At 3 p.m. on April 24, a woman walks out of the main building of Jaipur Golden Hospital, Delhi, her eyes red from crying. She is in her thirties. Three family members have their arms around her. The woman is silent and keeps her head down. Her relative, though, snaps out of her shock and cries, “He has been murdered!” The woman crosses the hospital gate, sits on the pavement and starts wailing. Her 37-year-old husband, Dinesh, a cabin crew member in an airline, was among the 20 critically ill COVID-19 patients at the hospital who had died the previous night over an “oxygen crisis”, according to the hospital authorities.
“These people killed him. They didn’t give him oxygen. They didn’t tell us anything about an oxygen shortage,” says a family member. The woman has two children aged three and five years.
It is a summer of fear and grief in the national capital. This wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Delhi with tremendous force. The number of daily new cases and deaths is as high as 28,000 and 300, respectively, every day. There is sickness in the air and death too. The health system is being stretched to its limits, often cracking under the burden of cases. Many people with symptoms of COVID-19 are lining up outside testing centres as early as 4 a.m. Every day, the sick travel to about five-six hospitals in search of a bed. Many of them die outside hospitals just waiting for admission. Inside the hospitals, apart from deaths due to the infection and related complications, some lives have been lost due to oxygen shortages. The queues are long outside hospitals and they are long outside cremation grounds too. Pyres burn through the night.
Letting down its guard
How did it come to this? The Delhi government says the disaster is due to an unexpected spike in cases due to the spread of a variant of the virus, but medical experts say the government let its guard down too early. Believing that the worst was behind us, the government did not increase beds or build capacity at oxygen plants, they say.
“Not just Delhi, but nationally too the assumption was that there won’t be a second wave. Many experts in Delhi had announced on TV that we have achieved herd immunity and the pandemic has ended,” says Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, epidemiologist and president of the Public Health Foundation of India. He says people gave up social distancing and stopped wearing masks properly.
The picture was different just a few months ago. January 27 was a good day for the Delhi government. The number of new COVID-19 cases had dropped to 96, the lowest in nine months in the capital. On February 16, it dropped to 94. Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain took note of it. “I feel now that all the three waves of the coronavirus have hit the city. It’ll die down eventually. Now it is no more a pandemic but an endemic. The infection will not be eradicated much like other diseases, but the surge is on the wane. I hope we won’t see 8,600 cases a day. I feel we are out of the danger zone but we still need to take proper precautions. Masks and social distancing need to be maintained,” he said in a statement on February 19.
A few days later, on February 24, the number of new cases hit 200. Despite this, that month, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal addressed crowded election rallies for by-elections to five seats in municipal corporations. There was no social distancing at these rallies and several did not wear masks.
On March 7, Jain again stated that COVID-19 was nearing an “endemic” phase in the capital. “Experts say some cases will continue to occur in the endemic phase over the next few years, but it will not spread like it was in the pandemic phase. Delhi witnessed a swine flu outbreak around 10 years ago but still some cases are reported every year. COVID-19 is not going to end completely. We will have to learn to live with it,” he said. Jain provided encouraging data: the positivity rate had been lower than 1% for two months, he said. Nearly two months since that reassurance, the positivity rate stands at over 32%.
Before the cases began spiking, the Delhi government lifted most of the COVID-19 restrictions. The number of beds for COVID-19 patients was reduced in hospitals as cases were low.
“See, politicians are not technical experts. They get opinions from experts. They may project it in an over-enthusiastic way. So, don’t point a finger at the Minister alone, but also at the experts who advise him,” Dr. Reddy says.
Given that many other countries have experienced a second and even third wave, India should have taken note, Dr. Reddy says. “Even as early as January and February, there was an increase in cases in Maharashtra and other States. Not just Delhi, but other States should have also taken note,” he says.
The Delhi government spokesperson and the Health Minister did not respond to questions sent byThe Hindu.
Unable to keep up with demand
The “unexpected spike” has spiralled into an unimaginable crisis today with people running around to find beds, drugs and oxygen.
