Last year in the month of March, when many leaders of India’s opposition were pointing out the Modi government’s lack of planning and preparedness to deal with the coronavirus, the Union Health Minister accused of them ‘petty politics’ and ‘spreading fear’. He confidently and loudly declared that the government is fully prepared to deal with any situation. While the Minister was fuming against India’s political opposition, the Health Ministry was at the same time choosing to ignore warning from its own scientists from the ICMR who had already published research papers warning against a strict lockdown and a top-down approach to dealing with the pandemic. Not surprisingly, the government ignored the warnings. This arrogant, callous, ignorant and pompous response of the Union Health Minster along with a healthy dose of spin doctoring and data fudging, has been the go-to method of the Modi government to deal with the Covid pandemic that has engulfed the globe for over a year now.
Exactly one year since the national lockdown was announced, India is in the middle of a deadly second wave with no beds in hospitals, ambulances queuing up outside hospitals, patients dying at the gates of hospitals, tests taking nearly a week to return a result and overflowing crematoriums. Many have lost family, friends and loved ones and when questions have been put to the government about its lack of preparedness, cabinet minister Piyush Goyal tells us that people are demanding too much oxygen! The Minister is essentially saying that we are all supposed to breath carbon dioxide to reduce our oxygen consumption. Along with blaming people and their struggles to live for the pandemic, the Modi government has been trying to pass on blame for the havoc caused by the second wave to the state governments. This needs to be called out at all levels. After taking all the crucial decisions unilaterally – such as the decision to impose a lockdown, to dictate testing policy and vaccine production and distribution – Narendra Modi now wants the States to bear the brunt of the second wave.
Officially, by mid-April, India became the country with the world’s second highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, second only to the United States. However, it is widely held by experts that India is in fact the worst hit – the real horror of the situation is being suppressed by official numbers, by keeping testing low, and underreporting Covid-19 deaths.
On 20 April 2021, PM Modi in another anodyne address to the nation said lockdown should be the last measure for countering the spread of the virus. But the same man said exactly the opposite a year ago! On 23 March 2020, he announced a national lockdown by giving a warning of just four hours. It was a decision taken without consulting any of the states. It was the hardest lockdown imposed by any country, and left millions of workers hungry and without any means to survive. The lockdown, as it soon became evident, was a colossal waste. The only tangible outcome from it was the suffering and destitution of millions.
An investigation by journalists Nitin Sethi and Kumar Sambhav had revealed that Modi was told by scientists at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in April last year that the lockdown would help in preventing infections only to the tune of 20-25%. In a study conducted by the ICMR it emerged that the best use of the lockdown would be to prepare for an eventual surge of cases – which is exactly what we are witnessing today. What is clear now is that the Modi government, which unilaterally imposed the lockdown, totally failed to build up medical facilities, testing capacities, ICU beds and oxygen facilities. An announcement was made with much fanfare in October about the construction of Oxygen plants in 150 districts across India. An investigation by the news website Scroll has found that it took 8 months to just float tenders. Out of a planned 162 such plants, only 33 have been built. Such criminal lethargy has cost hundreds of lives in the second wave, where people are literally dying at hospital gates looking for oxygen. In UP, a journalist Vinay Srivastava literally live tweeted his death, as he failed to get admitted in a hospital and get an oxygen cylinder. The whole country is today paying for the carelessness of the Modi government to prepare for the second wave. While the spin doctors in the media might tell us that ‘all are equally’ responsible, this is just a ruse to hide the failures of the Modi government. Let us not forget that the Prime Minster basically created a slush fund and called it PM CARES. There is no transparency about how all the funds collected have been utilized. Modi, who centralized all decision-making within the CMO, cannot now get away by saying that it is the responsibility of the states. The buck stops with him and his government.
The Delhi HC repeatedly ordered the Modi Government to divert all industrial oxygen towards hospitals, in view of the acute oxygen shortage in hospitals in Delhi and all over India. “Why is the Centre not waking up to the gravity of the situation? We are shocked and dismayed hospitals running out of oxygen but steel plants are running,” said the HC bench, adding “The steel and petrochemical industries are oxygen guzzlers and diverting oxygen from there can meet hospitals' requirements. This is the height of greed. Is there no sense of humanity left or not?”
The HC also held the Central Government responsible for “criminal wastage of vaccines.” Referring to instances of hoarding of antiviral medicines, the HC said that if the Government failed to ensure supply of such medicines to hospitals on the basis of needs, it would have “blood on its hands.”
