Chahat Rana

ON THE MORNING OF 17 APRIL, amidst a chorus of loud cheers, Narendra Modi walked across a stage to stand at a podium, all set to address an election rally in the city of Asansol, in West Bengal. As the prime minister found his place at the podium, he promptly removed his snugly-fit white mask, rubbed his face and stroked his flowing white beard. For a few seconds, Modi took in the cheering crowd through impassive eyes, before raising his hands in a namaskar above his head. The rally had begun.

Thousands of supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party had gathered at Asansol’s Nigha airbase. The venue was chosen because it could accommodate more people than the Asansol Polo Ground, which is where most local political rallies are usually held. BJP workers were certain of a huge turnout and insisted that the large grounds of the airbase would allow them to ensure social distancing, as necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. By 10 am, as the crowd grew—people sat in plastic chairs squished next to each other, or stood huddled together in groups at the back—social distancing appeared to be a distant reality.

As Modi delivered his speech, taking jabs at West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress and its chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, a mass of faces looked on. Some attendees sported a loosely fitted saffron mask, often embellished with the BJP’s lotus symbol. Others wore surgical masks around their necks or up to their mouths, leaving their noses exposed. And still others could be seen sitting without any masks at all, coughing into their hands, before looking up and waving at a camera.

Five minutes into his address, after delivering some preliminary remarks, Modi once again surveyed the crowd, before telling them that he wanted to express a shikayat—a complaint. “I have come here twice before, before the Lok Sabha elections, to ask for your vote,” he said. “But, at those times, not even one-fourth of the crowd I see here was in attendance.” He added, “Aaj aapne aisa dam dikhaya hai, aisi takat dikhayi hai. Main jahan dekhta hun wahan mujhe log dikh rahein hain, baki kuchh dikhta nahin”—Today you have shown such courage, such force. Wherever I look, I see people, nothing else. After that, the crowd erupted into chants of “Modi, Modi.”

In mid April, as the health infrastructure in several states was collapsing during the second wave of the pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a massive election rally in West Bengal. PTI

On the same day, about a thousand kilometres away, Manish Jangra, a 26-year-old doctor in Delhi, was going through one of the most traumatic days of his life. Jangra, who works at the central government-run Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, had tested positive for COVID-19 a few days earlier. On 17 April, he began developing severe symptoms of the disease. He struggled to breathe, and his oxygen-saturation levels plummeted well beneath the minimum levels expected in a young and healthy adult. “So, without a second thought, my friend and I headed to RML on a scooter,” Jangra told me. “I knew if I don’t get oxygen support in time, I might not survive this.”

A rude surprise awaited Jangra outside the hospital’s trauma centre. Citing full capacity and a lack of beds, the guards outside the hospital refused to grant him entry. “I told them I am an employee,” he said. “They knew me, I am sure, some of them even recognised me. It was heartbreaking, standing outside begging them to let me in.” As Jangra’s friend, a doctor himself, went to speak to senior administrative officials, he waited close to the hospital’s triage ward for COVID-19 patients, sitting alongside desperate family members hoping to get loved ones admitted to the hospital. Within a few minutes, Jangra felt like he was losing consciousness—he described it as “slipping into the darkness.” “I felt like I couldn’t just wait anymore; I was in panic and everyone around me was in the same state,” he said. “As a doctor, I have never felt so helpless. I could hardly take care of myself, let alone others around me.”

After an hour of waiting, Jangra was finally admitted to the triage ward, where patients were being given first-aid support until beds were available in the dedicated COVID-19 ward. The ward was brimming with severely ill patients, all in need of some level of oxygen support. Jangra shared a bed and the two of them passed the same mask back and forth. “Everyone was sharing a bed as well as oxygen at the ward,” he said. Another long wait began, this time for admission to the COVID-19 ward. It was a ward he was familiar with, a ward where he had spent the past year tirelessly working to save lives.

Elsewhere in Delhi, similar scenes of despair and desperation unfurled. As a healthcare professional, Jangra was one of the lucky few who was able to fight his way to a bed with oxygen supply. Through the second half of April till early May, thousands waited outside hospitals or shuttled between various healthcare facilities in ambulances to secure treatment for their loved ones. At the time, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government said there were still a few thousand beds available in the national capital, but securing a bed with oxygen supply or inside an intensive-care unit was next to impossible.  

