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At death’s door~I

A catastrophe is looming all over and people are dying in the streets unable to find room in the hospitals. Decades of neglect and underfunding are showing up, exacting a heavy toll and causing terrible human suffering and misery. Delhi looks like a pestilence-stricken city, left to its own fate with no functional administration or government visible anywhere.

Govind Bhattacharjee | New Delhi |


The day after our Health Minister had triumphantly proclaimed in early March that it was the ‘endgame’ for Covid-19 in India, I took my first dose of a vaccine that was buttressed by a second dose one month later. No, I didn’t give up the mask or start hugging people in the streets, but felt assured of being reasonably safe despite the surging number of infections in Delhi and elsewhere.

Then on 10 April, my wife tested positive and the next day, I myself. Being below 60, she had just registered herself for vaccination but did not have the time to take the shot before Covid struck with all its ferocity. In early March, Covid was indeed showing a waning trend everywhere, with only about 12,000 cases being reported, making everyone throw caution to the winds.

Schools and places of entertainment started reopening, and huge election rallies were held in the election-bound states led by the Prime Minister and Home Minister ~ especially in West Bengal where the BJP was locked in a deadly and bloody contest with the ruling TMC ~ without the least concern for masks, social distancing or Covid-appropriate behaviour, while a compliant Election Commission, whose duty it is to restrain politicians who are not particularly known for responsible behaviour, looked the other way.

Leaders and politicians across the political spectrum, who should have led by example to enforce responsible behaviour, did just the opposite, with wanton abandonment of their Constitutional duties to protect the lives of citizens above everything. In West Bengal where elections were being held in eight phases, the rate of spread of the virus was among the fastest in the country in April. When governments and institutions fail in their duties, it is the Courts that usually remind them ~ but the Hon’ble judges were busy with other pressing things, forgetting that protecting the lives of citizens was their most pressing duty at all times.

Only now when the whole country has become like a veritable hell are they waking up. How one wishes that the observation of the Hon’ble Madras High Court that the Election Commission should be “put up on murder charges for being the most irresponsible institution” had come a tad earlier!

Allowing the virus to circulate unchecked increased the risk of emergence of deadly new strains no vaccine has yet been developed to protect against. It was then the infections and casualty figures started sky-rocketing ~ by April 13, India was adding 3.2 lakh cases every day ~ a number that later crossed 4 lakh, with daily fatalities spiralling above 3500.

In Delhi, dysfunctional governments ~ both at the Centre and in the UT ~ abdicated their responsibility and left citizens to their fate, while bodies of the victims continued piling up at graveyards and crematoriums, with makeshift funeral pyres being put up in parking areas and pavements outside the crematoriums. Hospitals are woefully short of beds, medicines, ventilators, ICU facilities, oxygen, doctors and health workers; fresh admissions are being refused.

And when people, unable to find oxygen, medicine and beds for their near and dear ones are giving voice to their anguish on social media, instead of addressing these severe deficiencies in the healthcare administration, shameless governments in states like Maharashtra, Haryana and UP are booking them under the IPC, Disaster Management Act and Epidemic Diseases Act, forcing the Supreme Court to warn them of contempt of court for clamping down on free speech of citizens.

As a friend wryly remarked, there is practically no government either at the Centre or in the States, but only when you say this, you realise there is one. Meanwhile in Haridwar, the Mahakumbh was attracting lakhs of pilgrims who were welcomed instead of being chided, with the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand asserting that corona would be wiped out by “Ma Ganga’s blessings”. The entire nation was apparently under the spell of selective amnesia and forgot completely about the super-spreader events like the last year’s Tablighi Jamaat gathering.

It was only after the exit of the second largest Akhada, Niranjani Akhada, from the Kumbh following the death of the head of the Nirwani Akhada from Covid

that the PM called for a “symbolic pilgrimage”; even then some 25,000 people were allowed to take the ritual “Shahi Snan” on April 27. In Uttarakhand, the number of active cases has increased seven-fold since the beginning of April ~ so much for “Ma Ganga’s blessings”! That also brought home the ridiculousness of our insular Atmanirbhar Bharat agenda. Complacency always leads to shortsightedness which in turn leads to disaster.

“With made-inIndia solutions, we controlled the spread of the virus and improved our health infrastructure,” PM had declared in late January, “Our vaccine research and production capacity have given a shield not just to India but to many other countries in the world.” The “Made in India” vaccination campaign in fact got nowhere ~ and when foreign vaccine manufacturers like Pfizer-BioNtech sought permission for emergency use of their vaccines in India, in its misplaced pride, the Government cold-shouldered them, citing absence of ‘local trials’.

The result was that by mid-April only 1.3 crore Indians had received a full double dose. At the daily 20 lakh jabs as being administered at present, it would be well into late 2022 before all adults could be vaccinated. Even though India is the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, and was indeed exporting the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine to many countries till March, it could inoculate barely 10 per cent of its adult population with a first dose.

While during JanuaryMarch, India had shipped 64 million doses of vaccines to the world, it could only supply 1.2 million doses during the first half of April before putting a ban on its exports. Swallowing false pride and mindless obsession with Atmanirbhar Bharat, now the government is fast-tracking approvals for half a dozen foreign vaccines, but with the crisis seemingly out of control, it is too little, too late. A catastrophe is looming all over and people are dying in the streets unable to find room in the hospitals. Decades of neglect and underfunding are showing up, exacting a heavy toll and causing terrible human suffering and misery.

Delhi looks like a pestilence-stricken city, left to its own fate with no functional administration or government visible anywhere. One wonders why when the virus was spreading like hellfire, the expected shortages in oxygen, drugs and ICU beds could not be anticipated or procurements fast-tracked as is being done now. On April 25, more than 350,000 new cases were reported ~ the highest in any country thus far since the beginning of the pandemic.

From only 9 per cent of global caseload in March, India now accounts for some 38 per cent of the global cases, and the numbers even seem to lack credibility. As per estimates made by John Hopkins University, Imperial College, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and The Economist, because of the low testing rate outside cities, the actual caseload is probably 5 to 30 times more. The shortages in vaccines, drugs and oxygen will probably be addressed within a few weeks, but not before hundreds of lives, young and old alike, are lost and millions forced to go through a trauma that will leave a permanent scar upon their lives.

Though luckily so far, India’s death rate has remained among the lowest in the world, there is no guessing how much worse it may get and how long it would take before the present lethal spread starts ebbing and slowing. Positivity rate in Delhi and West Bengal now is over 30 per cent, and in the country as a whole, above 25 per cent. Even getting tested now poses a huge challenge, with reports taking 3-5 days. No one knows who will get infected and who will survive.

There are reports of people who had once occupied powerful positions in the government and society who have died being unable to secure admission in any hospital, just like ordinary people.  All this has made little change to the demagoguery and pretention of politicians and empty rhetoric of ministers and bureaucrats who have no clue about how to handle the situation. The purpose of this article is not to criticise the government or our institutions, but only to share the agony and trauma that one goes through when people in positions of power and authority fail in their duties and leave citizens to their fate.

(To be concluded)

(The writer is a commentator, author and an academic)