On 24 April 2020, V K Paul, a member of the Covid task force of the government of India in a press conference released a bizarre graph predicting India would flatten the infection curve by 16 May 2020. This was baffling to many who simply could not figure out the science behind this outrageous claim. In the early days of the epidemic, this attitude proved to instructive, as it was a telling symbol of the government’s priorities. The Modi government’s first priority has always been to declare victory and making ridiculous claims of Modi being the hero of India’s fight against Covid.
The government was of course helped in its triumphalist narratives by many in the media who lost no chance to declare victory with Modi as the General and snigger at scientists, doctors and public health activists who warned against declaring victory too early.
On 7 March 2021, India’s Health Minister Harshvardhan declared ‘We are in the endgame of the Covid-19 pandemic in India. While we know that he has been proved spectacularly wrong, he cannot claim that the second wave ambushed the government. By September last year, scientists across the world had started detecting variant strains of the virus in different parts of the world. Variant strains can be identified through a method of genome sequencing; but again the Modi government was completely lax in its approach in carrying this out. It was only in January, when the spread of the UK strain was revealed, did we scale up gene sequencing in India. In February of this year, Dr. Randeep Guleria, AIIMS Director and member of the Covid Task force of the government of India, himself admitted in a discussion at the Jaipur Lit Fest that herd immunity is no guarantee against newer strains and till the population gets vaccinated there will always be danger of another wave. But instead of listening to its own experts, the government and its spokespersons were happy to gloat about the unique immunity of Indians against the virus, even though the science was saying exactly the opposite.
On 21 February 2021, the National Office Bearers meeting of the ruling BJP in Delhi passed a resolution which spoke of the pandemic in the past tense, and declared: “it can be said with pride that India defeated Covid under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. The party unequivocally hails its leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against Covid.”
BJP’s and Modi’s chest-thumping of a few weeks ago seems to mock the Indians gasping for breath today.
Despite knowing the possibility of the outbreak of another round of infections, the Modi government and the BJP plunged the state of West Bengal into an eight-phase election (there is no point taking the name of the EC separately here because it has become an extension of the ruling party for all practical purposes). It allowed the Kumbh Mela to go on, a place where literally millions congregated for nearly a week and became a veritable super spreader. Modi cannot escape responsibility for this by appealing to end the Kumbh when the main Shahi Snans have been completed. There are now reports galore from different parts of the country about pilgrims returning from Haridwar testing positive in huge numbers. Let us also not forget the thousands of maskless spectators that were allowed to see cricket matches in the ‘Narendra Modi Stadium’ in Ahmedabad.
Ministers of the government are today blaming ordinary people of lack of mask discipline and failing to follow distancing norms. This is being cited as the reason for the second wave. But is it really true? It is the Modi government which has been claiming since the end of last year that the virus has been defeated. Modi, at the World Economic Forum, claimed that India had defeated Covid. The messaging from the Prime Minster, the Health Minster, other minsters and MPs from the BJP over that last four months has been: we have defeated corona. In the face of such messaging, amplified by the IT Cell and spokespersons in the Media, it is not surprising that the perception among the general populace was that the virus was a thing of the past and with the vaccination program people would be safe. Blaming people for demanding too much oxygen or for not following precautions is totally irresponsible. It was Modi and the central government which has been announcing victory over the virus. Turning around now and blaming people when the Prime Minister and the Home Minister attend election rallies and roadshows without masks is pure hubris and arrogance.
Narendra Modi never loses any chance to claim that India is the vaccine maker of the world and that we can produce enough vaccines not just for our population but also for other countries who do not have similar infrastructure to produce vaccines. Such claims today ring hollow and feel a million miles away as India is grappling with an acute vaccine shortage which is not going to go away anytime soon whichever way the government spins it.
By October last year, it was clear that by the end of the year the world is going to have a number of vaccines at its disposal. The normal thing for any government to do would have been to invest in expanding production facilities and making advance commitments to purchase vaccines. But not t he Modi government which was busy in a continuous PR exercise about its handling of the Coronavirus. It was only in January that the government gave a purchase order of 45 million doses, that too just five days before the start of the vaccination program on 17t January 2021 and for another 100 million in March 2021; whereas even to vaccinate the whole population above the age of 45 it would require 800 million doses. The Serum Institute which produces Covishield has a production capacity of 65-70 million doses per month and Bharat Biotech can produce around 5 million doses of Covaxin. The numbers point towards only one thing, India is staring down an acute shortage of vaccines. Added to this is a fund crunch for vaccine manufacturers. In November, the government announced a Rs. 900 crore project for covid vaccines but the actual manufacturers of the vaccines, the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech have yet to receive anything from this project.
