APPORTIONING THE REAL COVID BLAME IN INDIA

This is a historic moment in India, for the scale of crisis upon us, and the precipice we’re facing.

Whichever way this goes, it is important to remember that is a man-made crisis on a scale that demands accounting for, for the sake of history and for never repeating it again. We need to be very clear about the trajectory in the blame game.

One of the more cogent overviews.

CITIZENS ARE NOT TO BLAME

It is very important to stress on this, in times when the real responsibility is being consistently shrugged off. It is absolutely wrong to blame the complacency of people for this horrific second surge, as way too many people are doing.

Everything was going according to the playbook from August 2020 onwards in India. The death toll mounted and fell reasonably quickly (it was protracted in regions like Maharashtra because of more stringent and prolonged lockdown). By November, it was down to a trickle but very significantly, had not altogether vanished. This point bears repeating — it had not vanished. That is why the cautiousness of Covid protocols was still necessary. And that is also why this is not the second wave but the second surge — the first wave never got over.

Given the examples of most countries around the world that went back to a relative normality, east and west, by opening up gradually within the cautious confines of Covid protocols, there was a strong case for India to do so too. Our own neighbour, Pakistan, had gone through a horrific period in June and July that vanished as quickly, and some degree of normality had resumed fairly quickly without much strife.

There were always going to be spikes off and on, but nothing out-of-hand, provided large groups of people were not encouraged to get together (including religious gatherings) — this is the key commonality all around the world where normality was being approached. There were limits placed to how many people could gather at a place — ranging from 20 to 2000, around the world, depending on their circumstances. So, the small groups of people who met during festive season, the fatigue with masks in public places — all of that happened in every one of these countries that strained for a semblance of normality as deaths dropped. These are people everywhere, not cattle.

It happened in every single country that showed an upward trend overall, right through their respective surges as well. Meanwhile, it should also not be forgotten that 60–70% of the Indian population would find it impossible to socially distance anyway, and that also played out without any glitches right through the months when the virus subsided. Till mid-February, after much of the festive season was already done, things were largely under control. This is where the criminality began.

HISTORIC BLUNDER OF GLOBAL PROPORTIONS

Either for political reasons or pure illiteracy (that this dispensation has so amply demonstrated again and again in the last five years), the government started stating publicly from mid-January that Corona had been defeated in India. This led to some part of the population easing up too, but to blame them for what was to follow is rather like blaming individuals who take a flight, use air-conditioner or plastic bags occasionally, for climate change. While the massive fossil fuel industries or forces of rabid deforestation go entirely unquestioned.

This second surge seems to have begun in Nagpur first, in the second week of February or so, and it seemed to coincide with multiple political rallies that were held, by all parties (like the TRS in Chhattisgarh). That should have rung warning bells; in fact, it did — in the form of warnings to the government by scientists. Instead, two gargantuan blunders were committed.

Nowhere in the world where crowd events were being allowed to happen, did anyone see the scale of back-to-back cricket matches that took place in Ahmedabad (3 lakhs or 300,000 in five matches) in March, the overwhelming majority maskless and not socially distanced (despite allowing only 50% capacity each time). This was done so that the authorities could show off the largest cricket stadium in the world in its proper glory (what use is a large stadium if empty?), named after the man who gave those orders. Who then proceeded to allow the Maha Kumbh Mela to take place (with his presence proudly leading them on) — the largest Hindu festival, held every twelve years most prominently at Haridwar, actually brought forward by a year due to astrological calculations — which was attended by 70 lakh or 7 million people over one month. Yes, 7 million people, which is actually considerably less than what was expected.

A small cross-section from the Maha Kumbh Mela 2021. (credit: AFP)

These two super-spreader events are unparalleled in the history of pandemics, not just with Covid-19. The three locations of Covid explosions thereafter suggest the direct connection with these two events. Gujarat, Western UP and Delhi — the last the largest nodal hub for the Maha Kumbh. In fact, the Maha Kumbh pilgrims spread it all around India — Madhya Pradesh reported that 99% of Kumbh pilgrims who came back home tested positive for Covid (which explains the mayhem going on in MP now, though official figures are clearly being manipulated this time). In Mumbai, a prominent music director Shravan Rathod, who returned from the Kumbh, died of Covid on 22nd April — just a single high-profile warning. Imagine what the Covid-positive Kumbh-returnees unleashed while traveling back and after reaching their destinations.

And then, of course, came the multiple election rallies, around the country (the main reason why the government wanted to give an aura of normality to proceedings) — which actually happened with all the signs of a scary surge all around. During this period, at the transparent behest of this dispensation, the West Bengal elections were divided into 8 phases, over a month — independent India’s longest ever state election — just because the BJP saw an advantage in that (by giving their campaigners more time), in a pandemic year, during verified increasing infections. Am repeating this copiously because of how unbelievable it all is. And in Asansol, West Bengal, the maskless PM actually bragged about the massive gathering in a rally.

In all of this, how do we even get our heads around the INR 13,450 crore (about 2 billion dollars) central vista project — the rebuilding of India’s government and parliamentary offices? This vanity project for the PM (in the lines of the world’s largest statue and largest cricket stadium, built with public money and completed in 2018 and 2021 respectively, for INR 3000 crores/ $430 million and a reconstruction amount of INR 800 crores/ $110 million) has now, in this unprecedented time of crisis, been termed as an “essential service” and going ahead despite the universal gasps of outrage, and of course, disbelief.

This is all batshit fiction territory, that overzealous editors wouldn’t clear for its supposed whimsy, that readers would find over-the-top.