Around 11:30 a.m. on a hot April day, a woman in her early thirties walks with the help of her husband outside the emergency ward of Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, commonly known as GTB Hospital, the second largest government hospital in Delhi. She is suspected of having COVID-19. Her condition slowly worsens. Unable to sit, she lies down at the entrance to the emergency ward. The ward is overwhelmed: stretchers are used as beds, with one touching the other, and people share beds. A long queue of hopeful people wait outside.
About half an hour later, the husband, Surender Kumar, 35, struggles alone with her body. With no one to help, he drags it from the stretcher into an ambulance. “She breathed her last while we were waiting,” says Kumar, a daily wage labourer from Bihar. Within just an hour, two people are declared dead outside the emergency ward.
Finding a bed is one of the biggest challenges today. “This is the fifth hospital I’m coming to with my mother. I called GTB Hospital. The government website showed that it had 292 vacant beds, but the hospital said it doesn’t have any. Her oxygen level is 80%. What will we do now,” asks an anxious 17-year-old standing outside the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan (LNJP) Hospital, the largest Delhi government hospital.
Though the number of new cases started rising from February 24, the Central and Delhi governments did not increase the city’s healthcare infrastructure through March. On March 1, the number of new cases was 175 and the number of active cases was 1,404. This quickly rose to 1,819 new cases and 8,838 active cases by March 31 — an increase of 939.4% and 529.4%, respectively. However, during the same period, the number of hospital beds for COVID-19 increased only by 1.6% — from 5,721 to 5,815, as per official data. Also, the number of beds in COVID Care Centres stayed stagnant at 5,525 throughout March. By April 28, the government increased the beds by 259.8%, to 20,926, compared to March 1, but this too fell terribly short of demand.
Dr. Girish Tyagi, Secretary of the Delhi Medical Council, says there is a huge gap between the demand and supply of beds, oxygen, medicines and ICU beds in Delhi. “The system has practically collapsed. The government didn’t anticipate such a spike. But there was an increase in Mumbai in February and March and we should have been better prepared,” he says.
Dr. Reddy says whatever happened in Delhi from December to April cannot be seen in isolation. “During this period, the U.K. variant of the virus, B.1.1.7., came into Delhi and Punjab and was in circulation. But people became careless. We went back to the routine practices of 2019 and we started non-COVID-19 treatment in hospitals. To convert hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients takes time,” he says. But the government should have added more beds, especially in COVID-19 Care Centres, he adds.
“The government cannot say it did not expect this situation. It has epidemiologists and experts advising it. They should have made predictions. Having said that, we do not know whether experts had advised the government and were ignored,” Dr. Tyagi says.
A senior official says there was no prediction on how the rise would be this time. “Last year, the V.K. Paul Committee had predicted that cases could go up to 15,000 a day. But this time no one knew how the rise would be. There were so many other factors in play,” the official says.
In May and June last year too, as cases started to rise, people were forced to travel from one hospital to another in search of beds. Many were unable to find a bed in a hospital, even when beds were available according to official data.
On June 27, 2020, in a video statement, Kejriwal accepted that there was a shortage of beds. “In the first week of June, there was a shortage of beds in Delhi and there were fewer tests [being conducted]. Due to a shortage of beds, some people did not get beds, and the number of deaths also started to increase,” he said. Kejriwal added that he used to get calls at nights about the shortage of beds and it was fixed later.
The situation is far worse this year as the vacancy of beds has been as low as 5%on many days and the number of vacant ICU beds has been lower than 20 for the whole of Delhi over the past one week. Last year, too, the government increased the number of beds only after the spike. Now, the government is trying to make available 1,500 more ICU beds and says these will be ready by May 10. On April 29, there were only 17 ICU beds vacant in the whole city.
Gasping for air
On April 18, Kejriwal tweeted that Delhi is facing an “acute shortage of oxygen” and it was becoming an “emergency”. On April 23, a day before the deaths at Jaipur Golden Hospital, 25 of the “sickest” patients died at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital due to an oxygen crisis. Several other hospitals also sent out distress statements reporting dwindling supplies even as the number of COVID-19 patients mounted. Many said oxygen was available at dangerously low levels. Often, oxygen supplies had reached just in time to save people, they said. Many hospitals stopped admitting patients and two major Delhi government hospitals — GTB Hospital and Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital — reduced the total number of beds by a total of 1,100.
