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

Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, May 15, 2021

Friday 14 May 2021

Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, May 15, 2021

The credibility of the Modi-led BJP government at the Centre and those of BJP ruled states of UP and Bihar has taken a hit over their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government’s failure to prepare for the second wave of Covid-19 has amplified a social catastrophe but public officials remain in denial and have repeatedly threatened citizens and medical personnel who have complained or shared photos. In the past week we have witnessed the ugly spectacle of dead bodies found floating in rivers —in the Ganges River in the Buxar district of the state of Bihar and in the Ghazipur, Ballia districts in the state of Uttar Pradesh, also in Yamuna river in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur, and in Runj River in Panna, Madhya Pradesh State. The numbers of such bodies are said to vary between 70 to 150. We are not likely to know the real numbers, but it gives an indication of the pandemic taking a toll in small towns and rural areas. We don’t know the figures from the hinterland, since there is little rural reporting in the national press. But there are some signs of protest, concern, and letters from elected officials in State assemblies, municipalities and trade unions (a teachers union in the case of UP state).

As we have pointed out in previous letters to the readers, the national level figures or State by State data on numbers of Covid-19 infections or numbers of dead seem under-reported and fudged every day. There are discrepancies now, as there have been discrepancies in the past between what is reported and registered deaths and the real numbers; only between 20%-30% of all deaths in India are properly medically certified. Many reasons for this, one being that people who die outside hospitals do not get included in the official coronavirus death count. There is also the whole issue of a low level of testing for Covid-19 in India which gives us a low count. A large number of deaths during the pandemic are not necessarily classified as Covid-19 related. Here is an example according to Divya Bhaskar a Gujarati Newspaper: Gujarat issued 65,085 more death certificates between March 1-May 10 period in 2021 and for this period the Official COVID death data from Gujarat stood at 4218; the newspapers of Gujarat a full of obituary pages and the media in Gujarat has done a sterling job against under-reporting or cover-up of Covid-19

Besides we live in a post-truth world and data and statistics can be ‘managed’. Scientists and scholars within the country and those abroad are increasingly contesting the official figures being provided for the country. Our reputation on that score is in tatters but the powers that be don’t seem to bat an eyelid. The world outside India doubts our official figures (also those of many third-world countries) and is inclined to multiply these to estimate real numbers. It is interesting to note that some small-scale citizen initiatives are doing crowd-sourced surveyss and gathering data sets regarding Covid-19 deaths in India and making the datasets available freely in public interest under a creative commons license.

Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed the cracks in our healthcare infrastructure. Our health facilities in the urban areas have been unable to cope with the numbers. We have a poor public health infrastructure in slums and rural areas of India. Since the 1990s a neoliberal economic doctrine has reshaped our health sector landscape. Here the major players are private hospitals and private insurance firms. In 2016 the private firms in healthcare in India had 78 percent market share for urban areas and 71 percent for rural areas. In 2018 the Modi govt launched the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) geared to provide health cover up to Rs 5 lakh [Half a million rupees] for 10 crore households [or say 500 million people if the household size is 5]. Over 75 percent of health insurance paid for via the public exchequer goes into reimbursements to the private sector hospitals whose treatment costs are higher compared to the government-run facilities. We don’t really know how many people have been able to benefit from PMJAY insurance cover during the Covid pandemic. By now there are hundreds of reports on private clinics & hospitals, the private medical testing labs, or private ambulance operators during Covid saying their charges have skyrocketed. There are thousands who simply cannot afford to go to any hospital for fear of the costs.

Citizens groups and major opposition parties have written to the Prime Minister to stop the hugely expensive $2 billion dollar ‘Central Vista redevelopment project’ and divert the money earmarked for it for vaccines and providing essential health care instead. The Government has come under a barrage of criticism for having declared construction activity at Central Vista sites as an ’essential service’. We know how the government responds to criticism — so the Central Public Works Dept. which is an arm of the Ministry of Urban Affairs has now prohibited photography and video recording at the construction site near India Gate which is barricaded.

The Government has botched up badly its Covid-19 vaccination programme which is faced with huge shortages. Increasing vaccine supply is an urgent need and the Central Government needs to scale up production by involving India’s seven public sector pharma companies capable of making vaccines (under the Drugs Act the Govt. can order all manufacturers to produce the vaccines) and also by importing needed vaccines; The current vaccination drive is very skewed in favour of the urban citizens with internet access and online registration is mandatory through ‘Co-Win’ the vaccination registration ecosystem is English only. Urban poor in our cities with no smartphones & not speaking English are excluded. The vaccine drive must reach rural areas where internet connectivity is scattered. Will citizens with no smartphones, internet, and who don’t speak English get equal access?

The second wave of Covid-19 is still pretty much around and the underestimated overall official numbers for India have galloped to over 24 million cases. Difficult to imagine what the real number would be.

Tributes:

Dr Smarajit Jana, the progressive doctor from Calcutta with an immense contribution to public health, passed away on May 8, 2021. He founded the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee — a collective of sex workers based in West Bengal. He gave sex workers an identity, dignity, and the right to health. In the 1980s worked for ‘Utsa Manush’. He was one of the founders of the Drug Action Forum.

Dr N Rathnasree, the Director of Nehru Planetarium and Science Museum under the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in Delhi, who made astronomy accessible to the young, died on May 9, 2021

Ranjana Nirula, the Communist trade unionist and women’s rights activist; convenor of the All India ASHA Workers’ Union, and also the editor "Voice of the Working Woman" passed away due to Covid on May 10, 2021

K.R. Gauri Amma was among the rare women from Kerala who got elected to State Assembly*, and served a revenue minister in the first democratically elected Communist Government of 1957, passed away on May 11, 2021. The CPI-M had campaigned in 1987 Kerala state elections projecting Gouri Amma as its chief ministerial candidate but they didn’t keep their word and in 1994 CPI-M expelled her from the party due to differences. Patriarchy rules Kerala and all its political parties. (*Out of 1,939 MLAs elected in Kerala since 1965 and up to 2021, only 84 have been women — but just 51 individual women to be more precise since some were elected multiple times)

Com Ramchandra Singh Yadav member of the national council of the CPI, president of the Bihar Rajya Kisan Sabha, and a former MLA passed away on May 11, 2021, at Gaya in Bihar.

We pay our tributes to the above figures

May 15, 2021 – The Editors

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