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Covid Surge, National Numbing & Accountability

24-04-2021published_dt 2021-04-24T11:02:02.995Z24-04-2021 16:32:02 IST
2021-04-24T11:02:02.995Z24-04-2021 2021-04-24T11:02:02.995Z - - 18-06-2021

Hello and welcome to Midweek Matters. 

 

We are witnessing perhaps one of the largest surges of COVID infections in the world. Death toll is mounting. By the end of Monday, the official number of infected cases was over 2,59,000. And the death toll was 1,761. The cumulative number of cases now stands at 1,53,14,714. In just two weeks India has added 15 lakh new cases.

This is a crisis. A health emergency.

This week, we will take a look at the health emergency that is overwhelming us and try to understand what this crisis reveals about us and the preparedness of union government, accountability in our political system, and numbing of our senses to the large-scale human tragedy that’s unfolding before our eyes.

Death of a dear one is painful. Real. Others' death could be a data point, a statistic. I knew this way back in 1981. Until then death meant nothing to me. It was merely news, a piece of information. I came face to face with pain caused by death when my father died that year, quite early in my life. I’ve experienced the dislocation death causes, the void it leaves, the hardship it entails for the family. 

My friends died, many of them in the last one year. They succumbed to COVID. I know what it means to their families. To their wives, husbands, children, parents, relatives, friends and colleagues. A dear friend died, leaving behind his helpless widow and two daughters of marriageable age. They could not even see him cremated. No last rites. The last time they saw him as father and husband was when he was admitted to hospital. The next time they were shown a wrapped-up corpse and told that it was him. All their savings were vacuumed by the rapacious hospital. It’s nearly a year now, and the family is yet to come out of the shock.

Another friend admitted his COVID infected 81-year-old father to a private hospital. They charged him a lakh of rupees a day. He had to pay cash every two days for the next two days' treatment in advance. A few hours delay in payment - the hospital would threaten to discontinue the treatment. My friend was not told what exactly was the treatment given to his father. After 15 days in hospital father died, leaving the family in red by 20 lakh rupees. 

Many lost incomes, livelihoods. Families were scarred. 

Most of them have not yet recovered from their financial loss. For, many jobs have not returned. No stimulus came to their help. That was the effect of the covid's first coming.

The second coming we are witnessing now seems to be even more virulent. It’s a crisis. A health emergency. Nothing less.

Monday ended with yet another massive surge in infections. Over 2,59,000 cases in a single day. Death toll was 1,761 - again highest in a single day. The cumulative total of deaths since the outbreak is 1,80,550. The country has so far re¬ported a total of 1,53,14,0714 cases of infection. And we all know that these are under reported numbers. Cases are under reported, deaths are under reported. Doctors in charge of hospitals tell us in private that the situation is much more grave. Testing too has broken down. Hospitals and labs are refusing to take samples. Because they can’t test those samples before they go bad. Their capacities are overwhelmed. Only 13.56 lakh tests were carried out on Sunday, that’s about 2.1 lakh lower than Saturday. 

Footage and pictures of ambulances waiting outside the hospitals with COVID patients, dozens of dead bodies burning in smashaans, scores of stretchers doubling up for hospital beds, relatives wailing helplessly are choking our social media timelines. But our political and religious leaders are unmindful of this agony.

For political leaders elections are important. For religious leaders, assertion of their religious identity is important. Public health, people's lives matter little to them. Our televisions show us thousands of people mobilised for election rallies by political party leaders: Prime Minister, Union Ministers, Chief Ministers, opposition leaders.

And dense gathering of lakhs of pilgrims for the Kumbh Mela's Shahi Snan. After the damage is done, religious leaders said the Mela would hereafter be symbolic. While Congress leader Rahul Gandhi announced cancellation of his rallies, principal contestants in Bengal elections - TMC and BJP continue their campaigns with flagrant violations of Covid safety protocols.

There are experts, analysts and political leaders who justify election rallies and Kumbh gatherings. 