There has been a shortage of liquid medical oxygen in the city for over 10 days, but this urgent need is yet to be resolved. It has now turned into a political blame game. On April 21, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia blamed the Haryana and Uttar Pradesh governments for not allowing a smooth supply of oxygen from private oxygen plants in those States to Delhi. The Delhi government has submitted data before the Delhi High Court suggesting that while oxygen provided to the national capital by the Centre was well short of target, some States were getting more than what they had asked for. Since April 19, the Delhi High Court has been monitoring the situation in the capital and has castigated both the Centre and the Delhi government for the lack of availability of medical oxygen and its distribution.
Ideally, there should be a buffer stock of oxygen to last at least 48 hours in hospitals, say doctors. But since the record surge in cases, hospitals have been working with smaller stocks and are refilling oxygen almost on a daily basis.
People too are scrambling for oxygen. On April 28, Jitender Kumar, a resident of Paschim Puri, stands in the queue outside an oxygen-filling plant in Naraina. He has been there since 4 a.m. “I have already lost two relatives to COVID-19 because we couldn’t get a bed in a hospital. I am standing here trying to save the third person,” he says.
The struggle to cremate the dead
However, even if there are beds and oxygen, the capital’s problems would be far from over. On April 19, Ved Prakash, 40, died inside his car while waiting outside the Sardar Patel COVID Care Centre. The centre had more than 350 vacant beds, but did not allow him admission as he had not followed the procedure, which was not in place that day. Around 9:30 p.m., Megh Singh, 60, who was waiting in queue at a crematorium to do Prakash’s last rites said, “He was critical, but he was still responding to us when we reached the centre. Now he is gone. No hospital attended to him.”
Delhi’s municipal corporations are struggling to cope with the daily pile of bodies at crematoriums and and burial grounds administered by them across the city which have, over the last 11days, witnessed the last rites of over5,800 citizens who died of COVID-19.
Funeral pyres, according to the Mayors of the three Municipal Corporations, burn round the clock — sometimes even on the ground for want of space — at 29 funeral venues spread across the 11 municipal zones in Delhi. This is despite the enhancement of capacity dedicated for the last rites of COVID-19 patients at these venues by over 93% between April 19 and April 29.
Temporary platforms have been created hurriedly at crematoriums and extra space has been allotted at burial sites to deal with the sudden surge in the numbers of the dead. The Mayors say they hope to ensure that no citizen is turned away and denied the right to cremate their kin.
The sheer magnitude of the daily death toll has forced the Bharatiya Janata Party-run civic bodies to reach out to Kejriwal for help requesting resources ranging from more hearses to an uninterrupted supply of firewood to keep the pyres lit.
According to records of the Delhi Municipal Corporation,5,808 cremations and burials with COVID-19 protocols were performed between April 19 and April 29 (6 p.m.). The Delhi government, however, recorded 3,271 COVID-19 deaths in this period. The capacity at crematoria and burial grounds on April 19 was 505; by April 29 this had increased to accommodate978 bodies.
“North Delhi Municipal Corporation (DMC) had the capacity to cremate 230 bodies till April 15 but within 10-12 days, the total capacity has been increased to 570. Three new cremation grounds have been developed besides increasing the capacity of existing ones,” North DMC Mayor Jai Prakash said in a letter to Kejriwal on April 28.
“Out of a total of 570, 304 wooden and 54 CNG pyres are fixed for COVID-19 deaths and the rest are for non-COVID-19 deaths. We are transforming ourselves as per the need of the hour,” he said. South DMC Mayor Anamika Mithilesh Singh said 20 funeral platforms recently created at two adjacent public parks in Sarai Kale Khan will be increased five-fold to 100 and beyond that if required in the coming days. East DMC Mayor Nirmal Jain said funerals at the facilities in his jurisdiction are undertaken from dawn till dusk and though waiting times have been getting longer, the corporation was trying its best to ensure that the last rites of as many citizens as possible were performed.
The North DMC Mayor has asked Kejriwal to provide at least 100 ambulances to the municipal corporations to transport patients to available healthcare facilities which could also be utilised as hearse vans in those cases of citizens losing their battle with COVID-19. He also demanded that the Delhi government direct the forest department to provide firewood from damaged or ailing trees for final rites given the increasing number of funerals.
