Ask not what the people could have done but what the government should have done
Ask yourself, what would you rather have your money spent on, projects like Central Vista, a palatial mansion for the Prime Minister or the Statue of Unity or better primary and secondary healthcare?
As I sit to write this article, the siren of an ambulance pierces the eerie silence and my 2 years old comes running to shout, “Ambulance going to hosipital!”. I have lost count of the number of sirens I hear in a day. And I know these are the lucky few who managed to secure an ambulance which is headed to a hospital. We will perhaps never know the actual number of people who died because of oxygen shortage, lack of a hospital bed, non-availability of drugs or because there was no ambulance; among other reasons.
‘Corona’ or ‘Covid’ features in almost every conversation we have. Be it with a friend, relative or the next door neighbour. However, one thing which seems to be missing at least in the privileged comfortable middle class circle, is any attempt to hold the government accountable. The moment one questions the government, one receives the staple reply of, “What could the government do? This pandemic is beyond everyone.” This is of course followed by ‘People Blaming’ or the nuanced, “Actually, it’s not the government but us people who are at fault, no one wore masks or followed social distancing. This was so sudden, what could the government have done?”. The news channels reaffirm this by their constant need to protect the Central government or insist on ‘positivity’.
Hearing these statements one gets an image of the government being this helpless person who despite good intentions has neither the means nor the power to help. But this is far from the truth. To begin with, the government is not a person but an institution with vast powers and resources at its disposal.
So let’s ask ourselves the question again, what could the government have done?
First and foremost the government could have listened to the report submitted by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare way back in November 2020. The 190 page report eerily predicts the possibility of a ‘second wave like in Europe’ and highlights the pitiable condition of public health and healthcare including shortage of medical oxygen and hospital beds. The Committee very specifically warns of a possible spike due to ‘super spreading forthcoming festive events in the country’ and asked for effective measures to control the scale.
However, despite being tabled in November 2020, the government failed to take the concerns seriously and celebrated the defeat of corona as an achievement. As early as January 2021, the Prime Minister publicly declared that contrary to predictions, India had defeated the virus and assured the world that India would supply ‘Made in India’ vaccines.
The truth is that till end March-early April, the general mood was one of celebration with the assumption that the worst of the pandemic was behind us. Mass religious events like the Kumbh were held with much fanfare and it seemed all restrictions were gone. Further, the fervour with which the Prime Minister and the Home Minister campaigned during state elections marveling at the large crowds, it seemed as if Covid was not a threat; clearly it was not a priority.
Till April, India was exporting vaccines to the world. In fact even after the Prime Ministers address on April 20, 2020, where the Prime Minister asked citizens to get vaccinated by 1st May 2021, a shipment of vaccines was being sent to Paraguay. Also, despite lofty assurances that things were under control, the Prime Minister’s speech provided no particulars or clear details on what was being done and how it would be done. Interestingly, on the last Independence Day the Prime Minister had publicly declared that once the vaccine is approved, he had “the road map for its production and distribution among Indians is also ready” but till date, there is no information on what this road map is.
Information has been one of the biggest casualties in the Modi regime. There is little or no dissemination of facts on the part of the government. They even seemed to fudge the number of doctors who died by claiming only 162 doctors had died in the first wave, prompting the Indian Medical Association to condemn it and state that 734 doctors had died.
Ironically, a government and a Prime Minister which invests so much in their own PR, failed to set up a robust Public Information system to make people aware about the disease. Yes, we have the computerised message coming before every call, but an advice to get vaccinated has no value when there are no vaccines available.
We needed information on hospitals where beds, oxygen and ventilators were available, ambulance services, medicine availability and most importantly information on the disease and how government planned to curb it, but all we got were caller tunes. In the absence of any clear messaging on part of the government, people were forced to rely on WhatsApp messages, which included use of cow dung and cow urine as one of the possible cures.
Perhaps, we could have allowed the Prime Minister’s excuse during the first wave that even developed nations were suffering, but that doesn’t hold true for the second wave. Countries which suffered in the first wave like the United States or even the United Kingdom, took measures to combat the second wave in advance. They set up expert panels to advice the government and formulated policies backed by science and data. But our government mocked constructive suggestions, even as a few brave experts lamented the fact that policy was not guided by evidence.
As the deaths seemed to dip a bit, the Prime Minister resurfaced. This time the messaging was as vague as before but the bravado of the previous speech was replaced by tears. The Internet had a field day with ‘crocodile tears’ trending everywhere and some even marveling as to how the camera person knew the correct time to focus before the Prime Minister started shedding tears.
Now, let us go back to the habit of equating the government to a person for a second. Imagine if the head of a family initially denied the fact that there was a crisis only to later crumble under the pressure and be reduced to tears. What would your advice be? You might either ask them to snap out of it and say now is not the time for tears but action or ask them to step back and let someone more equipped take charge or get angry at their incompetence or feel sorry for them and their family knowing that without solid action the tragedy will just increase.
When a leader is reduced to tears and there is no clear plan of action apart from empty rhetoric even as bodies float in the river, it is a clear sign of governance failure.
The plain simple truth is that the Indian government was neither prepared nor equipped nor willing to handle the pandemic. Instead of working towards strengthening public health, it wasted precious time in elections and PR stunts. Our government failed us, it failed to educate us about the disease, it failed to safeguard our right to health and it failed to safeguard the right of dignity even of the dead.
So the next time don’t say what could the government have done. The government could have and should have done much more. And if people are to be blamed, it is not for their carelessness in not following the restrictions but for not making public health an election issue. If we are to ensure that this crisis is not repeated, we need to demand for universal health care and greater budgetary allocation and focus on public healthcare.
Ask yourself what would you rather have your money spent on, projects like the Central Vista, a palatial mansion for the Prime Minister or the Statue of Unity or better primary and secondary healthcare?
The writer is a Supreme Court lawyer
Views are personal