THE pandemic brought with it a sense of impending doom, and the wiser nations resorted to science and fought it accordingly and are still battling it with national coordinated plans and efforts. Most of these countries have managed to contain the spread of the virus and are gradually moving towards normalcy. We, on the other hand, declared victory some time back and are now in the throes of a second wave which threatens to overwhelm our limited resources. Our leaders played ‘God’ when they implemented a devastating lockdown with no formula of support for the millions who were left jobless, and their long walk home is a story for the ages. Thousands of businesses and self-employed individuals were left at the mercy of the modern urban jungle with ‘survival of the fittest’ being the governments grand present to its citizens.
Now once again the beast is at the doorstep and our wise leaders, in their wisdom, lock us down. The proverbial wolf will ‘blow’ at the homes and barring a few brick ones, the rest will be blown away. Do they not use us for their sport when they gather millions at their election rallies, at festivals and pilgrimages? Do they not play with us when the modern-day gladiators are brought to the new ‘Colosseum’ and the drama of cricket matches unfolds while regaling the masses? Do the same ‘Gods’ not play with us when they weigh us down with rules and curfews when it comes to our work and our right to earn our daily bread?
If we had a government that could have visualised the next wave, it could have planned for it after the first one. If we look at our past budgets and the allocation for health, we will see the very low priority given to it. Even in our latest budget, the allocation for health is abysmally low given the crisis being faced. In the present context, the Union government and the state governments should have utilised the time available after the first wave to give top priority to upgrading the health infrastructure. If China could raise multi-storied hospitals in a couple of weeks, we could have done it also. New hospitals and infrastructure could have come up exclusively for this purpose. They should have been equipped with the required number of beds, ICUs, ventilators, oxygen, etc. A top-level committee comprising political leadership, bureaucrats and professionals should have been set up and given a time-bound task to come up with a national plan and state-level plans and the means to achieve these because the second wave was only a question of time. Had this been done on an emergency basis and its implementation closely monitored, we would have been better placed to meet the challenge of the second wave. Today we have an overwhelmed health infrastructure (be it beds, ventilators, oxygen, drugs, etc.) and the government is falling back on its first and last bastion of a lockdown.
The developed countries, after the initial hiccups, were quick to react. They have thrown huge resources into safeguarding their citizens, both monetarily and through well-implemented health plans. One can see this in the mass vaccination programmes in the UK and the US, the trillions of dollars spent by the USA, Canada and others in Covid relief measures… it’s a long list and I could go on and on. We have probably one of the largest capacities for vaccine development in the world but what have we done with this advantage? Why were we gifting it away while most of our population remains inoculated, remains ignorant of the need to do so and is still either in denial and suspicious of the disease, or in terror of it? Why were we frittering away the precious window of time given to us in the past few months and not building the requisite know-how and infrastructure, the awareness programmes and extensive outreach needed to deal with this menace? We were too busy declaring victory, tom-tomming GDP growth figures in the double digits and our leadership was gleefully basking in the glory of victory gained by the collective amnesia. Now the terror of the second wave is upon us and the solution which government has is to lock everyone up again.
The logical question to ask is why were rational, logical steps not taken to mitigate this unfolding disaster — do we not have the wherewithal? The problem is that it was not the priority of the Government of India, for we can see the efficiency and planning when it comes to fighting elections. The entire gamut of the government has today been converted into a formidable election-winning machine. One can see the depth of planning, implementation, attention to detail and master strategists at work. One can see it in the way the build-up to elections happens, with the announcements of Central Government schemes, the mass outreach programmes that follow through a compliant media, the various departments which run to implement them. Last but not the least, the alphabet soup of central organisations (the CBI, NIA, IB, ED, IRS to name a few), the veritable knights in shining armour who ride out in defence of the powers that be and bring to heel all opposition. The coordinated dance would be a delight to watch if it were conducted in the fight against the pandemic and not simply in the pursuit of power.
This activity regarding the elections has kept both the Central and state governments busy and left them with very little time to tackle the Covid situation. Furthermore, the states have neither the funds nor do they have the vaccines. All this is in the hands of the Government of India and they dole out as they want to — in the absence of transparency, one can only guess what the plan is, which if the opposition is to be believed is largely partisan.
Lacking has been the proverbial ‘mirror’ which needs to be shown to the government which has, in its impudence, allowed many transgressions — mass political rallies, mass pilgrimages, and even unresolved protests, which have followed negligible preventive protocol are a case in point. The relative silence of the media in openly critiquing these events and their organisers which, even to an amateur mind, are ‘super spreaders events’ has been, to say the least, scarce at best. To ‘Name and Shame’ in this scenario is the duty of the media. Also, well-informed educated debates and briefings by domain experts are a rarity on most channels as they mostly tend to round up the usual suspects (all-purpose experts).
Last but not least, one expected more from the higher judiciary. There was nothing to stop it from hauling up the government and asking for reasons for an abysmal failure which is affecting the health of millions. They could have taken it up suo moto and ensured proper results after hearing the government. Isn’t a threatened and endangered national health crisis a grave emergency? Isn’t the second highest case load in the world, and nearly two lakh dead, an emergency and priority? This is in contrast to say a country like the USA where an active and alert judiciary has not only helped in saving their democracy but has been a facilitator in the fight against the pandemic. If proper planning and proper action had been taken in the first place, we would be positioned differently today and not saddled with a destructive second wave, a reeling economy and high unemployment.
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP
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