The Mayors accused the Delhi government of giving incorrect figures related to COVID-19 deaths to hide its alleged failure at taming the pandemic. BJP spokesperson Harish Khurana alleged that the Delhi government was “politicking on deaths”.
A Delhi government source says a significant reason for the mismatch is the deaths of COVID-19 patients either on their way to hospital or at other places as they could not get admitted to a hospital on time. The discrepancy in funeral and COVID-19 deaths data maintained by the government could also be related to the fact that some are dying at home or are dying of critical illnesses aggravated by the virus, the source says.
Responding to reports on the mismatch between cremation figures and the COVID-19 death toll recorded by the Delhi government, the Health Minister told reporters on April 29 that the government has kept everything “transparent”. “This is not the time to politicise things. Six months ago, the same concern was seen, but it was proved that the numbers were accurate,” he said.
For the relatives of the dead, these measures and explanations mean little. Outside the CNG cremation chamber at Nigambodh Ghat, Dinesh Singh waits for his turn to perform the last rites of his father, Abhay Singh, 65, a retired municipal officer who was “suspected” to have died of COVID-19. Singh’s body had been lying in an ambulance for over two hours. His turn will come after four-five hours, Dinesh is told. “His body has begun to putrefy. He had retired as an inspector-rank officer. How could they treat him like this after death,” he grieves. No one has an answer.
Earlier this week, a young woman in Uttar Pradesh tweeted a cry for help. Her grandmother’s oxygen level had fallen to 40. “Pls help us in getting one bed in hospital in Bareilly,” she wrote in desperation. Soon a handle that called itself “Team Hindu Unlimited” was on her: “Stop trying to defame UP government and Yogi Ji. Delete this tweet or you will face consequences.” This ugly tweet has since been deleted, but the plaintive response of the young woman is still there. “I’m just asking for help,” she had to say.
The storm troopers were the advance guard. Now, the State itself has decided it will step in. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has threatened hospitals with punitive action if they dare to publicly speak about low supplies of oxygen. How could they when there is no shortage?Nineteen Eighty-Fourhas arrived four decades late, the Ministry of Truth has at last been established in India.
This is where we are today.
A catastrophe has hit India, caused in the main by a combination of arrogance and incompetence at the highest levels of the government and political leadership. Yet, the hubris has not ebbed and there is no sign that the competent have replaced the incompetent in dealing with the ferocious second wave of the pandemic.
Since public health services cannot deal with the catastrophe, citizens have been left to their devices to, literally, survive. When they seek each other’s help to care for the sick in their families, the vigilantes who now prowl our virtual and physical streets, threaten violence as they defend the reputation of their political heroes.
Power in one office
We may claim otherwise, but with all its extreme economic and caste-driven inequalities, Indian society was never known for its compassion. What we have become today though is something else. We have a government that has no moral compass to guide it; its only compass is to remake India into one where all are not equal and where it must be “mukt” of all diversity. In carrying out this agenda over more than five years, it has transformed the purpose and capacity of the state. To govern is not the main purpose; to create a Hindu Rashtra is the aim. To do so, it has bribed, threatened, or browbeaten all independent institutions and deprived them of an independent voice. It has made a mockery of federalism and reduced State governments to near vassals. It has centralised power in one office, the ominous sounding “PMO”. It has weakened the bureaucracy to an extent that civil servants are too terrified to do anything other than what their political masters want. To achieve its objective, it is focused entirely on winning every single election, from the municipal to the national, or failing that, engineering defections by hook or by crook so that it can wield untrammelled power.
Is it any wonder then that when the storm clouds gather, there is no one to tell the Emperor he is not wearing any clothes? There was no institution, no group and no individual in the circles of power to say that India was no Vishwaguru, that India was not special and that the pandemic was not in retreat. There was no one to tell a Chief Minister that holy as the Ganga’s waters are, this round at least will be won by the evil of SARS-CoV-2 if devotees gather every day in tens of thousands on the banks of the river.