In other parts of the country, public-health systems had already begun to crumble under the deluge of COVID-19 cases and deaths. In Gujarat, Modi’s home state, patients were dying inside ambulances and outside of hospitals before they could access hospital care. At a gas crematorium, the metal frames of a furnace melted as bodies burnt round the clock. Open grounds were turned into mass-cremation sites, and families ferried bodies of deceased relatives to open fields in nearby rural areas because they were sick of waiting outside crematoria to perform last rites. As stocks of vital resources, including oxygen, medication and testing kits, were depleted across the country, the demand continued to surge and desperate families turned to the black market, buying ineffective medication at exorbitant rates. Defunct government helplines and a failing public-health system compelled people to send out urgent pleas for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and medication via social media. Civil-society and volunteer groups stepped in to fill in the vacuum left by ineffective governance.

As India rapidly turned into the global epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, political leaders continued to hold massive election rallies, and to champion the gathering of millions of devotees for the Kumbh Mela. The newly appointed chief minister of Uttarakhand, Tirath Singh Rawat, defended the decision to hold the massive religious gathering in his state amid rising cases. “Most importantly, Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga,” he said. “Ma Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona.” The Modi government spent hundreds of crores on the Kumbh, which saw the congregation of 3.5 million people.

The country’s citizens paid a massive price for this. All evidence points to the fact that India’s official figure of around three hundred thousand deaths from COVID-19 until the end this May is a gross underestimate. According to a report published by the New York Times, India’s true death toll was at least two times the official toll reported by May 24. Even this, the report said, was a conservative estimate; it pegged a “more likely” death toll at more than five times the official count, at 1.6 million estimated deaths. A possible “worse scenario,” the report said, might mean an estimated death toll of 4.2 million.

The magnitude of unseen and unacknowledged COVID-19 deaths was best reflected in the corpses found floating in the Ganga or buried in the sand along its banks. With crematoria running out of space in Uttar Pradesh, people began dumping bodies into the river. Instead of helping conduct the last rites of the deceased, authorities in the state were more concerned about removing the shrouds over their shallow graves and covering them with more sand, so that they were harder for journalists to capture in photographs.

As COVID-19 patients continued to die due to a lack of oxygen in Uttar Pradesh’s hospitals, the Allahabad High Court observed that their deaths were “not less than a genocide.” International media organisations called out the Modi administration for choosing to protect its image over its people. “Despite efforts to squelch the bad press, everyone knows who is to blame for the fatal disaster unfolding today,” an editorial in the Washington Post said. Editors of one of the world’s most reputed medical journals, The Lancet, wrote that, at times, the Modi government “has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the pandemic.”

As of mid May, daily COVID-19 case numbers had officially begun to drop again, leaving room for more optimistic analysis and declarations that the country had surpassed the peak of the second wave. This implied that case numbers were only going to drop from now on. Such optimistic projections, however, are based on official figures—figures that scientists know better than to rely on. Further, even if this current wave is truly on a decline, there is no certainty as to how this pandemic will pan out in the next few months. Government officials have already declared that a third wave of the pandemic is well on its way.

Regardless of how early officials predict another wave, the country will continue to lose more lives unless its leaders change the way they respond to this humanitarian crisis. Currently, the government is responding by filing first-information reports against those who question its vaccination policy, booking desperate family members for posting appeals on social media in order to secure oxygen for a dying relative and harassing overburdened healthcare workers into resigning from their posts. “In short, you are spending valuable resources to control information and manage perception,” Patel said. “It is despicable. People will never forget this violation of their trust in governmental systems and institutions.”

As a former health secretary who has closely observed how healthcare systems operate in India, Rao said that it is still not too late for the Modi government to rectify its mistakes and fall back on the mechanisms that helped India deal with public-health crises such as the AIDS and polio epidemics in the past. “There are clear-cut boundaries laid down as to what the centre must do and what states must do in matters of infectious diseases,” Rao said. She believed that these guidelines should be followed by the Modi government instead of changing things around and centralising processes merely to claim credit for the job. “And as for the credits, the prime minister does not need his photo on the vaccine certificate,” Rao said. “If lives are protected and people feel they are cared for, such outward demonstrations are not required. People know.”

Nawab Malik, the minister of minority development in the state of Maharashtra, had a reasonable take on the issue. “The way PM Modi’s photo is put on vaccination certificates, we demand that PM’s photo should be put on death certificates also,” Malik said. “If they are taking credit for COVID-19 vaccination, then, they will have to take responsibility for deaths too.”

[The above is an excerpt. The full article can be read at]

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