Epidemiologists all over the world have been warning of a second wave of Covid-19, and also warning of mutations that may be even more virulent than the original strain. In the first wave, India showed a relatively low death rate, which some sought to explain in terms of higher immunity of Indians. But many experts had warned that new strains might hit India harder.
Not just experts, Opposition politicians too had warned the government against complacency. Exactly a year ago, in April 2020 for instance, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had warned that the “Lockdown is a pause button, it won’t defeat Covid.” Left parties, including the CPIML, have been demanding an effective increase in public health infrastructure to cope with a fresh pandemic wave, as well as ensuring a safety net in the form of economic support and food rations for migrant workers and rural poor. The Government did none of this.
The time before the second wave hit us was the ideal period to maximize vaccinations. This did not happen because of two reasons. Firstly, the opacity surrounding the clinical trials of Covaxin prompted a wave of vaccine hesitancy and secondly the eligibility criteria was too narrow. As a result many who were less than 45 years of age and were willing could not get the vaccine. As the second wave hit us, there was a surge of demand and unsurprisingly, we are faced with an acute shortage of vaccines with shortages being reported from Maharashtra, Odisha, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and many other states. As a result even the so called ‘Teeka Utsav’ was a damp squib with average vaccination numbers actually falling during that period. In the week the so called Utsav was held, the per day average of vaccinations actually fell from 3.6 million to 2.7 million per day. Going by the current pace of vaccinations and supply crunch it will be at least till October that the population above 45 years will be fully vaccinated with two doses administered. As we write this, only about 1.5% of India’s population has been administered two doses and around 8% have got at least one jab. Modi will keep spinning a tale that we are the fastest to vaccinate 100 crore of the population compared to other countries, but he will not tell us that in terms of percentage of population – after all that is what matters in any mass vaccination program – we are not even in the top 60 in the globe.
Dr Kafeel Khan was hounded for years by the Yogi Government in UP for coming to the aid of babies and patients in a Gorakhpur Government hospital where patients were dying for lack of oxygen. For raising the issue of corruption and callousness creating a chronic oxygen shortage in Indian hospitals, he was jailed, his family attacked.
Today, the whole country is going through what the Gorakhpur hospital did in 2017. Had the government heeded him instead of hounding him, Indians might be in a better situation today.
After much criticism from opposition leaders and Chief Ministers, the government of India has opened up vaccination for 18 years and above. It has allowed States to buy directly from manufacturers from 1 May. But the devil lies in the details. All those who are 18 years and above have to pay for the vaccine at a private hospital and the States have to pay a higher price than the central government to buy these vaccines. Those who are 45 and above will continue getting it for free from the Central government. A total of 50% of the vaccines manufactured will be used for selling it privately and to the states. By doing this, Modi will simply deflect the blame for slack pace of vaccinations and shortages on to the States, when the mess has been all his creation caused due to inept planning and arrogance. Further a two-tier vaccination structure will lead to greater exclusion. India is the only country in the world to have allowed private players to directly sell vaccines. Media commentators have termed it a great move; but in effect Modi has give the State governments a long rope to hang with! With vaccine manufacturing nowhere near the required amount, the chaos that will follow will be neatly deflected and Modi will be shrugging his shoulders from 1 May onwards!
Reuters reported that “Non-stop cremations cast doubt on India's counting of COVID dead”. Crematorium staff from various states are reporting that they are being instructed to register deaths as caused by ‘bimari’ - illness - and not specifically Covid-19. (See below the graph for the contrast between reported Covid-19 deaths and Covid-19 site cremations. Remember this does not include burials of those who died).
Even before the pandemic, as few as 21% of deaths in India were recorded by a medical professional along with a cause of death, according to the World Health Organization. During the pandemic, this problem is being made worse by the pressure by governments to deny the scale of the crisis.
Likewise there are reports from Delhi and UP that there are informal orders to discontinue testing. One Delhi resident reported his experience of registering for the test online and showing up three days in the row to be turned away on one pretext or the other. On the last day, the testing centre official told him informally that the Delhi Police – which falls under the Central Government) had instructed him to shut down tests!
Clearly, the Modi regime appears to be following the formula that Trump had suggested – if you do not test, you can show low Covid-19 numbers!
