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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 31, New Delhi, July 18, 2020

LETTER TO THE READERS - Mainstream’s, COVID 19 Lockdown Edition No.17 | July 18, 2020

Friday 17 July 2020

The initial trajectory of the 2019 COVID-19 pandemic was China, France, the UK, Italy, Spain, the United State and Iran —all rich or middle-income countries— where it rapidly spread and caused dramatic harm but many months on, it has now engulfed the poorer countries of the globe. These countries of the Global South have more vulnerable health and social infrastructure facing a severe impact. Brazil, India, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico and Peru are all experiencing very large rise in numbers of daily cases and are a long way from curbing the disease. As we write India is on the verge of officially crossing one million infections.

India’s medical and social infrastructure, that is thinly spread across its vast population, is under great stress now. It’s megacities Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai roughly account for about 45-50 million people. The hospitals in these big cities are overflowing and the medical personnel under deep pressure. However, India is much bigger than its megacities and rural India has far less facilities. According to the data from National Health Profile 2019 there is an average 0.55 beds per 1000 population, but in many states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Odissa, Gujarat, Telangana and even Maharashtra the numbers are lower than the national average. The populations of these states add up to close to 70 per cent of India. Treating an epidemic isn’t just hospital beds but medical personnel, its sanitation workers and social workers and institutions promoting public health; as well as access to basic public hygiene. A heavyhanded lockdown, Policing, special confinement zones and tracing of the disease through Apps have been attempted but there has been collateral damage —there has also been an economic slowdown causing mass social dislocation & job losses. While India searches still for an effective strategy we are reaching a very critical stage with the infection spreading far and wide.

Many groups in society are already vulnerable and at risk. These include India’s prison population. Practically all jails are congested. There are all kinds of prisoners but a group that stands apart comprises of ’political prisoners’ that is, mostly dissidents in society who have been arrested often on trumped-up charges for going against the stream. There have been umpteen appeals by concerned citizens and human rights groups for the release of numerous intellectuals, poets, writers, lawyers and teachers who have been imprisoned and are vulnerable to getting Covid-19 in prison. The governments and courts have turned a deaf ear to appeals for the release of the 81-year-old Varavara Rao, or the celebrated lawyer and trade unionist Dr Sudha Bharadwaj or for release of Scholar intellectuals, Dr GN Saibaba, Dr Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha. After repeated appeals, Varavara Rao was moved from prison on 14 July to a hospital and thereafter he was found to be Covid-19 positive. We hope the courts take note and release the political prisoners on health grounds forthwith.

In an interview to Karan Thapar for the news site The Wire, virologist Shahid Jameel, the winner of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in 2000 had said that “if the ICMR serological survey results, made public on June 11, are correct, then it follows that India has 140-150 million coronavirus infected people”. Similarly, the Mathematician Murad Banaji based in Britain has estimated that India currently has between 20 to 50 million people infected with the virus. If these estimates are true India is in the midst of a gigantic health crisis and the government and health officials of the day are in a total state of denial at the level of public information that they have revealed. The Modi Government has its own media strategy and political reasons for keeping the truth under its control but it must inform the public of the gravity of the situation. There is calibrated manipulation here. On the one hand, the Prime Minister in person is talking of national self-reliance and on the other, his government is propagating, large scale privatisation of social and economic infrastructure – railways, fuel companies, banks, telecom firms. Callous doublespeak and misinformation is the trade-mark of our Government.

The same can be said of the government’s economising on truth in the manner it has presented the India–China border standoff in Ladakh and so-called de-escalation to the Indian public. A lone Indian defence correspondent who is a former Army hand has continually reported that claims being made in the media by un-named army spokespersons, probably on orders of India’s National Security Advisor, are hogwash. The Chinese have gone on to occupy large swathes of Indian territory and changed the borderlines. There is no de-escalation underway and the Chinese have gone on to consolidate their presence on what used to be described as Indian territory till recently and have built or are building near-permanent posts and infrastructure. The public has been sold an official line by the Government that all is well now - ‘go home, nothing to see here’, while the Chinese have changed the goalposts. Sooner or later the truth will come out. Some say India is not well placed or well equipped to monitor its borders with China. Not a new story this. For now, India must try all diplomatic channels. It hasn’t got many friends left in the neighbourhood or the world at large. Here what must be mentioned is the infamous deployment of the US 7th fleet in the Indian ocean during 1971 India-Pakistan war. At that time the former Soviet Union had stood like a rock beside India to ward off the US threat. Today the successor of the Soviet Union, Russia has neither the strength nor the will power to repeat its 1971 performance. It has become heavily dependent on China and hence regrettably its lips are sealed. Thus it is not taking any pro-active role in defence of India in the region. Indeed what happened forty-nine years ago due to the correlation of the world forces — that is, India under Indira Gandhi dealing the heaviest military blow on Pakistan’s war machine then guided by the military dictator, General Yahya Khan — is beyond the realm of possibility in present-day conditions, regardless of the fulminations of Narendra Modi.

India’s other immediate neighbour Bangladesh is facing a very serious flood situation, unseen for over a decade. Nearly two-thirds of Bangladesh is submerged in or highly impacted by floodwaters. India should have stood up and offered its help immediately as in the past. Perhaps messages of sympathy have been sent by the Foreign Office in South Block, but the average Indian who has been bombarded the past years with ugly and fear-mongering propaganda about the unwanted foreigner — the Bangladeshi ‘termite’— doesn’t know.

Nature’s fury knows no borders. While Bangladesh is affected so is large parts of Assam that is facing huge floods. The Assamese now are more concerned about the damage and displacement caused by floodwaters than they are by the Covid-19 pandemic. All must be done to provide relief to the people of Assam. Assam is located in an ecologically sensitive zone for India. It needs to be mentioned here that Government and state officials carry on business as usual with little regard for environmental concerns. What should have been illegal and disallowed is permitted. The authorities have given permission for coal mining in the protected forest areas of Assam

In May 2020 there was a Super Cyclonic Storm Amphan — a tropical cyclone that caused widespread damage in West Bengal, and in Bangladesh. It is very important to note a wide range of international studies pointing at connections between atmospheric pollution, sea temperature levels and volume of rain and storm activity. Forests continue to be cleared because of mining interest, or urbanisation; dams continue to be built ruining local ecologies. We are facing a global pandemic wherein the infectious disease that originated in wild animals displaced from their natural habitats has spread to humans causing havoc. When will we learn to connect the dots?

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The Delhi Minorities Commission has released a well researched fact-finding report on the riots in Northeast Delhi in February 2020. This report names the BJP leaders involved in inciting rioters and also uncovers the role of the Delhi Police during the riots. Given the importance of this report, we have hyperlinked a full PDF version of the report in this issue of Mainstream for our readers and for the public at large.

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We pay our tributes to Debdatta Roy, 34, who died a few days ago of Covid-19 she was the Deputy Magistrate at Chandannagar in Hooghly district in West Bengal, where she had been managing the special quarantine Centre at Dankuni in Hooghly during the migrant inflow into the state. We also salute all the 99 doctors who according to the Indian Medical Association, died across India while doing their duties during the Covid-19 pandemic.

We also pay our homage to: Ennio Morricone (1928-2020) the legendary Italian film music composer passed away last week in Rome; and to the West Indies Test cricket player Sir Everton Weekes who died on July 1, 2020, at the age of 95 years.

The Editor, July 18

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