Covid and (Lack of) Management and Acceleration of the Crisis in India

A summary of the presentation/talk by this writer via a Zoom Meeting at an Online Interaction with Shri DIGVIJAYA SINGH,” Senior Congress Leader & Member of Indian Parliament, Rajya Sabha on “PANDEMIC EFFECT ON URORGNIZED SECTOR AND CONGRESS RESPONSE,” organized by All India Unorganized Workers Congress in India on Sunday, May 23rd, 2021.

During the meeting, Mr. Arbind Singh, National Chairman of AIUWC welcomed the participants and invited Ajay Ghosh,  Chief Editor of the Universal News Network and BasvarajSankin, Head of Indian Overseas Congress in Spain to address the audience. Mr. Anshu Antony, Chair of the All India National Congress Party’s Training Wing introduced Mr. Ghosh to the audience.

Following the presentations, Mr. DigvijaySingh addressed the audience and responded to the concerns shared by the members of AIUWC, during which Mr. Singh responded to questions raised by AIUWC state presidents and Regional Coordinators.Below is the detailed address by Mr. Ajay Ghosh at the Event:

Covid-19 is notoriously hard to control, and political leaders are only part of the calculus when it comes to pandemic management. However, where leaders of the nations have responded adequately and planned and executed actions to prevent the spread and mitigate and eradicate the pandemic, the cases have been well contained. New Zeeland, Taiwan, Denmark, and some of the European countries and the United States under the current Biden administration are such examples of visionary leadership, protecting the people and saving lives from the pandenmic.

The US under Trump, several south American nations and India fall under the category of those world leaders who have made little effort to combat outbreaks in their country, whether by downplaying the pandemic’s severity, disregarding science or ignoring critical health interventions like vaccines, social distancing and masks.

India, which has been a shining example of development, freedom and fast growth, is the new epicenter of the global pandemic, recording some 400,000 new cases per day by May 2021. However grim, this statistic fails to capture the sheer horror unfolding there. Covid-19 patients are dying in hospitals because doctors have no oxygen to give and no lifesaving drugs that could save millions of lives. The sick are turned away from clinics that have no free beds.

In January 2021, Modi declared at a global forum that India had “saved humanity … by containing corona effectively.” In March, his health minister proclaimed that the pandemic was reaching an “endgame.” Covid-19 was actually gaining strength in India and worldwide—but his government made no preparations for possible contingencies, such as the emergence of a deadlier and more contagious Covid-19 variant.

The net result of such complacency and lack of vision and planning: Covid pandemic is killing thousands daily, crushing India’s modest health system, causing crippling shortages of doctors, nurses, medicines, even oxygen. Hospitals and medical professionals have put out urgent notices that they were unable to cope with the rush of patients.

How did we land here facing such a critical stage?

With India experiencing a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, questions are being asked about how the country — which is home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer — got to this tragic point.The second wave of Covid-19, with the spiraling cases and deaths across cities and towns, making India currently the world’s worst pandemic-affected country, have now dented India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image in India and around the world for the poor vision, poor planning, and mismanagement of the most deadly virus in over a century.

India is now in a living hell. A new “double mutant” variant, named B.1.617, has emerged in a devastating coronavirus second wave which has seen hospitals run out of beds and oxygen. Mortuaries are so full that bodies are justify to decompose at home.A recent story in TIME magazine titled, “’This Is Hell.’ Prime Minister Modi’s Failure to Lead Is Deepening India’s COVID-19 Crisis” pointed out how India has mismanaged and sent misleading messages.

After declaring ‘victory’ over Covi, the Prime Minister and other political leadership spent their time organizing a blitzkrieg of election rallies in West Bengal and Assam without wearing masks and while exhorting large crowds to gather.When Covid was spreading rapidly in several states, killing thousands daily, the BJP leaders led by Modi were campaigning in poll bound states neglecting the responsibility to coordinate efforts to contain the spread of the deadly virus.

The Guardian newspaper wrote: “Like Donald Trump, Mr Modi would not give up campaigning while the pandemic raged. India went ahead with five state elections in April, and an unmasked MrModi held huge rallies. Mr Modi’s brand of Indian exceptionalism bred complacency. A presumption of national greatness has led to a lack of preparedness, most notably in vaccine production.”

People are dying in their hundreds in India because of a lack of medical oxygen and other supplies in the country’s overloaded hospitals. An investigation by Indian news website Scroll.in revealed that the country’s government waited until October 2020, eight months after the pandemic began, to invite bids for a $27 million contract to place oxygen generation systems inside more than 150 district hospitals. Six months later, most still aren’t up and running. Several states across the nation have expressed despair as most hospitals have run short of Oxygen.

