What next? Why is India still worried?
After 53 days of unprecedented lockdown we should have felt safer and more optimistic. Yet, from migrants to the middle class, Indians are more worried than ever.
The promise of a Rs 20 lakh Crore package to tide over the present crisis, a rush of policy changes and laws diluted and tweaked in recent days have done little to with four hour notices end the anxiety of most Indians. They are worried because of rising doubts about the Government’s capacity to deal with the crisis.
This Government has seldom taken people into confidence, repeatedly catching them by surprise by giving them four-hour notices before Demonetisation and the lockdown, for example. But people have by and large put their trust in the Government and did what they were told to do. They banged pans and pots, lit lamps, clapped and stayed at home. Those who could afford donated money, looked after people they could and a large section of the middle-class dutifully downloaded the contact tracing app, Arogya Setu.
But if Indians are still anxious, it is largely because we are finding it increasingly difficult to trust what the Government tells us. After the first lockdown of 21 days, which the PM had said would be sufficient to win the war, he congratulated us (he was actually congratulating himself) for having beaten the virus. The Solicitor General of India told the Supreme Court that no migrant was on the street despite evidence to the contrary. The Chief Economic Advisor said on TV that there was no rural distress because people had not withdrawn money from PMJDY (Jan Dhan Yojana) accounts. Now Union Minister Piyush Goyal has claimed the Government has not allowed anyone to starve despite hundreds of NGOs struggling to feed the hungry. Ministers like Goyal do not seem to have a clue about what Bharat is going through.
The Government had confidently declared that after the second lockdown period ended on May 3, the number of new cases would start dropping and after May 16, no new cases of COVID-19 would be reported. With Lockdown 3.0 ending on May 16, Health ministry officials are now sheepishly admitting that the number of cases will possibly peak in June or July and that we must learn to live with the coronavirus.
On March 25, total COVID-19 cases hovered around 500, but as Lockdown 4.0 begins, the number of cases has spiralled beyond 85 thousand. Even as the figures themselves are contested and widely suspected to be a case of under-reporting, following limited number of tests and the protocol not allowing tests of asymptomatic carriers and people with other serious ailments, there is neither clarity nor any explanation about why so many cases have surfaced after the first lockdown of 21 days ended on April 15, when total number of cases were said to be just 11,000.
People are confused because they were told that the incubation period of the coronavirus was 14 days--during which symptoms would manifest. But after 53 days of the lockdown, there is no clarity about the road forward or what happened during this period and why.
One disturbing information after another has surfaced during this time. The leaked minutes of a meeting held at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences suggested that scientists had opposed a ‘China style lockdown’. Their suggestion was brushed aside. Then came the revelation that private hospitals had been allowed to conduct tests for COVID-19 and charge Rs 4,400 per test. Soon thereafter surfaced reports that test kits imported from China at a landing cost of Rs 245 had
Why is India still worried? After 50 days of unprecedented lockdown we should have felt safer and more optimistic. The Government would be better prepared, one assumes, to deal with the pandemic. There is also nothing to worry about the economy, it has claimed. Yet, from migrants to the middle class, Indians are more worried than ever. been sold to ICMR for Rs 600. As if that was not enough, ICMR admitted that the test kits were found to be defective and advised state governments, which had already been supplied the kits, not to use them.
That was not all. We now know that Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP), which issued weekly alerts on epidemics and diseases, was asked to stop issuing the alerts in February. IDSP had been doing this for several years since it was set up in 2004. There is no explanation yet why this was stopped after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a pandemic on January 30.
What comes as the proverbial last straw is the information that during this period the central government did not think it necessary to consult scientists, doctors and administrators who have previous experience of successfully combating pandemics. That these experts were not even deemed suitable for advisory positions reflects poorly on the government.
