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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 22, New Delhi, May 15, 2021

Managing the Covid 19 Pandemic: Executive’s failures lead to Judiciary’s Directives | P S Jayaramu

Friday 14 May 2021

by P S Jayaramu *

For nearly 15 months, India is affected by the killer Covid -19 Pandemic. The first traces of it began when a group of Indian students returned from the Wuhan Province of China in January 2020 and tested positive for the virus. However, the Pandemic started spreading nationally from March 2020. That is when, the Prime Minister Modi addressed the nation and announced sudden nation-wide lockdown. The sudden announcement was reminiscent of the equally sudden demonitisation decision announced by him in November 2016.Though the decision was taken to arrest the spread of the Virus and help the health system to brace itself to deal with the situation, the disastrous consequences of the sudden lockdown and the resultant sea of humanity of migrant labourers walking hundreds of miles to their homes in search of security to their lives were heart rendering.

The lockdown did not help arrest the spread of the virus in a substantial way. The first wave peaked in September 2020, with death tolls mounting, though the Government and the corporate media kept hammering that we are better off compared to the Western nations like UK, Italy and the US. A poor consolation at that!

As for Covid management, though the nation’s prime vaccine manufacturers started getting into collaboration with the outside world for the manufacture of Vaccines, the Government’s emphasis on national preparedness in terms of ramping up health Infrastructure remained limited.

The monsoon session of the Parliament was dropped on grounds of the Pandemic. Much against the demand of the Opposition, the winter session too was cut short as the Government was not interested in any discussion with the Opposition Parties about its preparedness to deal with the the health disaster. The farmers agitation on the Delhi borders against the passage of the the Farm Laws which the Government has not resolved even to this day pushed the pandemic to the back burner.

The only thing the Government did was to allocate a sum of ₹35000 crores in the Union Budget 2021-22 towards vaccine development. Earlier, the Modi Government had floated the ‘PM Cares Fund’, inviting contributions from the citizens and industry disregarding the criticisms of the Opposition that the existing Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund should be continued to draw contributions for the said purpose. Questions raised under the RTI elicited an official response from the PMO that details cannot be divulged! In an act of irrational exuberance, the Health minister claimed towards the end of February 2021 that we had reached the ‘end game’ in the pandemic.( The Economic Times, 27th February, 2021). The ever loyal BJP top brass passed a resolution praising Modi for leading to ‘victory’ over the virus.( The Times of India, 22nd February, 2021)

The deadly Second Wave :

At the time of writing, the country has registered per day over four lakh new cases and over 4000 deaths, with some experts predicting between 6-8 lakh cases and over 5000 deaths by mid June. The increasing surge in rural areas are unfortunately not being reported adequately. The Government ignored the warnings made by the Experts Committee in late January 2021 about the second wave engulfing the country by the second week of February. The Standing Committee of the Parliament, attached to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare predicted the shortage of oxygen and other vital equipments way back in November 2020 and had asked the Government to spell out its plans to handle the situation. The Committee had made specific proposals to strengthen hospital facilities at the cities and districts.( Meghana S ‘Report: Parliamentary Panel predicted second wave in November 2020’, Newslaundry, April 28th, 2021, also, Economic Times, 29th April, 2021). There are reports about experts of the Indian SARS-CoV Genome Sequencing Consortia (INSACOG), warning in March about the second wave hitting the country in an exponential manner. One of the experts who spoke to the media recently said that the Group submitted its report to the Health Secretary asking him to bring it to the notice of the Prime Minister. ( cited in Karan Thapar,“we warned the Government in early March of Covid Surge, impossible to believe Modi was not told”, Wire, 4th May, 2021)

The political leadership’s obsession with the Assembly elections by holding campaigns attended by lakhs of people ( PM Modi said gleefully in one of his campaign speeches in West Bengal that he had never seen such a crowd) and the way it allowed the super spreader ‘Khumbh Mela’ in Haridwar led to phenomenal increase in cases. The renowned medical journal Lancet has, among other observations, come down heavily on the National Task Force for not holding a single meeting between January and April. ( The Times of India, 9th May, 2021) The most worring thing for the Modi Government must be the spate of writings in the international media pointing to serious limitations in its handling of the Crisis, with many of them holding the PM directly responsible for the worsening situation.

