Mishandling of the pandemic takes the sheen off the campaign to hail Prime Minister Modi

Hailed as Vaccine Guru in February, the orchestrated acclaim for the PM was said to be designed to promote his eligibility for the Nobel Peace Prize that will be announced in October

Mishandling of the pandemic takes the sheen off the campaign to hail Prime Minister Modi

Sarosh Bana

A brutally mishandled Covid-19 crisis is seeing bodies piling up in crematoria against the backdrop of a crumbling healthcare infrastructure.

It is a catastrophe of biblical proportions as funeral pyres blaze and cemeteries jam with bodies of those felled by the virus or by endless waits outside hospitals that have run out of beds, ICUs, medical oxygen and supplies, life-saving drugs – and vaccines.

In unprecedented grisly scenes, states like Gujarat are seeing up to four bodies heaped onto one pyre, whereas in UP’s Ghaziabad rows of bodies are being burnt in the streets or on footpaths as cremation and burial grounds have run short of space. Morgues are unable to cope with the barrage of corpses. Overwhelmed hospitals are cramming two Covidafflicted patients to a bed, or at times on the floor in passages, even as numberless others have died while shuttling from hospital to hospital in search of beds.

The anguished cries of the grieving rise above the unabating wail of ambulance sirens as the attention of the central government remains riveted on election campaigning in West Bengal, the state where the BJP has raised its stakes so high that it finds it difficult to climb down.

As the second wave of infections inundates India more treacherously than the first, swelling the country’s case load to the highest globally, ahead of both US and Brazil, people urged the government to postpone the elections on fears they would be “super spreaders” of the virus. But the government went ahead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other national leaders holding mass rallies in five poll-bound states -- Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala -- where almost everybody, including themselves, were without masks and social distancing. Similar futile appeals were made for calling off the religious festival of Kumbh mela – the largest congregation in the world, with usual turnouts of 35 to 50 million – being held on the banks of the Ganga in north India from April 1 to April 30.

Modi’s photograph garnished government advertisements and hoardings bearing his salutation: “Holy Kumbh mela offers devotees from the country and abroad a special occasion to witness the spiritual, cultural and social diversity of India.”

These events were allowed to be held even as almost half the country is under strictures imposed under the Disaster Management Act to break the chain of virus, and even as Prime Minister Modi repeatedly cautioned the public, “If you are careless and going out without a mask, you are putting yourself, your family, your family’s children, and the elderly in great trouble.”

In the very manner the government had disastrously delayed preparing for the pandemic early last year as it was busy pulling down the opposition-ruled government in Madhya Pradesh and in focusing on arrangements for then US President Donald Trump’s 36-hour India visit in February. It also spent considerable time on managing defections from the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.

As stocks of vaccines, Remdesivir and medical oxygen ran dry, the Centre went into denial and accused opposition-ruled states of politicising the matter. Despite reports of an acute shortage, large scale theft, black market sales, counterfeiting and even clandestine export of Remdesivir -- a broad-spectrum antiviral medication that is said to hasten recovery for Covid patients -- Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan asserted, “There is no shortage of Remdesivir.”

At one of his rallies in West Bengal, Modi mockingly admonished the crowds: “I have a grouse against you – look at the staggering numbers you all have come out in to greet me!” Many wondered whether the Prime Minister was really oblivious to the reality of the pandemic. The stressed public feels victimised by the Centre’s political battles with opposition states.

Aggravating their plight has been the government’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ in exporting 64.5 million doses of vaccine to 84 countries across the world in the early days since vaccination commenced on January 16, while only 52.1 million doses had been administered in India. This has derailed the objective of achieving herd immunity through inoculation.

It was only when vaccine shortages gripped other states and the daily toll surged relentlessly that the government acknowledged the grim situation and sanctioned vaccine imports. But it was three weeks too late. Justifying the vaccine exports, the Prime Minister affirmed that “India was ready to save humanity”, a view echoed by other government leaders, with the twist that it was Modi personally who was the saviour of mankind.

This orchestrated acclaim is widely believed to promote Modi’s eligibility for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize that will be announced in October and the 329 nominees of which include the World Health Organisation (WHO) for its COVAX programme to secure fair access to vaccines for poor countries.

Tirath Singh Rawat, Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, the state hosting the Kumbh Mela, equated Modi with the exalted Hindu god Lord Ram: “Lord Ram worked for the same society and people started to believe that he was a god; in the coming time, Narendra Modi will also be seen at par with him [Lord Ram].”

On April 21, India recorded 3.14 lakh new Covid cases and 2104 deaths in a span of 24 hours. Prior to India, only the United States recorded more than three lakh cases in a single day in January this year. During the peak of the first wave, India’s daily case tally did not cross the one lakh mark.

This prompted Maharashtra Cabinet minister Nawab Malik to state: “If all vaccination certificates carry the Prime Minister’s photo, then the death certificates of the Covid victims should also bear his image.” (Views are Personal)

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