What is equally unnerving is the union government’s blatant attempts to blame everyone else. Migrant workers, it says, defied the lockdown and paid no heed to the PM’s plea to stay where they were when the lockdown began. It refuses to accept that it was a mistake to enforce the lockdown at short, four hours’ notice. It blames Tablighi Jamaat for spreading the virus but ignores the possibility that the much larger assemblies elsewhere, including the ‘Namaste Trump’ event could also have spread the virus. State governments, it says, failed to contain the virus and enforce the lockdown. But it treats opposition ruled states and BJP ruled states differently. The Union Home Minister’s warnings to West Bengal and Maharashtra are communicated to pliable media. But when it comes to Gujarat, the Home Minister directs the AIIMS director to be flown to Ahmedabad in a special Air Force plane to advise doctors there. It also refuses to acknowledge that state governments are bankrupt and have not been paid even their dues. The opposition, it complains, did not cooperate with the government in dealing with the crisis. But it refuses to admit that it never consulted the opposition or held regular, all-party meetings.
A Government running away from responsibility and blaming others does not inspire much confidence. What is also worrying is the Government’s failure to educate and reassure people. Advertising campaigns, live addresses on TV, the contact tracing app and streaming messages into inboxes and smart phones have not been able to remove fear and the stigma attached to the virus. That is why when a doctor and his school teacher wife died in Delhi of COVID-19 earlier in May, leaving behind two teenaged sons, the children were hounded by members of the Housing Society. They were accused of not informing the society that their parents were unwell. With no evidence yet of the virus being airborne, fear that a coronavirus positive patient in the society was necessarily endangering lives of others is irrational but continues to be widespread.
It was again this fear and the lack of clarity that led to a scuffle between Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh police at the state borders near Mathura. Rajasthan Police wanted migrants walking back to UP and beyond to pass while UP Police wanted none of it. Accusing Rajasthan Police of trying to push migrants into UP, they put up barricades and jostled with their counterparts from the neighbouring state. The absurdity was not confined to only this incident. Gurugram in Haryana sealed its border with Delhi in a bid to stop the virus from entering while Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh advised doctors residing in Ghaziabad but working in Delhi to make arrangements to live in Delhi itself. Housing societies in Ghaziabad issued notices asking doctors to leave. In Malegaon the BJP MP was reported to have pleaded against hospitals treating patients from an assembly constituency dominated by the minority community.
Amidst such confusion and chaos, the government chose to make the contact tracing app Arogya Setu mandatory for everyone by an executive fiat. What has made confusion even more confounding is a large number of similar apps developed by the states, though they have not been made mandatory. The legality of the app apart, there are doubts about the efficacy of the Arogya Setu app. The Government continues to peddle it as a vital tool to fight the pandemic. But doubts remain. Some users may not report symptoms or delay reporting out of fear of being ostracized. The asymptomatic carriers of the virus are not even required to report anything since they show no symptom.
In other words, even when the app shows a person to be ‘safe’, the user could well be carrying the virus. It has also been reported that the app can be hacked and a false ‘safe’ message shown on the screen. Yet, the Government is reportedly mulling over making the app compulsory for boarding trains and flights. Nobody will be accountable though if the supposedly ‘safe’ and asymptomatic carriers infect other passengers during the journey. Even otherwise there are reasons to be sceptical about the app. Does the health ministry have the wherewithal to intervene and help? The data might help the Centre identify areas from where symptoms get reported and divide localities into Green, orange and red zones. But such zoning offers no guarantee that the infected will receive proper counselling, medical advice and treatment. But people have developed a false sense of security, making them believe that the app would keep them safe.
When blood and urine tests have been known to give false readings, not surprisingly, tests for COVID-19 have also come up with frequent false positive or false negative reports, another reason why the app is less than useful. This week itself, four quarantined Air India pilots were first reported to have tested positive and within days were said to have tested negative. This is not surprising because these tests are being conducted for the first time and technicians skilled enough to carry out the tests are limited. The number of labs capable of conducting the test, the Government had claimed, had gone up to 140 or so from 62 in March.
While the current figure is not known, with as many as 739 districts in India, what it means is that labs with testing facilities are still concentrated in select cities and most of the districts do not have labs to test for the coronavirus. The parable of the blind men of ‘Indostan’ appears to be particularly apt at times like these.
The parable, which finds a mention in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu texts, speaks of truth and perception, of reality in whole and in parts. The blind men are taken to the elephant but each one touches a part of it and decides that the elephant is like the trunk of a tree, like a wall or like a fan. They were all individually correct and yet they were all wrong. There is an elephant in the room. But we refuse to see it.