Modi also allowed a religious festival that draws millions to proceed from January to March. Public health officials now believe the festival may have been a super-spreader event and was “an enormous mistake.”“The Uttarakhand chief minister declared on March 20, “nobody will be stopped in the name of COVID-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.” Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees showed up each day for a dip in the Ganges as part of the KumbhMela pilgrimage in Haridwar, Uttarakhand.

There has been certainly a big lapse from the complacent government and the general public, paying scant regard for the social-distance norms while the state machinery ignored enforcing norms.International media have criticized Indian states for attempting to hide the death rate. In the state of Uttar Pradesh workers were pictured covering the crematorium with tin sheets. The Wire news portal published an article titled, “Varanasi: Cremation, Burial Grounds Show About 50% of COVID-19 Deaths Aren’t Officially Recorded.”

In Gujarat, the Prime Minister’s home state, crematoriums are burning day and night, while the state refuses to acknowledge the high number of deaths. The Gujarat high court has demanded the state government reveal the accurate count of COVID-19 patients and deaths.The government is blatantly lying on official figures of the grim reality.As Modi touted his successes last year, India—the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer—sent over 100 million vaccine doses to 68 countries around the world. Yet just 1.9% of India’s 1.3 billion people had been fully inoculated against COVID-19 by early May.

In the race to produce and secure vaccines for Indians, Modi regime failed miserably. India invested too little in vaccine against Covid production. While epidemiologists, specialists and opposition leaders have long urged Modi to give approvals for foreign vaccines, the decision to give emergency use license to the Russian manufactured Sputnik V vaccine was only taken in the second week of April.Indian government had ordered 21 million doses of Covishield from the Serum Institute at the end of February this year but didn’t indicate when or if it would buy more, then it ordered an additional 110 million doses in March 2021 when infections started to rise.

When the vaccine rollout slowed, there was no effort or coordination with the states as Modi’s cabinet indulged in a blame game with ministers from opposition parties.Against the skepticism for vaccines by a vast majority of Indians, Modi government has done too little to reinforce public health messaging. The vaccine rollout became a global PR campaign for Modi’s leadership—in March, an Indo-Canadian group sponsored billboards erected in Canada thanking Modi for exporting Indian-made vaccines abroad—even while many Indians were apprehensive about their efficacy and side effects.

While the pandemic is raging across the nation and India is seeking help, medical and financial, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the new Parliament building and a new Residence for the Prime Minister at an estimated cost of Rs. 971 crore. Why is the Modi Government spending billions of Dollars on the project, which could be better directed to fighting COVID-19 and repairing the pandemic-battered economy.

The sudden and abrupt lock down promulgated by Modi even before the 1st wave of the pandemic hit India caused enormous problems for millions of poor. It lies with the upper-middle-class Indians who were last year banging plates from their high-rise windows and lighting candles to praise Modi and celebrate the success of the unplanned lockdown—while poor migrant workers lost their jobs and had to leave the cities. While the rich booked themselves in hospitals using their contacts, the govt. cared little to alleviate the sufferings of the millions of the daily wage earners did not offer any monetary help.

While people are seeking help desperately, India has shut down its doors to get help by and through the NGOs abroad. The government of India implemented a set of bureaucratic regulations by amending a law called Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) in the middle of the pandemic. Hundreds of charities and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across India are now required to have special permission under this law to receive any donations from overseas.

The new amendment put in place last September mandates the charities to open a new bank account at a particular New Delhi branch of the State Bank of India before March 31, 2021, regardless of where the charity is located or operating from. Though many charities have managed to open this account in New Delhi, they have run into bottlenecks and red tape. As a result they are unable to receive much needed funds to help the suffering  people in the middle of this pandemic.

The current stringent FCRA rules that were put in place by the Government are jeopardizing many donor’s plans to provide equipment like oxygen concentrators and other essential supplies from around the world in providing needed help to hospitals especially in rural areas.

Many Indian-American community and charity organizations in the United States say they are not able to send funds to NGO partners in India thanks to a newly amended law even as that country gasps from a tsunami of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.Many US-based non-profits said the Narendra Modi government’s action in regulating of foreign funds was arbitrary.The NGO members and have also pointed to the alleged slow processing of paperwork by State Bank of India (SBI), and are asking the Indian government to revise the deadline so that they can help the country in its time of acute need. Earlier, donations could be received in any bank where the NGO had a designated FCRA account.

