Covid-19 Mismanagement: Can India 'Do' a Brazil ?
Jail Bolsonaro, the far right President of Brazil, is a worried man these days. The next round of elections for the post of President is merely a year away and there is a strong possibility that his bete noire Lula - former President of Brazil between 2003 and 2011 - can be in the ring to challenge him. The Supreme Court of Brazil has annulled Lula's two bribery convictions, and if he plans the 75 year old charismatic Lula can give him a tough challenge.
The worrisome aspect is the unfolding Parliamentary Enquiry, which seeks to focus on the way the Brazil government handled the pandemic, what his critics call 'disastrous and potentially criminal response to Covid that has killed 4,00,000 Brazilians and the nightmare still continues.
An indication of the fact that this enquiry is not going to be a formality can be gauged from the way one of its key members, Sen Humberto Costa, who was a former health minister, put it; he said, “It is a true health, economic, and political tragedy, and the main responsibility lies with the president,” and he believes there is enough evidence to conclude that Bolsonaro committed “crimes against humanity". Costa is not alone in his assessment of Bolsonaro, many other analysts have also used similar label for him.
It has been widely reported how Bolsonaro - with his convoluted understanding of the pandemic - led his country to the abyss. Apart from openly disagreeing with or expressing his opposition to Covid appropriate behaviour - like wearing a mask, maintaining physical distancing - he is reported to have addressed rallies with none of the participants wearing masks etc.
Apart from the way the Bolsonaro government promoted ineffective treatments such as taking Hydroxychloroquine, or failed to impose lockdowns or promote social distancing or Brazil witnessing three health ministers during the pandemic, last January’s devastating healthcare collapse in the Amazon would also be under the radar of the enquiry when hospitals ran out of oxygen and patients died of asphyxiation.
A report in The Guardian states that a key aspect of this investigation, which can prove to be most damaging, seems to be the way Bolsonaro regime handled the issue of vaccination for its 212 million citizens despite the fact that the health ministry had received at least 11 offers to supply vaccines. Critics as well as health professionals both agree that this inability to vaccinate citizens had led to thousands of avoidable deaths. Why did the government not take up the issue of vaccination seriously? The only plausible explanation is that the regime allegedly calculated pursuit of herd immunity.
While Brazil under Bolsonaro mismanaged the Covid challenge, the United States under Trump proved to be the worst.
USA, the world's most powerful nation, which has a long history of controlling infectious diseases and had enough time at hand to prepare when the pandemic was rampaging across Asia and then Europe, but it just floundered leading to unavoidable tragedies and deaths of around 0.6 million Americans.
Today, one can easily see how “an early vacuum of leadership at almost every government level, with the message from the White House that the virus was not anything to worry about, Americans unwittingly spread the lethal virus to loved ones and strangers alike,” as this article in an American daily posited.
One can recall how on occasions President Trump made a light of the Covid challenge, failed to observe Covid appropriate behaviour including wearing of masks or even maintain physical distancing, ignored sincere advices from nation's infectious diseases experts, propagated ineffective treatment and believed in or even talked about conspiracy theories - popular in the right-wing ecosystem - that it is China virus.
No doubt Trump’s handling of the pandemic leading to unnecessary loss of lives and innumerable tragedies played a role in his not getting re-elected to the top post.
With the exit of Trump and the ascent of Biden to the top post - who had never underestimated the challenge posed by the pandemic - there is a remarkable improvement in the country’s situation. The massive vaccination programme undertaken by the Biden administration there shows that the US has finally gotten out of the abyss in which it found itself last year.
With a worldview that can be called 'exclusivist', 'populist' or 'rightwing' as shared by both Trump and Bolsonaro, it is not just a coincidence that America under President Trump and India under PM Narendra Modi - both of whom reportedly shared an 'enthusiastically friendly relationship'- fared quite similarly when it came to dealing with the pandemic.
It is now history how India had its first case of Covid reported from Kerala (January 27, 2020). Looking at the havoc the virus was creating at Wuhan and elsewhere, there were immediate calls from health activists as well as opposition politicians like Rahul Gandhi to take appropriate measures to rein it in. It was suggested that flights coming from such 'infected' countries be stopped or proper checks be done. Not only all those warnings were ignored, India organised a big event at the end of February 20 to welcome Trump to Ahmedabad, which was attended by lakhs of people.
We can imagine that with no major restrictions on travellers from Covid affected countries coming here, how the virus had a free run. And suddenly in the third week of March - when the number of cases were not that high, world's harshest nationwide lockdown was announced at a four-hour notice - without taking into confidence the different stakeholders including the states and burearucratic apparatus and making any preparations for it. As expected, it wreaked massive havoc on the lives of common people; millions of migrant workers had to walk hundreds of miles back home because all the transport had been stopped, many died on the way.
