising and then actually implementing the Central Vista project smack in the middle of the COVID apocalypse, for one. The images of JCBs tearing through the stately stretch of Raj Path even as thousands of Indians struggle to save their lives amid the raging pandemic are surreal and unreal.

And super spreader events such as the Kumbh mela at Haridwar and state Assembly elections held with all the accompanying fanfare could surely have been deferred.

Media reports of the government engaging in so-called ‘positivity’ exercises in the midst of the unimaginable human tragedy ravaging the country too seem to be something that would perhaps not even have occurred to another government.

Considering the fact that the situation is likely to remain as bad in the foreseeable future, notwithstanding claims such as that the whole country would be vaccinated by the year-end – which in itself may not be the solution in view of reports that vaccines may be ineffective against mutations being undergone by the virus – the government can still act.

It’s still not too late. Let the domain experts take over. Put politics aside. Divert all possible resources to fight the virus and help the distressed. Stop fudging figures. Get the bureaucracy to act without restraint. Crack down on profiteering. Invoke compulsory licensing provisions for COVID drugs and vaccines.

There are dark clouds hovering over this great country, with most of its citizens anxious if they will even survive this catastrophe. It is the moral and fundamental duty of the government of the day to ensure that this terrible period does not go down in the annals of human history as one of humanity’s darkest hours.

(Views are personal)

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Published: 14 May 2021, 7:13 PM