South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Every time I read or watch the horrific pictures of patients and relatives scrambling for the most elementary of treatment protocol – oxygen – I wonder how things went so horrendously wrong. The banal excuse trotted out about the severity of the double mutant doesn’t wash. I remain as unconvinced as before. 

Wasn’t the mutating of the virus expected? Or, was the higher demand for oxygen not anticipated?

I’m not a doctor. But growing up in a doctors’ family, and as a cancer survivor who twice struggled for air to stave off death, I know something about the desperate gasps to breathe. So I ask: Why didn’t we learn from history — the Spanish Flu of 1918 There were three different waves of the flu, starting in early-1918 and subsiding in the summer of 1919. “The pandemic peaked in the US during the second wave, in the fall of 1918,” the US CDC says. The third wave happened in the winter and spring of 1919. An estimated one-third of the world’s population was infected, with the virus killing at least 50 million against the casualty of 16 million in the World War I. 

“The lowest estimate of the pandemic’s worldwide death toll is 21 million,” John Barry says in his bestselling book The Great Influenza. Epidemiologists today estimate that influenza caused at least 50 million deaths worldwide, and possibly even one 100 million. President Woodrow Wilson too contracted the flu during the Treaty of Versailles in early-1919.

To a layman, a few things were clear. There would be a second wave of the virus, more virulent than the first. Second, notwithstanding the grandstanding about Indian immune exceptionalism and braggadocio that anything is possible under the present angelic dispensation to fight off the virus, the virus would infect and kill. 

The second wave sweeping across the UK and Europe early this year should’ve alerted us to this reality. We did nothing. Instead, we encouraged Covid-inappropriate behaviour: opening up malls, and resuming normal life with a vengeance. The bombast of taming the virus and the hollow hubristic utterances didn’t help to convey to the common man that the virus is still around, and the need to wear masks and get vaccine jabs. 

Then came the decision to advance the Kumbh Mela by a year. This, during the pandemic, staggered comprehension. The penny dropped. It had to. The multiple miscues and opaque preparations were exposed. 

In ‘An Open Letter to PM Modi by a Former Civil Servant‘ published on Newsclick in May 2020, I’d urged the prime minister to address the nation often. “I know you are not comfortable facing the media. You may limit press briefings to the pandemic. You have a large passionate following. Back your presentation with science and data. It will carry conviction… your helming… will galvanise the masses to follow your directions and suggestions. If ever observance was dire, it is now.” 

What we got instead was putative Orwellspeak — Atmanirbhar Bharat — the nuanced message to citizens to rely on themselves, not the government, to save their lives. How prescient it was!

The fealty of the experts — chosen for their cachet of pliability — to the supremo coupled with power centralisation in the PMO proved science’s undoing. Delhi got gobsmacked with the most elementary of treatment protocol — lack of oxygen.

Read the advice given by V.K. Paul, a member of the NITI Aayog:

“There are guidelines from the government that include adopting ayurveda and Ayush (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) products… to consume chyawanprash twice a day; have turmeric milk at least once in a day; it is extremely popular among masses we have found in our surveys; and a warm drink made from basil, cinnamon, and black pepper concoction should also be had.” 

The sagacity was infantile, and experts pilloried Paul. “They are fooling the nation. If you have COVID-19, take chyawanprash or drink kadha but not go to a hospital? Where do you think you will land up? If it will help boost immunity; what is the need to take the vaccine?” 

The medical experts weren’t alone. A host of institutions, from the judiciary (wish the Supreme Court had earlier spoken the way they did yesterday to uphold the right to life/health under Article 21 and hadn’t waited for the cataclysm to descend on us!), Election Commission, CBI, ED, bureaucrats, the godi media helped amplify the government’s false narratives. The goose cooked — the woe betide surged.

Now let’s hear the voice of genuine global experts. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, wrote:

“The government needs to do a better job of taking care of the ill… setting up field hospitals, increasing oxygen supply and medicines. In the next four to six weeks, we will see a flood of patients arriving at hospitals… International protocols… must be followed… to care for sick people… genome sequencing is critically important… to track what is happening with these variants… If you do not do genomic sequencing, you are basically fighting a war without intelligence.” [Emphasis added]

Our resident experts were nowhere near here. They must be held to account. But now when everyone seems to have been visited by grief as the virus ravages the nation, we must demand transparency and openness to promote accountability. It is all the more imperative when the citizens survive a regime, which far from performing its raj dharma has proved itself as utterly incompetent and insensitive by wilful negligence of its duties. We can’t wait for the outrage to grow bigger. Opaqueness creates hierarchy and cronyism. 


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