Images of burning pyres flooding out of crematoriums, top hospitals stretching themselves thin beyond full capacity, Twitter and Instagram flooded with SOS calls for oxygen supply, people running from pillar to post just to procure prescribed drugs, helpless faces looking as their loved ones gather their last bit of strength to breathe and fail! Ultimately and in fact, through it all, was not it the failure of the government as it failed its people? It is one thing to hear of a loss of a loved one, it is quite another to see them choke to death — just because the “system” collapsed. No, not just the respiratory system here, but the system run by our elected leaders!
The people of the country, a few years ago, heard our leader promise to defend and protect his country, once sworn in as the Prime Minister. We remember the chest-thumping during the surgical strikes as BJP chief reiterated when terrorist hide-outs were destroyed in Pakistan, “Modi has shown he is a man with 56-inch chest!”. The patriarch, the strong man, the embodiment of this ultra-masculine spirit spoke of a “chamatkaar“, promised us “Acche Din“. Little did we know that the promise of a “chamatkaar” implied that the people of the country would actually have to rely on the miracle of prayers; little did we know that many of our loved ones would not be able to live long enough to see the “Acche Din”, as the country struggled to get its act together in the face of a raging pandemic.
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A Crumbling System or A Government in Denial?
Today, those who lost their loved ones in this battle against COVID-19 and against the crumbling “system” for the lack of basic oxygen supply are questioning the commitment of those who head the system to protect the people: What do I do with a 56-inch chest when there is no oxygen to take in for saving the lives of our loved ones and with new infections averaging more than 370,000 per day, as India becomes one of the worst-hit nations by the pandemic? The second wave of the pandemic hit India hard and we had to struggle for dignity even in death, with some sections facing disproportionate pressure as people have had to wait in line for their turn to cremate the dead at the crematoriums struggling with the influx of the corpses.
In the face of criticism, suddenly the central government remembered that India operates through a federal structure and that health is a state-subject, when until yesterday the government was interfering, wherever possible, in the business of the states. The blame game took a new low when on one side we saw tweets by the state governments for help in oxygen supply and on the other hand leaders from the ruling party blatantly denying any oxygen shortage. This is reflective of the unpreparedness of the centre, when in fact the PMO was warned of the impending catastrophic oxygen shortage as early as April 1st.
When make-shift hospitals should have been the priority of the PM, the man with his team camped in West Bengal, organised huge rallies, in violation of all the COVID-19 protocols, turning into a super-spreader, boasted of a love for the crowd, when people elsewhere were literally dying as we saw hospitals overcrowded and the death toll stands at more than 215,542.
The politics of virulent nationalism has to us come at a grave cost — we saw how attempts were made to communalise the virus, with hashtags like Corona Jihad doing the rounds in the early days of the pandemic, as Muslims were labelled as “corona Bombs“. I see two pictures in contrast, wherein the government swings into action to charge the Tablighi jam’at in violation of the COVID-19 protocols, and on the other side is our PM who humbly “requests“ the designated heads to call off the Kumbh Mela where thousands of devotees tested positive for the virus. When the 56-inch is a trope of bravery, today we ask, are the ones using the trope also brave enough to take the responsibility for this ‘man-made’ disaster in one of those one-sided Mann Ki Baat addresses to the people who are out on the streets, lying in ambulances gasping for oxygen, especially since asking for a press conference is well, out of question? Or is ensuring basic public health care services to every citizen of the country not a chapter in their textbook on nationalism?
Statistics that hint at mismanagement as the crisis response
Let us also talk about the COVID-19 response of the government in terms of the vaccination drive and health budget. We boast of the largest vaccination drive, which is obvious, given our populations statistics. More than 16.04 crore vaccinations have been administered across India, according to the May 5 update. The pace of the vaccination drive has slowed down, data showed. Further, despite being the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, the country is suffering an internal shortage of vaccines.
Let us therefore also look at other statistics that contribute directly to the mismanagement in handling of the pandemic. India’s defence budget sits at approximately 66.5 billion dollars, which makes it the third biggest military spender while as our health budget is around 7 billion dollars, which is one of the lowest. Not that we do not have money, it is a question less about resources and more about resource-allocation and planned distribution. We have almost 9 doctors per 10,000 people; 0.5 beds per 1000 people and only 2.9 ventilators per 1,00,000 people. As of now, this is the condition of the health-infrastructure with positivity rate of a little above 8%. Among these, cases that require oxygen support and medicines such as antiviral Remdesivir stand at only 10-15% of the total cases and only 5% of the cases require ventilator. Now you can imagine for yourself, if this is how India fares, given these statistics, as we see the health infrastructure crumbling, what can happen if the crisis worsens or numbers go up even slightly! It is nothing less than accurate as the Allahbad High Court recently observed, “Deaths due to lack of oxygen are no less than a ‘genocide'”.
Theatrics of a masculinist Nation-State amidst a Raging Pandemic
Whenever India faced an external challenge, be it of terrorism or trade crisis, our PM was quick to retaliate — for the masculinist aggressive nation-state had a clear enemy identified; whenever an internal crisis brewed in, again they were quick in identifying a potential adversary within, using active forms of other-ing, be it the religious minorities or caste minority communities like the Dalits. A similar pattern could be sensed this time too. The latest move comes from two angles: one, giving communal overtones to the post-poll violence in Bengal by circulating fake videos to distract the country from the main focus which is the COVID crisis; the second angle can be captured by looking at how politicians like Tejasvi Surya attempted to frame the bed scam in Bengaluru attempting to create a Hindu-Muslim divide and not in terms of supply-demand gap. However, this time the crisis at hand is too large, the experiences too real to sit back at home on a couch to enjoy the roaring news debates and the stakes too high to be ridiculed. The good man seems good only as long as there is a bad man, however this time there is no bad man but bad health infrastructure, an ailing government ‘system’ and a bad virus that calls for scientific outreach instead of the diya jalao and thali bajao acts.
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Today, the nation actually wants to know why its people have been abandoned by the government that was supposed to take care of the people when it needed its government the most. Are not all governments based on this social contract and trusteeship? The promises of Sabka Vikaas aur Sabka Vishwaas do not appear remotely in sight. These are the appropriate times when we must ask, “What about the tax-payers money?” We must refrain from glorifying the helplessness of the people of the country who were left with no option but to put in a concerted effort to help each other with oxygen and medicine, along with some NGOs and voluntary groups – a job no one amongst us but the government had signed up for in the first place.
Perhaps, it is high time we realised that one requires a government that can pull in a holistic approach to develop a public health infrastructure and give science its due by heeding to the warnings of the experts, instead of the “hardwork better than Harvard” approach that belittles forecasts of experts. This perhaps is a difficult lesson for the people of the country too: that the nation is not a stage for a bunch of troupers to perform on and that one needs a government that is sensitive enough to the needs of the time, to the demands of the situation and to the cries of its citizens to not abandon its own people.