Ad-hocism in Government’s responses:

In the initial stages, the emergency clearance given to the Serim Institute’s Covi shield vaccine and the Bharat Biotech Company led to vaccination of doctors and health workers began in early January 2021, followed by vaccinating the Senior Citizens and the vulnerable population from 1st March. While this was laudable, the sad reality is that the Pandemic’s second wave has acquired enormous proportions since the 1st week of April. The huge surge in cases has led to the collapse of the health system resulting in acute shortage of oxygen facilities, ventilators and ICU beds in the major metropolitan cities, not to speak of the low levels of preparedness in tier- 2 and tier-3 cities and rural areas.

It is against the background of the exponential rise in cases that we need to examine the limitations of some of Modi Government’s recent decisions as part of its Covid management exercise.

1) The Central Government revised its vaccine policy on 1st May dividing supply by 50 pecent each to itself and the States. However, it has led to problems regarding supply chains and logistical hurdles faced specially by private hospitals. Instead, the Centre should, based on inputs from State, evaluate the requirement of vaccines, procure and distributed them among States in a need-based manner. When the Centre centralises the distribution of oxygen to States why not regarding vaccines? The Centre’s decision is perceived by many States as an exercise to wriggle out of its responsibilities.

2) The decision to vaccinate people above the age group of 18-44 from 1st May. While at one level the decision needs to be applauded as more and more young people are falling victims to the virus, the Government should have done its homework about the requirements of vaccines by the States and the quantum of vaccines the manufacturers would be able to supply to the Central and State Governments. That such detailed calculations were not made is seen from the acute shortage of vaccines leading to postponement of the the vaccination to youth above 18 years by a few weeks in many parts of the country.( The New Indian Express, 30th April 2021) Vaccine shortage has also resulted in many States not being able to give the second dose in time to those who have already received the first shot. Needless to say, all this shows a sense of adhocism in the handling of the situation.

Noticing the Government’s monumental failure in handling the associated issue of Oxygen shortage, the Delhi High Court rapped the Government, even suggesting punishing officials responsible for the mess. (The Times of India, 1st May, 2021).

With predictions by experts about the third wave hitting the country, the Supreme Court has got into a pro active mode and asked the Government to make clear its oxygen supply strategy. (The Times of India, 7th May, 2021). It has wisely set up a 12 member National Team to ‘streamline and ensure effective and transparent allocation of oxygen on a scientific, rational and equitable basis’ to the States and Union Terriories. (The Hindu, 9th May, 2021). As for shortage of medical equipment, it is heartening that the US and major European nations have come forward to help the Government handle the crisis.

The vaccine manufactures, at their level, are faced with non-availability of raw materials to produce vaccines, though some of it is has been mitigated by the US Government lifting the ban on the supply of raw materials. Vaccine shortage got accentuated by the export of an estimated export of 6.5 crores to the outside world, as part of Modi Government’s ‘Vaccine Maitri Diplomacy’ in the initial phases.

3) As regards differential pricing of the vaccines supplied to the Central and State Governments there is widespread demand from the States for uniform pricing of the same. On the issue of pricing, the Supreme Court has directed the Central Government to negotiate with the vaccine manufacturers on grounds of equity. However, credible Government action on this front is not yet visible. The Supreme Court has rightly cautioned the Central Government that it is answerable to the citizens for its actions in dealing with this unprecedented health crisis.

4) The issue of shortage of doctors and health care workers can be overcome by soliciting the services of doctors from the other systems of Indian medicine like Ayurveda, Homeopathy and also procuring the services of non practising doctors available in the medical colleges and universities to attend to attend the patients. The services of NGOs working in the health sector and other volunteers who can attend to patients as health care workers with elementary service knowledge and experience can be utilised.

5) The Covid pandemic has also shown the limitations of Prime Minister Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat plan as the country has been forced to depend on other nations for the supply of vaccines and the much needed facilities to deal with the Covid situation. The pandemic has demonstrated that nations depend on one another to manage the multiple challenges. After all, the US too depended on India’s supply of hydroxychloroquine during the first wave. Interdependence among nations is the name of the game when it comes to handling the situation.

6) The need for sustained cooperation between the Centre and the States, in the true spirit of Cooperative Federalism, to meet the challenges. As the pandemic is a national problem, the Prime Minister needs to consult the Opposition Parties to arrive at consensus based responses to the pandemic. On their part, the Opposition leaders should refrain from opposing for the sake of opposition, come up with meaningful suggestions, if they have any, and cooperate with the Government to deal with the humanitarian crisis. As Prof. Bhanu Pratap Mehta has written, time is ripe for a temporary reconciliation between the ruling and Opposition Parties to deal with the ‘health mergency’.

Finally, citizen cooperation by way of sustained and responsible Covid appropriate behavior is essential. Mohalla level Citizens Councils could be established to supplement Government’s endeavours.

* (Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi.)

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