A state of chaos

Nilanjana Bhowmick on the colossal failure of governance that has led to needless deaths on a massive scale.

Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/Flickr

As I watched my father’s oxygen levels drop, I was feeling a roiling despair. I scanned desperately the list in my hands – all crossed out. None of the hospitals I had called had a bed. As for my attempts to arrange for an oxygen cylinder – the prices I was quoted were unbelievable, ranging from $1,000-$1,500. I was prepared to pay them to save my father’s life. But there were no cylinders available.

Since India’s furious second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic broke in mid-April, with daily cases soon crossing 300,000 and deaths in such numbers that cremation and burial grounds became overwhelmed, citizens have been running from pillar to post for help. During the initial days the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were missing in action. Instead of being in closed-door meetings with his ministers to address the situation on a war footing, Modi was crisscrossing the country campaigning for various state elections and addressing huge rallies.

He was desperate for his Bharatiya Janata Party to come to power in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal states; it lost. At a national level, the handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the migrant crisis and the nose-diving economy have left Modi and his party pretty embattled of late. They did not want popular anger to infect their Hindu vote bank.

The festival had become a super-spreader event with scenes of tightly packed crowds taking a dip in the Ganges

So, even as coronavirus cases spiked across the country and with state governments starting to impose restrictions on gatherings, millions of Hindu pilgrims were allowed to take part in the Kumbh Mela festivities. The festival, by mid-April, had become a super-spreader event with scenes of tightly packed crowds taking a dip in the Ganges.

Modi – given his influence among the electorate – could have contained this by stopping all election campaigning and halting the Kumbh Mela. India had escaped with a moderate surge last year. Instead of using that to our advantage and boosting health infrastructure, Modi and his ministers got busy with vaccine diplomacy. India sent around 193 million doses of the vaccine abroad and boosted its oxygen exports, according to an investigation by an Indian television channel.

Our health minister, Harsh Vardhan, a physician, announced in March that the pandemic in India was reaching its end. I do not know the science behind this irresponsible assertion; other countries had already experienced vicious second and third waves. Experts had consistently warned of the same for India, but were ignored. Yes, as the government has repeatedly pointed out, people were irresponsible, too, but the signal the authorities had sent out was that the pandemic was behind us.

Only it was not. The second surge has exposed how little work Modi’s government has really done on the ground. Our public health system is collapsing under the weight of the pandemic, with even the wealthy, for the first time, unable to access hospital beds, oxygen and ventilators. For the poor this has long been the state of affairs. A 2018 Lancet study found that 2.4 million Indians die of treatable diseases every year.

While the second surge could not have been prevented, it could have been contained. The state of chaos we have found ourselves in – losing loved ones to preventable deaths – is testimony to Modi’s political ambition and lack of empathy for the people who voted him to power.