The Election Commission of India has become such a shell of its former self that it dare not do anything that will reduce huge “road shows”, that new hallmark of Indian democracy that the ruling party specialises in. And there is no one to tell the Prime Minister that to say with pride (without wearing a mask), “I have never seen such a large crowd” at an election meeting, as he did in Asansol in mid-April when daily new cases of COVID-19 were over 200,000, is an invitation to create a public health disaster. The hubris of our political leadership has indeed turned the Government of India into a “Vishwaguru” of a certain kind — one that catalyses, not prevents, a humanitarian disaster.
A government that has lost its sense of purpose in governance will not have a machinery that can cope with a public health catastrophe. Its incompetence has descended to such levels that it cannot match numbers on supply with demand when it draws up a vaccination drive. It is so eager to shirk responsibility that it abandons a decades-long policy of free universal vaccination and then places half the burden of vaccination on the financially crippled States. It does not seek cooperation and support from the Opposition. It instead thinks it is more important to abuse former Prime Ministers who offer suggestions. And it is so obsessed with managing the narrative that it sends anonymous WhatsApp messages to the media with talking points about how to criticise the Opposition. It has created such an immoral universe that as people lie on pavements outside hospitals seeking medical help, the market feels free to engage in price gouging of the desperate.
This is a government that is incapable of showing any compassion for those who are suffering. The DNA of the state has changed so much that it does not even think it should reach out with messages of comfort to those who are bewildered with what has overwhelmed them. The political leadership is so much in love with showing its ‘strength’ that it thinks compassion is another word for weakness. A strong government is not one that uses every occasion to ask its citizens to demonstrate their sense of nationalism. It is instead one that can admit it is wrong, seek forgiveness for its actions that have created harm and show compassion for those who are struggling to stay alive.
When it does so, it can surely draw everyone into a collective effort to deal with this catastrophe. It is not just a question of competence, this is a mammoth crisis that no government can handle on its own. The Government of India needs the support of citizen groups, of the Opposition, of the courts, of the medical profession, of industry — of everyone who is willing to help get the better of this nightmare. It was in a similar situation this time last year that it had the opportunity to form a national government (https://bit.ly/3h3B6yT). It instead chose the first wave of the pandemic to further centralise power, push State governments aside, use the infamous Delhi police to throw young people into jail on false charges, issue a slew of ordinances and then railroad unpopular legislation through Parliament. It used the pandemic in 2020 not to build a healthier society but for short-term political gain to further centralise power in one office.
It may be against the nature of this government to accommodate differences of opinion and seek everyone’s help. But Indians are now struggling for something as basic as oxygen as this vast country finds itself felled not by the virus but by a government’s insensitivity and incompetence. There is much more at stake than the self-interest of one political party and one individual. Hubris and compassion sit on two mountains. Which one are we going to climb?
C. Rammanohar Reddy is Editor of the digital publication, ‘The India Forum’
Contrary to the expectations of many, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has turned out to be a true successor of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, on the foreign policy front. His visit to the United States last month has set the agenda for the wider Indo-Pacific engagement of Tokyo and its evolving priorities.
Focus on China
Right at the outset, it was clear that the crux of the discussions during this first in-person meeting between the newly anointed President of the United States, Joe Biden, and Mr. Suga would revolve around China. To begin with, Tokyo and Washington drilled down to brass tacks on their joint security partnership given the need to address China’s recent belligerence in territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas as well as in the Taiwan Strait. Both sides affirmed the centrality of their treaty alliance, for long a source of stability in East Asia, and pledged to stand up to China in key regional flashpoints such as the disputed Senkaku Islands and Taiwan. Reflecting the changed nature of conflict, both sides acknowledged the importance of extended deterrencevis-à-visChina through cooperation on cybersecurity and space technology.
Discussions also touched upon Chinese ambitions to dominate the development of new age technologies such as 5G and quantum computing. Given China’s recent pledge to invest a mammoth $1.4 trillion in emerging technologies, Washington and Tokyo scrambled to close the gap by announcing a Competitiveness and Resilience Partnership, or CoRe (https://bit.ly/3eN6DlT). The two allies earmarked billions in funding for the deployment of secure 5G networks, committed to building digital infrastructure in developing countries and promised to collaborate on setting global digital standards. Both sides have also signalled their intent to continue the Trump-era policy of pressure on China to reform economic practices such as “violations of intellectual property rights, forced technology transfer, excess capacity issues, and the use of trade distorting industrial subsidies” (https://bit.ly/2Sbb81H).