NGOs now cannot sub grant their foreign contributions to another NGO even if they have FCRA registrations as was the case earlier. This has been a blow for many NGOs who have been working collaboratively on various programs and projects. Thisd impedesCovid relief work, including making direct cash transfer to low-income families of the Covid deceased, often an earning member.

GOPIO chapters in India are yet to get the permission FCRA. For example, it is going to be more than two years since GOPIO-Kochi, a duly registered nonprofit organization, applied to receive funds from outside, especially from GOPIO International which collected funds for the 2018 Kerala flood relief. The chapter’s application is still pending and we have not been able to send the money collected to our chapter yet.

A large number of nonprofit community organizations are raising funds for India, including to send oxygen concentrators which are badly needed all over India. The government must immediately remove all hurdles to get this medical equipment and supplies to the hospitals which need them urgently.

Suppressing Truth and Penalizing Media and Voice of the Public:

At times, Prime Minister Narendra Modis government has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the Covid-19 pandemic, a premier medical journal The Lancet has said in an editorial. “Modi’s actions in attempting to stifle criticism and open discussion during the crisis are inexcusable,” Lancet said.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that India will see a staggering 1 million deaths from Covid-19 by August 1.If that outcome was to happen, Modi’s government would be responsible for presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe,” Lancet said in a scathing criticism of the government.

India squandered its early successes in controlling Covid-19. Until April, the government’s Covid-19 taskforce had not met in months. The consequences of that decision are clear before us, and India must now restructure its response while the crisis rages. The success of that effort will depend on the government owning up to its mistakes, providing responsible leadership and transparency, and implementing a public health response that has science at its heart.

But above all it lies with Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, who calls himself the servant of 1.3 billion Indians, yet who has criminally abdicated his responsibility. At this critical juncture in its history, Indians have been left to fend for ourselves

Mismanagement?

  1. Complacency and lack of visionby the Indian Govt.
  2. Poor planning and lack of preparedness
  3. Lack of transparency and lack of foresight
  4. Intimidating and penalizing critics, including the media and those expressing their views on social media platforms
  5. Favoritism and lack of will to help the poor and the powerless: siding with the businesses and political supporters at the cost of the poor
  6. Blaming the opposition and those who criticize the government rather than an attitude of dialogue, open mindedness, collaboration, and cooperation
  7. An attitude of “I know it all” rather than the willingness to listen to the scientific community and professionals, and make amends for the wrongs committed
  8. Suppressing and denying the NGOs, particularly the minority communities from receiving foreign funds through the short sighted FCRA regulations, and in the process denying much needed help to millions who would have benefitted from such resources from abroad
  9. Lack of political will to contain market forces from hijacking medical supplies and hiking up the prizesfor essential medical suplies
  10. Prioritizing the image of the party and the leaders in power over the needs of the nation of the people.
  11. Lack of thoughtfulness and taking decisions arbitrarily and abruptly not reflecting on the consequences of govt. actions on millions of people

Some Suggestions For Action

  1. India must reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission as much as possible by educating the public about the necessity of masking, social distancing, halting mass gatherings, quarantine, and testing
  2. Transparent: as cases continue to mount, the government must publish accurate data in a timely manner, and forthrightly explain to the public what is happening and what is needed to bend the epidemic curve, including the possibility of a new federal lockdown
  3. Genome sequencing needs to be expanded to better track, understand and control emerging and more transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variants
  4. The botched vaccination campaign must be rationalized and implemented with all due speed. Increasing vaccine supply (some of which should come from abroad) and setting up a distribution campaign that can cover not just urban but also rural and poorer citizens, who constitute more than 65 per cent of the population (over 800 million people).
  5. The government must work with local and primary healthcare centers that know their communities and create an equitable distribution system for the vaccine.
  6. Expand the production and supply of oxygen and import while lifting unnecessary restrictions
  7. Stop middlemen and business from raising the prizes of medical supplies, oxygen and much needed treatment for Covid, at this hour of crisis. Punish those who inflate the prize of these essentials
  8. Open more centers, use schools and other institutes in every village and town to provide health care and treat covid patients
  9. India has a large number of medical professionals. Use the newly graduates and who are in the final years of Medical schools and Nursing programs to fill the shortage of medical professionals to treat covid patients
  10. There are thousands of not for profit organization and individuals abroad who want to help their suffering sisters and brothers in India. Make it easier for them help India as she bleeds. Relax FCRA rules and make it easier for them to send money.
  11. India Needs to act on a war footing, using all possible resources and work collaboratively, using all sections, the political parties, the ruling and the opposition together, the medical professionals, hospitals and academicians, research institutes, the media and the public, in a transparent manner, putting the safety, security and well being of the people before that of the interests of the ruling party.
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