Hearing them I felt anger for a day; disappointed on the next day when such irresponsible talk continued. Now it is disgusting to hear them. They say, we are much better than other countries. Our rate of infection and deaths per million is low compared to many countries. They indulge in heartless, meaningless, insensitive cross country comparisons. Selective comparisons. 

But you see being better off than other countries means nothing to the families who lost their loved ones. And for those who are at risk.

We miss the whole point of this crisis if we look at dry numbers. And ignore the faces behind the numbers. The families behind the numbers. The grief and the mounting agony behind the cold numbers in official spreadsheets and government dashboards.

But even the cross country comparisons that are put out by the devotees of power are flawed. Let’s look at how we are doing in comparison to our immediate neighbours. 

In daily new confirmed deaths per million, in total number of deaths daily, biweekly confirmed cases per million, cumulative confirmed cases between January 2020 until yesterday, number of daily confirmed cases, cumulative confirmed deaths, we are much much higher than Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Our less endowed neighbours. This is something that we need to ponder about. 

We have a massive task ahead of us. These are tough times. To fight corona virus we need to vaccinate at least 70% of our population. Excluding pregnant women and children, this means about 70 crore people. That means we need at least 140 crore doses of vaccination. Remember the counsel: if the pandemic doesn’t end everywhere in the country, it doesn’t end anywhere in the country. 

Are we prepared?  It’s clear that we are not. Vaccination is slowing down. During the 24 hours ending on Monday 7:00 am, 12.29 lakh doses were administered. About 14.54 lakh less doses than the previous 24 hours. And about 17 lakh less doses than what was administered in the previous week. Against the world average of 11.61 doses per 100, we are able to do only 9 doses per hundred. 

The government seems to be in no mood to entertain any questions on our preparedness. The uncivil and stunningly ill-tempered response by the union health minister to a set of responsible and constructive suggestions by former PM Dr Manmohan Singh reveals that the government is out of its depth. It prefers whataboutery and pulling political punches to putting its head down and going on with the serious business of containing the virus. 

Asleep at the wheel, the government has squandered the lockdown period. It missed the point that lockdowns are not a solution but merely a means to pause the spread of the virus until a vaccine is available and the medical infrastructure is strengthened to handle the fall out. In other words, it’s not a solution but a responsible way of waiting for a solution. A kind of buying time. Instead of concentrating on improving hospital infrastructure and strengthening the national resolve, it spent national energies on token gestures like lighting lamps, and clapping. The economic package it put together revealed that the government was more interested in headline management than in any substantial help to the vulnerable sections. It pelted a counterfeit stimulus at the helpless nation. Leave alone the demand side, it’s inadequacy to address even the supply side has quickly become clear. The long marches of the migrant labour across the country revealed the heartlessness of governance.

In the event, our addition to the treatment facilities was just negligible. We added only 19 thousand 461 ventilators; 8 thousand 648 ICU beds and 94 thousand 880 oxygen supported beds since

last April. And these additions were uneven. States like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu added more than others. About 9 states showed reduction according to an answer given to a question in Parliament by the Union Minister of State for Health. No wonder we see long queues of ambulances outside the hospitals, stretchers doubling up as beds. There is no evidence of government consulting with a set of experts on how to navigate the choppy waters. No effort to tap into the vast expertise that’s available in the country, outside the government. 

The Prime Minister's popularity, political capital, and communication skills seem to indemnify him from the impact of the ineptitude, incompetence and heartlessness of this government. He’s able to escape accountability. The government and the ruling party are now adept at outrage management. They understood that the initial sharp yelp after the pain will quickly be followed by country becoming numb to suffering. They did well and contained the fall out of demonetisation because of this numbing. They could ride out the anger generated by the visuals of helpless migrant labour walking long distances - again because of this numbing. They seem to be self-congratulatory. They probably are expecting to tide over the anger over the present mess up also, expecting numbing yet again.

But popularity, political capital have a habit of running out without giving notice. Communication skills might sooner than later begin to look like pantomimes. And numbing will not last forever. 

Humane and compassionate governance, transparency, accountability, empathy - they last. Only they can earn leaders a secure and respectable place in a nation's history. 

The Prime Minister should exercise his choice, at least now.

 

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