Tokyo and Washington also rallied around the standard of shared values. Both powers repeatedly emphasised their vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific that respects the rule of law, freedom of navigation, democratic norms and the use of peaceful means to settle disputes. In the aftermath of the successful Quad Summit (https://bit.ly/2Rfcp7n), both parties expressed their continued support for the four-nation grouping of the United States, India, Australia and Japan. China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, its heavy-handed suppression of protests in Hong Kong and military aggression towards Taiwan came in for heavy criticism.
Given that the Japanese premier plans to visit India as soon as the situation permits following the COVID-19 pandemic, his dealings with the U.S. are a preview of what New Delhi can expect from Tokyo.
First, one can expect a continuation of the balancing security policy against China that began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe in 2014. During a phone call with the Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Suga expressed concern over China’s “unilateral” actions in the East and South China Seas, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Crucially, India’s clashes with China in Galwan have turned public opinion in favour of a more confrontational China policy.
In just a decade, New Delhi and Tokyo have expanded high-level ministerial and bureaucratic contacts, conducted joint military exercises and concluded military pacts such as the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) logistics agreement. Further, no meeting would be complete without an affirmation of New Delhi and Tokyo’s support for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and continued willingness to work with the Quad, which is fast emerging as a central pillar of the security strategies of both nations. A Modi-Suga meeting, accompanied by the planned 2+2 Ministerial meetings, will likely aim to take stock of the state of play in the security relationship while also pushing the envelope on the still nascent cooperation on defence technology and exports.
Second, the two powers will look to expand cooperation in sectors such as cybersecurity and emerging technologies. During the Shinzo Abe years, New Delhi and Tokyo put together a digital research and innovation partnership that ran the gamut of technologies from AI and 5G to the Internet of Things and space research. As with the U.S.-Japan summit, Mr. Suga and Mr. Modi may look to deepen cooperation between research institutes and expand funding in light of China’s aforementioned technology investment programme. It is yet unclear whether Mr. Suga will attempt to stir the pot and bring up the disagreements over India’s insistence on data localisation and continued reluctance to accede to global cybersecurity agreements such as the Budapest Convention.
Third, economic ties and infrastructure development are likely to be top drawer items on the agendas of New Delhi and Tokyo. While Japan has poured in around $34 billion in investments into the Indian economy over the course of the last two decades, Japan is only India’s 12th largest trading partner (https://bit.ly/3xENISD), and trade volumes between the two stand at just a fifth of the value of India-China bilateral trade. A Modi-Suga summit will likely reaffirm Japan’s support for key manufacturing initiatives such as ‘Make in India’ and the Japan Industrial Townships. Further, India will be keen to secure continued infrastructure investments in the strategically vital connectivity projects currently under way in the Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Third country outlook
Finally, a Suga-Modi Summit would undoubtedly devote much attention to evolving a joint strategy towards key third countries and multilateral bodies. In years past, New Delhi and Tokyo have collaborated to build infrastructure in Iran and Africa, provide vital aid to Myanmar and Sri Lanka and hammer out a common Association of Southeast Asian Nations outreach policy in an attempt to counter China’s growing influence in these corners of the globe. However, unlike previous summits, the time has come for India and Japan to take a hard look at reports suggesting that joint infrastructure projects in Africa and Iran have stalled with substantial cost overruns. Tokyo will also likely continue its charm offensive on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in an attempt to get New Delhi to reverse its decision not to join the massive trade compact.
Writing in 2006, Shinzo Abe, in his book,Utsukushii Kuni E(Toward a Beautiful Country), expressed his hope that “it would not be a surprise if in another 10 years, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-U.S. and Japan-China relations”. Thus far, New Delhi has every reason to believe that Japan’s Yoshihide Suga is willing to make that dream a reality.