This dispensation has got away with a lot in the last five years causing misery to millions — demonetisation, GST, NRC, a brutal unplanned lockdown, new farm laws that they’ve refused to engage on, but this is an unparalleled low, a global crime, for which it will not be forgiven internationally, for the risk it presents worldwide. The narrative has now slipped from its grasp, much like their masks have.

COVID-21?

It is important to stress that in this second surge, the nature of Covid has changed in India. Whether it is the B.1.617 double mutation or the mutant N440K (that is seen to be “10 to 1000 times more infectious”), there is little doubt that this is not the same virus attack as the one before (that people are wrongly calling the “first wave”, as it had never got over). This one seems far more virulent and is seriously affecting younger people more, which is frightening. Nor is it conforming to the relatively more benign warm weather patterns discernible empirically till now. Does all of this warrant a new name for this new kind of coronavirus to differentiate from the previous one, for both coverage and medical reasons?

Lung damage, blood clots and heart failure are being seen more commonly now, though not receiving oxygen on time, and enough of it, appears to be the by far the biggest cause of deaths even now.

(Credit: Unicef)

COMPOUNDING THE FELONY

As if allowing such super-spreader events was not enough, an even more unforgivable crime, if even possible, is the lack of available oxygen for those requiring it. We’ve all known since week one of the pandemic, from March 2020, that oxygen is the primary life-saver with Covid. It has been that way worldwide.

Of what use were those stringent lockdowns in India (causing so much devastation) if this most obvious and basic medical need was not ramped up on any meaningful scale? Why has even our capital city now joined the ranks of Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt and Jordan in its desperation for oxygen?

Why were oxygen exports in India doubled in 2020 from previous years? Why were oxygen cylinders and BiPAP machines not arranged for door-to-door essential services, which would have freed the hospitals up as well? Why are gurdwaras (bless the Sikh community all over again) doing oxygen langars, while the central government actually is preventing the Delhi government from procuring oxygen, so that they look bad? And the UP government arresting people who are trying to provide oxygen to people, or even desperate relatives asking people for oxygen cylinders? Or threatening to seize the property of those who made such noises? However outlandishly it reads on the page, this is clear as day and absolutely real. What worse depths is the de-civilisation of society going to touch?

The focus on cases and not deaths is also perhaps responsible for this. The messaging was always about preventing infections, not deaths. That is crazy because the scale of the former is impossible to control but not so with the latter. And given that oxygen was very prominently the way to bring down the death toll, every single authority would have focussed on having enough oxygen, even in excess, to demonstrate preparation. It is actually conservative to say that 60–70% of the deaths that have occurred in this second surge is due to the lack of oxygen.

The politicians who belong in a hall of infamy.

ABANDONED BY THE MEDIA

It is now well established that most of the mainstream Indian media chose to sell the governmental line of deception, obfuscation and false celebration to its people. Self-preservation and greed have a pretty thin line running between them and it is up to the beholder to determine its placement.

But it takes a special brand of thick skin and venality to touch the lows the Indian media did this time.

A few online outlets like Newslaundry are holding the mainstream media to account.

What is befuddling though is the other side of the media, the one that’s not transparently sold out, that chooses to focus on worst-case scenarios — literally the extreme end of it, and ignore all discussion or conversation of less sordid eventualities (which often have more empirical facts on its side). Like how NDTV paraded several epidemiologists last year pretty much forecasting Armageddon in India — that so embarrassingly proved to be completely false. They’re doing exactly the same again, with this second surge, the levels of panic mongering either demonstrating a strange agenda, an insular illiteracy or mental illness.

There is also this ridiculous facet about this media, even at its least venal, where it just shows both sides without applying any judgment of its own. So, it’ll show the Delhi government accusing the centre of not allowing it to work, then show the centre accuse the Delhi government of incompetence but the media outlet will do zero homework and make no judgment whatsoever about who is really telling the truth. In fact, the anchors often join the litany of public voices bemoaning the centre-state fight, as if both sides are to equally blame. This is also the kind of journalism that leads to the kind of riots we saw after the Delhi elections and what we’re seeing now in West Bengal — as lives get lost and both sides blame each other but absolutely no one tries to get to the bottom of it. Given how utterly discernible the pattern is, it is not at all far-fetched to say that this is actually one side getting away with murder, again and again and again.

It is up to the international media to say it as it really is.

Now, we seem to be back to square one. The same old howls for national lockdown have been predictably renewed — as nonsensical a proposition as locking down all of Europe at the same time, based on Covid fire burning in some countries. This, despite M. Vidyasagar, head of a government-appointed group of scientists modelling the trajectory of infection, categorically stating that a nationwide lockdown is a bad idea. But will that stop this government?

This new double mutant of the coronavirus appears to have more lethal properties than what we encountered previously. If the existing vaccines cannot counter it (which we cannot be sure of yet), then it probably also means that previously infected people are at risk again as well. Or, it could play out that previously infected people are immune and the effectiveness of the vaccines further add to that number, making localised herd immunity a matter of time, and therefore this horrific moment a temporary storm that should subside soon.

Whatever happens from here, on all the evidence above, the one thing that is absolutely clear is that this dispensation sees human lives as something utterly replaceable, like furniture. And lost lives as useless, disposable and forgettable as broken furniture. Since as individuals, we don’t have to behave like our pusillanimous and unimaginative media, it is time to make up our minds about where the blame falls. Multiple campaigns like this and this, unprecedented in the history of independent India, are just the beginning of this. It will take other forms eventually, including legal recourse. It will be interesting to see where the constitution leads us on this.

This is a moment of truth for India. What has happened is criminal — whether blatant neglect, deliberate incompetence or direct intent. But we must blame the right people — given the evidence discernible. Do not blame the common citizens. That will let the real criminals off the hook.