Living as we do under a government that prioritises neither data nor science, the worst truth about this pandemic is that we will never know its real face.

People standing in queue with oxygen cylindersPTI
news Opinion Wednesday, May 05, 2021 - 14:44

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in India, there were several theories in the air along with the coronavirus. Indians, exposed far more to germs than people from Western nations, would not die. Indians, who eat ginger and garlic every day, would not be beaten by a virus that's no more serious than the flu. The Indian summer would roast the virus and send it to oblivion.

As the days passed and it became clear that the virus was here to stay, Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a three week nation-wide lockdown with a notice of four hours. He did not consult experts or state governments before doing so. India did achieve the world's strictest lockdown and that would have been wonderful had it been an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. But it wasn't. The government's poorly planned lockdown managed to stop the spread of the virus temporarily, but at the cost of several hundred lives, many of them migrant workers who were left high and dry by the sudden decision.

Who cares about them though? India moved on, like it always does.

But over a year later, it is abundantly clear that Indians do not have a magic shield against the virus. Our gobi manchurian, however liberally spiked with ginger and garlic, cannot be held up as a Medusa head to stop the virus's onslaught. As Indians across the country are gasping for air and dying, their relatives standing in long queues to purchase drugs that they're not even sure will be of any use, the government's focus, incredibly, is on image management. If there is a plan, they haven't let us in on it yet.

From Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan insisting that India's case fatality ratio is the lowest in the world (how will we ever know when crematoriums are overflowing but the state bulletins don't even report half as many of those deaths?) to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath threatening to seize the property of those spreading 'rumours' about oxygen shortage, and Bengaluru's BJP MP Tejasvi Surya claiming a big 'scam' in beds at the BBMP and reading out the names of Muslim staffers, the Union government is scrambling to save its image. Especially since the international media has turned its gaze to India and Modi's attempt to project himself as a strong Hindu leader who will take Bharath to superpower levels, is crumbling faster than you can say 'Doland Trump'. State governments, too, have become adept at fudging data, first providing citizens with a false sense of security that the virus was gone, and then pushing them to a corner with threats about lockdowns.

Whether those oxygen plants finally sanctioned under PM Cares are coming up anytime soon or not, the Union government has organised a 90-minute virtual workshop for top government officials to 'create a positive image of the government'. This, after the Modi-Amit Shah team conducted massive election rallies and allowed the Kumbh Mela to proceed even as the second wave was looming over the country (the Kumbh Mela was, in fact, advanced from next year due to astrological recommendations). It almost reads like a page from a George Orwell novel.

People, privileged people with access to social media, money, and network, are on Twitter and Instragram literally begging for oxygen cylinders, ventilators and ICU beds. Citizen-led volunteer groups are working overtime, connecting the families of patients to resources they need. Overwhelmed hospital staff, who had protested the lack of PPE kits in the first wave (they did get rose petals on the hospital roofs though), are stretched beyond limits. Senior doctors are breaking down while speaking to journalists, unable to provide their critical patients the care that they need. Even in Uttar Pradesh, the Hindi heartland where the BJP-led NDA won 62 out of 80 seats in the 2019 General Elections, a bereaved daughter was stricken enough to call the sitting Chief Minister expletives on camera.

This time, it's not the nameless migrants who are dying on railway tracks. It is relatives of Bollywood actors, families with political connections, people with money and social networking who have suddenly discovered what it is to be an Indian citizen with no access.

The Union government is acting like this is an unpleasant surprise party thrown by the coronavirus. But as early as November 2020, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare had flagged the shortage of beds and oxygen and noted that these must be boosted to manage the pandemic in the coming days. Despite the fact that countries across the world have experienced several waves of the virus, and it is only with mass vaccination that the pandemic has been brought under control, the Union government squandered the time in between the two waves by focusing on winning elections rather than saving lives. It developed amnesia about the first wave and the warnings given out by experts, declaring victory over the virus that was lurking before it reared its head again. 

The government also did not think it necessary to increase its orders for vaccine procurement or take proactive measures to get WHO-approved foreign vaccines. Stung by criticism from all quarters, it suddenly opened up vaccination for everyone above the age of 18 from May 1 but there is severe vaccine shortage all over the country. The states, as usual, were not consulted and have been dumped with the responsibility of procuring vaccines that are yet to be made.

Yes, several people, celebrities (interestingly, they'd now rather donate to other COVID funds and not PM Cares) and ordinary citizens, have come forward to fight this war. But this is not our job. This is why we elect governments, to predict, plan and protect when the need arises. To take care of even the most helpless of us. As Indians, we are inured to red tape and corruption. We don't expect any of our politicians to swing into action like a Jacinda Arden. We know the wheels of the government machinery will turn slowly. But we expect it to turn. Not come to a standstill like it has now, while the government is claiming it's cruising like a bullet train.

The worst truth about this pandemic though, is that we will never know its real face. How many people were actually infected? How many people died at home? How many people's deaths were accounted for in the official data? How many different strains of the virus are in circulation in India? How many people were hospitalised/died despite vaccination, first dose and second? How many young people were severely affected? What factors increase or decrease the risk of hospitalisaion? We will never know, because for studying all this, we need data and science. Neither is priority for this government.

What we can be assured of, is several distractions in the coming days that mainstream TV channels will beam into your drawing rooms. Like a lazy babysitter handing out a lollipop to an inconsolable toddler. Are you going to take it this time too?