Harsh V. Pant is Director, Studies, at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi. Shashank Mattoo is a research intern at the ORF
The Supreme Court has issued a timely warning to the States against any attempt to clamp down on the dissemination of information about the serious health crisis besetting the country, or calls for help through social media from citizens affected by COVID-19. The comment, obviously in response to the utterly despotic threat issued by U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath that those “spreading misinformation” or “rumour” would be detained under the National Security Act (NSA) and their property seized, will surely help prevent ill-advised action by the police and the administration to treat appeals concerning shortage of hospital beds, medical oxygen and vital drugs as attempts to bring the government into disrepute. The police in Amethi registered an FIR against a man who appealed on Twitter for an oxygen cylinder for a family member for allegedly circulating a rumour and seeking to cause fear and alarm. Mr. Adityanath appears quite convinced that complaints about oxygen shortage in his State are either imaginary or, worse, malicious, and wants to treat them as attempts to “spoil the atmosphere”. While it is entirely in order that the government has directed the police to crack down on the profiteering on medicines in the black market, it is quite a different matter if the administration starts seeing all appeals for help in a grave crisis as nothing more than activities aimed at tarnishing the government’s image.
Given the propensity of such leaders to treat the voicing of grievances by citizens as a personal affront to their administrative capabilities, the Court’s warning that any attempt to stifle the people’s voices would attract action for contempt of court is quite timely and necessary. As Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who heads the Bench, remarked, any clampdown on information is contrary to basic precepts. He underscored the significance and necessity for the free flow of information during a grave crisis by recalling the role it played in containing a famine in 1970. The Court was apparently drawing inspiration from the theory, articulated by economist Amartya Sen, that the fundamental attributes of democracy — such as a free press and the need to face the people at elections and respond to political criticism — help prevent famines. However, how far the present regime feels itself accountable to the people at large is now unclear. It faces criticism both within the country and from the international media that a major cause of the crisis is its reluctance to acknowledge its own failure to prepare for a calamitous second wave. Questions fired at it by High Courts are also on these lines. Any move to stifle such criticism or believe that this is a problem of managing perceptions will be of no avail if the infections and body count keep rising alarmingly and the health system draws close to a collapse.
With India’s official death toll from the coronavirus crossing 200,000, it is now placed fourth, after the United States, Mexico and Brazil. This is just another of the grim milestones in India’s wrenching journey through the pandemic, but it dents the government’s year-long endeavour to obfuscate and dodge unpleasant reality. At Health Ministry press briefings, officials have long sought to convey that India’s death toll as a fraction of its population was lower than that of several countries. This is fact and continues to be so. The three countries with a higher death toll have, per million, 1,600-1,800 deaths between them. India’s is only about 150. This low count is meant to impress that India has done a better job in protecting its people. These numbers and the slackening of the coronavirus curve in winter even prompted respected scientists to hypothesise if genetic or peculiar social circumstances had combined to confer a certain broad immunity to the vast heterogenous population.
On the other hand, a spectrum of independent experts have pointed out the problems in the system of death-reporting in India. Though undercounting deaths in a pandemic is expected, the concern in India has been that of deliberate omission. As this paper pointed out, on April 16, as per Gujarat’s health bulletin, there were 78 official deaths. But 689 bodies were either cremated or buried following COVID-19 protocol. Last year, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and West Bengal did not count deaths in those who had co-morbidities as COVID-19 deaths. However, these backlogs were corrected over time. Two in three deaths in India occur at home and 14% of deaths are not registered. There are wide discrepancies within States on how many deaths are actually recorded and among these, how many are attributable to COVID-19. However, the ferocity of the second wave has brought COVID-19 deaths into renewed focus. Visuals of bodies and of people on the threshold of death from a lack of access to basic medical facilities such as oxygen have made it harder for the government to convince people that the coronavirus is better controlled in India than anywhere else. The aged continue to be the most vulnerable to the infection but that India on average being younger than the West is less vulnerable to death is a specious argument. The absolute number of the aged — coupled with the fact that they lack the kind of access to health care their counterparts in developed countries have, means that the coronavirus, left unchecked, would wreak havoc. Even now, less than 4% Indians above 60 have been fully vaccinated. This when over 15 crore vaccine doses have been administered so far. India must redouble its efforts at being honest and transparent with its numbers, however unpalatable they may be.