More than a year after lockdown - which was rescinded in phases - the situation in India looks further grim today. As of now, India has recorded more than 20 million cases of coronavirus - second only to the US - and witnessed more than 226,000 deaths, although the real toll is thought to be far higher. The daily case load has neared the 4,00,000 mark, which is alarming to say the least. Epidemologists have predicted that the situation is going to get worse before it starts improving.
It is a stark reality that there are hardly enough life saving medicines or vaccine stocks available. Hospital beds are also running short and pictures of two-three patients lying on a single bed are going viral on the internet. Oxygen is also in short supply. Despite the fact that the government got more than one year for preparations, it has badly mismanaged things. News reports of people dying in hospitals in the nation's capital and elsewhere in the country because of unavailability of oxygen are becoming common.
India, known as World's Pharmacy for providing cheap drugs and vaccines to the rest of the world, is stretching its hands even before neighbouring countries for necessary medicines and hospital accessories.
The great gap between the reality on the ground and how the Bharatiya Janata Party-led dispensation viewed it can be understood from the simple fact that despite warnings from experts, even its own parliamentary committee, the government failed to make war like preparations to combat the second wave, which was going to be deadly as warned by everyone. Neither the government realised the key importance of vaccination of broadest section of people and nor did it make arrangements to pre-book vaccines from companies, nor did it see to it that the installation of oxygen plants is accelerated in various states or plants already closed are restarted.
Instead, the government was engaged in patting its own back for its ‘victory’ over Covid way back in January itself. The resolution passed by the party in February 2021 even lauded the PM's “able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership” in defeating Covid.
As expected, the severity of the second wave of the pandemic and the governments complete unpreparedness to face it has exposed Modi's ‘strong and decisive leadership’ and is being increasingly termed as the most ‘incompetent administrator’ that independent India has ever had.
Leading newspapers of the world have carried long write-ups and editorials castigating the Modi-led regime's callousness, apathy and misgovernance for this second surge. They have written about the 'crimes against humanity' which are being unfolded on the people or they have targeted the “Modi government’s abominable, grotesque mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic” and blamed it for what they have termed 'negligent manslaughter', or unpacked the 'colossal failure of policymaking' to its 'general callousness, crass electoral considerations and sheer ineptitude'.
Quantum jumps in deaths due to Covid (e.g. according to a NDTV report Delhi which is one of the worst affected cities has seen a quantum jump of five times deaths than is usually witnessed in a month of April) in different parts of India symbolised by the ongoing cremations at old established places and newly demarcated places have caused a lot of unease in the ruling dispensation as well.
The primary reason behind this increasing unease has more to do with the fact that it has severely impacted Modi and his government's well-crafted image not only in India but the world over and has opened up the first significant possibility of changing the narrative about the Modi regime. Whatever might its spin masters say, it is being increasingly seen as singularly responsible for leading the country to this abyss.
The ruling dispensation is now finding itself clueless about how to move ahead and feverish attempts are on to craft a fresh narrative.
Dattatreya Hosbale, the number two in the RSS hierarchy, raised an altogether different point by saying that the more we talk about these deaths, these unfolding tragedies, it will be used to advantage by anti-India forces and they would bring bad name to the country.
Perhaps External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was more forthright about the idea of changing the narrative. He openly exhorted Indian ambassadors and high commissioners posted across the world in a zoom meeting that the "one sided" narrative in international media about failure of Modi and handling the Pandemic needs to be countered.
No doubt the more the government and its representatives engage themselves in countering this 'one sided narrative' the more India will become a laughing stock before the world.
Whether S Jaishankar or 'Yug Purush' (as his followers call him) Modi wants to believe it or not, photos of cremation grounds where dead bodies are piling up have sort of become a defining image of the present regime.
These cremation grounds not only emphasise the failure of the ruling dispensation to control the pandemic but also expose the regime, which claims to usher us into Hindu Rashtra but has miserably failed to even protect their own lives during a pandemic.
Now, the question arises -- what is next in the battle against Covid ?
It’s uncertain whether the PM and his team of advisers will get up one fine morning with a change of heart and declare the pandemic as a national emergency - as demanded by various opposition parties - and take their help in this campaign. There are also questions about whether PM Modi would decide to scrap the project of building a Central Vista in Delhi - which involves more than Rs 13,450 Crore - amid the pandemic, a project which has increasingly started to look Nerovian, and whether he will decide to put the funds instead to give free vaccines to everyone or providing financial support to families on margins.
This is not going to happen in the nearby future.
And whether one wants it or not, everyone who loves and respects human life will have to keep raising one's voice against the way this regime has landed us in this place, so that one day we can usher in a better, humane, caring government would put a permanent end to all avoidable deaths.
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