The Modi regime, its pet media houses, and the BJP-RSS responded to Covid-19 right from the start by communalising the issue, scapegoating the Tablighi Jamaat gathering and demanding that participants in the TJ’s Nizamuddin gathering be “shot dead.”
Contrast this with the way these same forces treat the Kumbh Mela attended by several lakhs and various huge gatherings celebrating “Holi” where thousands throw water and cowdung at each other. Several BJP leaders including a Chief Minister of Uttarakhand announced that Hindus were immune from Covid-19. Had any Muslim leader been so brazen, the media would have instigated violence against them. But in the case of these super-spreader events blessed and promoted by unscientific rubbish by Hindu-supremacist leaders, the media remained silent. Modi called for the Kumbh Mela to be observed symbolically only in its last phase when the largest gatherings had already taken place, thousands had tested positive, and the returning hordes spread the virus deep into rural and semi-urban North India.
The virus of communal hate is so bad that in Vadodara, Gujarat, BJP leaders objected to Muslim volunteers helping to cremate Hindus. Embarrassed by this, the Mayor and an MLA from the BJP condemned this stand and thanked the Muslim community for being at the forefront of volunteer efforts.
Shuddhabrata Sengupta, writing for The Wire, noted: “Kumbh Melas are held every 12 years. The last Haridwar Kumbh Mela was held in 2010. The actual due date for the ‘current’ Kumbh at Haridwar was 2022, not 2021. So how did it get advanced by one whole lethal year at a time India’s second Covid wave was expected? And when epidemiological studies indicate that second waves of infection are always worse than the first.” The answer was that the Governments of Uttarakhand and the Centre appeased some astrological pundits!
Sengupta notes that there is a well-documented history of the Kumbh Melas being linked to epidemics and pandemics. Chinmay Tumbe’s recent book, The Age of Pandemics: How They Shaped India and the World, includes a specific discussion of pandemics and successive Kumbh Melas. Also useful is David Arnold’s article 1986, ‘Cholera and Colonialism in British India’ and Kama Maclean’s 2008 book, Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765-1954. The history of the Kumbh Mela and disease has been well documented over the years. The World Health Organisation has a monograph about cholera that has a section on the Kumbh. There is even an article in the Indian Medical Gazette from 1895 on the ‘Natural History of Haridwar Cholera Outbreaks’, and a more recent paper, ‘A comprehensive review of the Kumbh Mela: Identifying risks for spread of infectious diseases’, published in Clinical Microbiology and Infection in 2015.
Fully aware of the risks of holding the Kumbh Mela in the midst of a Covid-19 second wave, the Governments of India and Uttarakhand played with lives to stage a religious spectacle and appease the powerful lobby of “Sants and Mahants”. Not only did they fail to cancel the event, they actually advanced it by a year. The Kumbh Mela is one of the biggest factors in the viral spread of the deadly virus that is claiming lives in India. But no media channel will run hashtags blaming the #KumbhLobby or #SaffronLobby, or even question the Government on why the event was advanced.
Five organisations with ties to Hindu supremacist and religious groups have received COVID-19 relief funding amounting to $833,000, according to data released by the United States’ Small Business Administration (SBA), a federal agency that helps small business owners and entrepreneurs.
RSS-related outfits have been receiving similar funding in the name of earthquake relief and on other pretexts, for decades now.
In 2014, South Asian Citizen Web (SACW) released a report analysing official tax records between 2001-2014, and showing how US-based charity groups sent millions of dollars to RSS-affiliated organisations. Between 2001-2012, both Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation and VHPA sent $27m and $3.9m respectively, according to the SACW report.
The RSS is fond of accusing its critics – feminist, anti-caste and anti-Islamophobia groups and human rights groups in particular – of being “foreign-funded.” In fact it is the RSS that gets millions of dollars of funding in the name of charity which it uses to further its Hindu supremacist politics.
The hubris and arrogance of the government has led to thousands of lives being lost. The Govt knew that the second wave was coming, and did not do anything. Rather it was busy in a huge PR exercise to paint a picture of Modi vanquishing the virus. There is an industry today which is trying to tell us that all citizens must do their part in tackling the situation. The citizens of this country do not need any telling; they are already stretched to the limits in helping each other. But do citizens have access to resources that the government has? When the failure of the government is there for all to see, it cannot deflect any blame away from itself. The whole pliant media network built up a narrative that India beat corona exclusively due to the leadership of Modi. Now when the country is in the midst of a devastating second wave, the blame for this too must lie with him. All of us are after all paying with lives of dear ones to satiate the megalomanic moods of one man, he cannot escape blame.