April 25, 2021

The Vishwaguru that Failed

The Modi-Shah duo are criminally responsible for the havoc caused by the Second Wave

THE Covid-19 cases crossed over 2,34,000 on April 17, the very day Narendra Modi addressed an election rally in Asansol, West Bengal, where he congratulated the people for coming in large numbers and declared that he had not seen such crowds in a rally before. 

This callous politics endangering the lives of thousands of people exemplifies the criminal responsibility of the Modi-Shah duo for the havoc caused by the raging pandemic. For a week running, when the daily toll of cases crossed two lakhs, Modi and Shah were alternately addressing mass rallies in Bengal.

The catastrophe which has hit the people is agonising.  There are no beds in hospitals, no oxygen for patients, no Covid tests on time and vaccines have run out. The cremation grounds have run out of space to cremate the dead.

It is in the midst of such a man-made calamity that Modi and Shah have set out to capture Bengal.  For them, it is winning the election by any means and “let the devil take the hindmost”.

There is no doubt now that the Modi government is responsible for keeping the country totally unprepared to face the second wave of death and destruction.

In January, Modi had declared success in fighting the pandemic. In his speech to the World Economic Forum, Davos Agenda, on January 29, Modi hailed India’s progress in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, “By managing Covid-19 India has saved the world from disaster”.  He went on further to say that “Right now, there are two made-in-India vaccines – but in the coming days, many more vaccines will come.  This will help us support other countries with scale and speed”.

In February, Modi said, India’s fight against Covid has “inspired the world.” India was given the grand role of supplying vaccines to the Indo-Pacific region by the Quad Summit held on March 11. Biden assigned this job to India, while at the same time, the United States had banned the export of vaccine material to India.

Modi had grandiloquently assumed that India is playing the role of `Viswhaguru’ – a favourite idiom of the RSS. Alas, such hubris has cost the country and the people dearly.

Taking the cue, the union health minister, Harsh Vardhan announced in early March that India was “in the end-game of the Covid-19 pandemic”. He said this at a time when the Covid cases were rising around the country.   The plain fact is, having declared success, the government and the health authorities let their guard down.

Faced with the resurgence of the virus, the ruling circles began to blame the people for laxity and failure to observe Covid protocols. No attention was paid to the growing evidence of a new Indian strain of the virus, a double mutant. It now appears that the first sample of this variant was found on October 5, by genome sequencing, but no direction was given or efforts made to take gene sequencing forward. According to an Indian Express investigation, only Rs 80 crore was provided finally for this expensive and time-consuming process. The net result being the failure to track the prevalence and spread of this more infectious variety in time.

Maharashtra, Delhi and other parts of the country are facing an acute shortage of medical oxygen. Patients are dying due to lack of oxygen in hospitals.  The government had failed to increase the production of medical oxygen after the first wave.  It now transpires that an agency under the ministry of health had put out tenders worth just over Rs 200 crore for setting  up oxygen plants in 150 district hospitals in October 2020. This was done eight months after the pandemic began and by March this year, only 33 plants were installed.

As for vaccines, the Modi government sold the idea that there are two made-in-India vaccines which would take care of the needs for vaccination of the first 30 crore people.  The made-in-India vaccine was itself a bogus slogan since the main vaccine, Covishield, had been created by the Astra Zeneca-Oxford project and had given the Serum Institute license for manufacturing in India.  The whole mess made in the vaccination policy is clearly spelt out in an article in these columns of the paper.  After failing to book bulk vaccinations from wherever it was available, the Modi government has now waived the requirement of bridge trials and is striving to get vaccines from abroad.

It has also, by the new vaccination policy announced, abandoned its responsibility to provide free vaccines on a universal basis. It has thrown the burden of vaccination of people below 45 years on to the state governments by stating that they should procure vaccine stocks from the open market by placing orders with the vaccine manufacturers.

The centre had allocated Rs 35,000 crore for vaccinations in the union budget.  It has spent only a fraction of this amount so far.  Yet, it is now asking the state governments to foot the bill for the next rounds of vaccination.

The entire year of the pandemic saw insubstantial and inadequate additional spending on public health infrastructure. Just like the case of medical oxygen production, so also the central government has refused to scale up expenditure for improving and expanding the public health system.

Besides this negligence and complacency, there is also the unscientific and blinkered Hindutva vision of the government. The prime example of this catering to blind faith and superstition is the way the Kumbh Mela was allowed to be held at Haridwar where lakhs of people assembled.  The Kumbh, which is held once in 12 years, was due in 2022, but it was advanced by a year due to astrological calculations.  The BJP government in Uttarakhand and the centre went out of the way to ensure that the Kumbh was held without any regulation or restrictions. It is only after the public outcry and international attention focused on the raging pandemic that Modi made a last-minute request to hold only symbolic ceremonies in the last phase of the Kumbh.

The public health catastrophe that has been inflicted on India is due to the complacency, mismanagement and short-sighted approach of the Modi government. It is also a result of the longstanding neglect of public health and the drive for privatisation of health over the past three decades.

In this vast ocean of despair, there is the small island of hope which shows the way forward.  While developed and richer states like Maharashtra and Delhi are gasping for oxygen, there is no shortage of it in Kerala. In fact, Kerala has a surplus of medical oxygen and it is supplying oxygen to four states – Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Goa and Lakshadweep – to help them fight Covid.  Kerala reinvested in-state public sector undertakings to increase oxygen production capacity which has enabled it to become oxygen surplus.  Compared to April 2020, the production of oxygen has increased from 50 litres per minute to 1,250 litres per minute in April 2021.

This is due to the planned development of the public health system and the priority accorded by the state government. Ninety-five per cent of those needing hospital treatment for Covid in Kerala have undergone such treatment in government hospitals for free.  Even among the rest who have been treated in private hospitals, their expenses have been met by the state government.  According to the union health ministry, there is 100 per cent utilisation of vaccines in Kerala without any wastage, unlike in other states. Free food kits to 88 lakh families are still being given by the government so that no one goes hungry. So, health emergencies can be tackled if there is a commitment to public health and political will.

The public health calamity will inevitably be accompanied by another bout of economic distress and destruction of jobs. To meet the present crisis, the Modi government has to give up its narrow, sectarian neo-liberal-Hindutva outlook and muster all resources – monetary and material – to render succour to the people.

(April 21, 2021)