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Politics Scores Over Battle Against Covid

By Vir Sanghvi
January 28, 2022 08:20 IST
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Politics, bureaucracy, ineptitude, double-standards and an attempt to politicise the fight in pseudo-nationalistic terms have all hampered the fight against this deadly virus, says Vir Sanghvi.

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party leader Amit Anilchandra Shah conducts a door-to-door campaign in Dadri, January 27, 2022, in support of BJP candidates for the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls. Photograph: ANI Photo
 

It was a strangely Indian type of announcement. Just as a subdued city of Delhi coped with a weekend curfew (restaurants, offices were already shut on all days), the Election Commission of India announced the easing of its restrictions on campaigning. The Commission said it was now absolutely fine if meetings of up to 300 people were held indoors.

There is no doctor on earth (with the possible exception of doctors who work for the Government of India) who will argue that it is imperative to impose night curfews, to stop ordinary citizens from going to work in offices or to earn a living by running restaurants, but that it is completely okay to let politicians organise indoor gatherings of 300 people.

A funeral, held in the open, with more than 20 people is a health hazard. But a political meeting held in a closed space with hundreds of people poses no health risks at all. Or so we are told.

So the restrictions made no sense. But in some strange and twisted way they were entirely in keeping with the manner in which this government and its various bodies (which sadly, must now include the EC, which is less and less of a Constitutional body these days and more and more of a government department) have responded to the pandemic.

Double standards are routinely applied. When the Delta wave raged, politicians went maskless to rallies in such states as West Bengal and addressed vast crowds. It wasn't just the prime minister; nearly every politician from every party dispensed with masks at rallies. The same pattern will be repeated at this round of elections.

Apart from double standards, the one other feature of the governmental response to the pandemic has been an arrogant complacency combined with a vulgar desire to politicise the battle against Covid.

Way back in March 2020, when other countries were preparing for the pandemic, the government acted like it was not a big deal at all. When Rahul Gandhi warned of the dangers of Covid, Harsh Vardhan, who was then Union health minister, dismissed his fears and declared, in words that should forever haunt this government, that 'the virus is under control'.

Gandhi responded presciently that the Indian government 'saying that the virus is under control is like the captain of the Titanic, telling passengers not to panic, as his ship was unsinkable.'

Dr Harsh Vardhan then went on to attack Gandhi for daring to dispute the government's claim that the virus was 'under control' and accused him of needlessly creating panic.

How much of this was Dr Harsh Vardhan's own initiative is unclear. He was wheeled out again and again to attack the Opposition over Covid. This included an offensive response to a letter that a concerned Manmohan Singh had written to the prime minister.

Dr Harsh Vardhan was repeatedly asked to mendaciously politicise the government's Covid strategy. In March 2021, just before thousands died in the second wave, Dr Harsh Vardhan told the country, 'We are in the endgame of the pandemic', adding, Under the leadership of Modiji, India has emerged as an example to the world.'

Of course, we were not in the endgame and we were no example. And when the Delta wave hit, it became clear that the government had failed to order enough vaccines.

In April 2021, as India was running short of vaccines, the government blamed the shortage on to non-National Democratic Alliance states and their 'bad distribution'.

Dr Harsh Vardhan, once again, was made the loose-lipped hatchet man and viciously attacked the Maharashtra government for 'misgovernance and utter casual approach'.

Two months later, he was sacked.

But why blame Dr Harsh Vardhan alone? Even as it became clear that enough vaccines had not been ordered, as a result of which people were dying, the government's medical bureaucrats kept denying this and resorting to victim-shaming.

The spread of Covid was due to the arrogance of people who don't wear masks, Dr V K Paul declared, while refusing to admit that enough vaccines had not been ordered.

Dr Paul, of course, is the man who famously told us that the pandemic would level off by May 16, 2020! His own arrogance was matched by the health secretary who grandly declared that the vaccine would not be given to everyone (which it eventually was) but only to those 'who needed it.'

To be fair, things got better once a new health minister took over. We did eventually order enough vaccines and 70 per cent of our adult population has had two jabs.

Equally, it is clear that the government has tried to make political capital out of the vaccine programme: Why else would the prime minister's picture appear on every vaccination certificate? The government has consistently tried to project the battle against Covid as a nationalistic, swadeshi achievement.

In July 2020, the head of the Indian Council of Medical Research directed Bharat Biotech to get its vaccine ready by August 15, presumably so that the prime minister could announce its launch from the ramparts of the Red Fort. This is not how vaccines are developed, no matter how nationalistic it sounds, so the deadline came and went.

But a widespread suspicion lingers that the government went slow on the approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine (called Covishield in India) so that it would not be launched before Covaxin; it was approved in India after the rest of the world had already begun giving it to people on an emergency basis.

And indeed the two vaccines were launched together with the prime minister declaring that the fight against Covid would be handled by two Indian vaccines. In fact, Covidshield is roughly as Indian as Coca Cola. Just because Coke is bottled here, that does not make it an Indian beverage.

In the last few months, there has been a governmental pushback against boosters. So what if every Western country provides boosters, we have been told. We need Indian testing and research.

This may be fair enough, but why is it that Indian testing always provides results much after the rest of the world has acted?

Even though frontline medical workers who were most at risk begged for the boosters, the governmental medical establishment was unyielding. Top ICMR officials said that the rest of the world was wrong: There was no need for boosters.

Even as medical bureaucrats said they were awaiting the results of Indian tests after which a decision would be considered, the prime minister went ahead and announced booster shots anyway.

That sadly is the story of India's Covid battle. Yes, there have been successes. But politics, bureaucracy, ineptitude, double-standards and an attempt to politicise the fight in pseudo-nationalistic terms have all hampered the fight against this deadly virus.

Indians have suffered. And died.

Vir Sanghvi is a journalist and TV presenter.

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The War Against Coronavirus

The War Against Coronavirus