Manish Tewari | An AWOL government

The Asian Age.  | Manish Tewari

Opinion, Columnists

Downright negligence, coupled with hubris, made the governments, both at the Centre and some in the states, let their guard down

Mass cremation of COVID-19 victims at a crematorium as coronavirus cases surge, in New Delhi, Saturday, April 24, 2021. (Photo: PTI)

It is like a nightmarish deja-vu moment for me. Opening the debate on the demands for grants for the ministry of health and family welfare in the Lok Sabha on March 17, 2021, I, at the outset, stated: “Mr Speaker Sir, this discussion is taking place at a point in time when the world is being engulfed, if not overwhelmed, by the second wave of coronavirus infections.” These words have unfortunately proven to be prophetic in the case of our nation.

The last two weeks have been a nightmare for India as the second wave of Covid-19 hit the nation in all its fury. Overflowing hospitals, oxygen scarcity, hoarded life-saving drugs being sold on the black market, diagnostic centres stretched to a breaking point and hospitals approaching the courts to maintain oxygen supplies. The worst is even cremation and burial grounds not being able to cope with inflow of dead bodies and death numbers literally being fudged. People are being cremated on makeshift platforms set up on public pavements — denied dignity even in death.

The imagery of the past fortnight could not have been more bizarre. On one hand, the Prime Minister and home minister were addressing frenzied supporters in West Bengal and, on the other hand, sick and even dying people were being turned back from hospitals for lack of space.

The government is AWOL— absent without leave. What is, however, even far more felonious if it turns out to be true is that the Indian-origin double mutant strain, B.1.167, that is responsible for the current rampage, was first detected as way back on the 5th of October 2020. Since both earlier mutations, E84Q and L425R, were discovered in the virus’ crucial spike protein, its devastation potential should have been sequenced on a war footing. Instead, it was consigned to the back burner and never taken seriously because Covid infection numbers had started declining.

How could we have missed the second wave of Covid-19 with all the empirical evidence of hundred years of history staring us straight in the face? Downright negligence, coupled with hubris, made the governments, both at the Centre and some in the states, let their guard down.  

Surprisingly, when the Prime Minister addressed the nation on Tuesday night, he said lockdown should we used as a measure of the last resort. On March 23, 2020, when India was at 341 cases and only seven dead, he was the most enthusiastic champion of a national lockdown.

All through the whole of last year, ministers and spokespersons of the NDA/BJP alliance kept touting it as the magic bullet that had saved millions of lives. Jan Hai To Jahan Hai (If there is life there would be paradise) — they sang in chorus. One year later, the Prime Minister and his band of not-so-merry men are singing an entirely different tune.  

With a 32 lakh crore hole in the Union budget spread over two fiscals, 2020-21 and 2021-22, and no cushion to fall back upon for the economy has been grossly mismanaged going back to the illogical demonetisation in November 2016, livelihoods are now being prioritised over lives. If the wheels of the economy do not keep ticking, the Union government stares at the spectre of bankruptcy.  

It is, therefore, not trite that even in times of a raging pandemic, the allocations in the Union budget for health in the current fiscal are at best tardy. I had pointed this out during the Parliament debate.

In 2020-21, the ministry received an allocation of Rs 67,112 crores. This is an increase of a measly 3.9 per cent over the revised estimates of 2019-20 — Rs 64,609 crores. In 2019-20, the cumulative public health expenditure of all the states put together was a meagre Rs 1,96,659 crores. The Union government’s performance was even worse at Rs 36,339 crores.

We all know India’s health system is in shambles. Last year in these columns, I had argued that what we need is a new health deal for India. I had calculated that India requires an infrastructure investment of Rs 6 lakh crores to rebuild its public health system bottom upwards. The human resource cost to staff it is separate.

Given this state of play, a second wave meant that it would be each to their own. One would be primarily responsible for saving one’s own life and those of one’s loved ones.

Had we not experienced the same a year back? The disadvantaged sections of our society — the millions of internal migrants who keep the wheels of our economy turning — were compelled to walk home as they were doused with with chlorine water, cane-charged and made to suffer a million other ignominies by a callous state to prevent them from reaching their home and hearth. Once again as states announce lockdowns and curfews, you see the same stampede at bus stands and railway stations as people make a beeline back to their villages. The clock has turned a full cycle.

It, therefore, begs a question; Should people themselves not have come together to enforce Covid-appropriate behaviour during the lull when cases had come down? But given our intrinsic sense of fatalism — it is all in God’s hands — we threw all caution to the winds. This, even when it is known that there is never a government when it is required the most.

Maybe, given the hand-to-mouth existence of the bulk of our people who need to migrate to urban agglomerations to keep their body and soul together, it is not even humanly possible to think beyond the next meal. They are thus destined to play the Russian roulette, for the choice is a really a binary between death by hunger or death by virus.

Will this situation ever change? Can we build a state-of-the-art education and healthcare system for our people? The answer is yes. However, it would first and foremost require population control. With 135 crore people and growing by the minute, it is just not possible for any system to provide even the basic level of amenities required for a decent living. A broad national consensus regarding the need to contain population needs to be created at the earliest. How many more tragedies would it take to understand this?