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In a situation of the pandemic, the nation expects a true and disinterested democratic opposition to sweep aside political and other differences for the time being, and offer full support to the government in meeting the deadly challenge. Criticising the government for where or how it has faltered is all right, but more than criticism, the situation demands honest and pragmatic suggestions and practical involvement for the common weal. Instead of censuring the government for one or the other fault, the opposition parties should have come out with what monetary and material help they are in a position to collectively offer to assist the government’s efforts of controlling the pandemic. Not any particular political party, but the Indian nation as such has fallen on bad days. History will not record whether the opposition censured the government for the right or wrong reasons, but it will certainly record what contribution the opposition made in saving the nation from the pandemic.
As early as January and February, PM Modi cautioned the states that the second wave of the pandemic was about to come and that it was much more dangerous. His warning came regularly till March. But the States took no heed. They allowed relaxation in lockdown, lifted the ban on malls, cinemas, bars and wound up set-up COVID centres by half. Can they shift the blame to the doorsteps of the Central government?
The Modi government prioritized vaccination of frontline workers first, doctors, nurses, paramedical forces, police force and then senior citizens, infected patients etc. till the number of vaccinated people touched 15 crores. It then planned to vaccinate the general public. But Congress focused on negative aspects and charged its propaganda machine. Its beneficiaries in the media spread fear by showing burning dead bodies. The Chinese satellite had taken the pictures and disseminated them to the surrogate media. No nation shows graveyards or cremation centres. The Washington Post never shows American Graveyards but does show Hindu crematories. Congress uses these pictures to push for importing foreign vaccines.
When the Modi government took stringent measures to enforce preventive and precautionary measures during the first wave, the Congress and AAP led opposition said it was arbitrary and invoked the autonomy of the States in handling the scourge. Not only that, Rahul Gandhi even questioned the need for imposing a lockdown, indirectly meaning to convey that Modi was functioning in an autocratic manner. Modi responded and allowed the states to handle the situation as they thought best. But now, we find them imposing lockdowns. This is a dichotomy not politics in the interests of the nation. The question is who should be held responsible for the mess that has ensued after the States were left to run the show? Who should be held answerable for the death of thousands of citizens?
From day one, PM Modi laid full stress on the preparation of the indigenous vaccine. What financial investment, what logistical support and what motivation and persuasion were harnessed to produce the effective vaccine is a story that the Prime Minister has not told so far. Name a single world leader who, like Modi, wore the safety kit, went to the laboratories, interacted with the scientists and monitored the preparation of the vaccine hour by hour.
Congress leaders refused to use the vaccine, thereby not only creating doubts about its efficacy but also casting aspersions on India’s proud top team of scientists. They lambasted it and shockingly called it “BJP Vaccine and Modi’s Vaccine”. Akhilesh Yadav refused to use it, claiming it was prepared with pig blood. The Chhattisgarh government refused to vaccinate its denizens with it. In Maharashtra, 40 lakh doses were allowed to expire while the needy were ignored/ What is the condition of these states today? That is what should be noted. Most of the deaths owing to the pandemic happened in some of these states. While scores of our neighbouring countries approached the government for the supply of the Indian vaccines, Rahul Gandhi spread propaganda to bring imported expensive untested vaccines instead.
The nation was surprised that the Congress claiming to be a patriotic party of long-standing should spurn and disrespect our renowned scientists. But when nations like Spain, Brazil, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal etc praised the Indian vaccine (“Modi vaccine”) the Congress is asking why it was sent abroad. The Congress that disparaged the indigenous vaccine is now demanding the vaccination of the entire nation of 130 crores knowing fully well that such a herculean task cannot be accomplished overnight. But it is a good pretext to instigate the people. Is this the positive contribution of the opposition in times of great peril? It reminds us of the story of the wolf and the lamb.
India with 130 crore people had less casualties by half than the combined USA – Europe – and UK, all developed nations. The USA with a quarter of our population lost 5 lakh people. The medical systems of several wealthy almost collapsed When the government started from 1st May onwards to vaccinate all above 18 years of age Congress again started creating hurdles.
Congress leadership did not contribute to PM Care’s fund. In Dec-Feb money was given to the states from the same PM Cares fund to set up oxygen plants. Delhi got money to set up 8 plants. Maharashtra got money for 10 plants. Both Maharashtra and Delhi set up just one each. Kejriwal, instead, spent 800 crores in advertising his alleged achievements. Chandigarh and UP both did set up the plants in a day. Kejriwal and Congress just made excuses. Maharashtra was busy doing Vasooli. Who is to be blamed for the shortage of oxygen? Why should not people know the facts and raise questions? These Congress states clamour for power but look at their performance.
Again, why is Congress making a fuss about the price of the vaccine? Rahul Gandhi questions Indian vaccine pricing asking why private hospitals are charged Rs 600, but in the same breath, he strongly supports importing the Pfizer one which costs Rs 1500 or the Johnson vaccine costing Rs 1000? People don’t know the story of the Pfizer vaccine. Pfizer refused to do trials in India. Their vaccine is untested in the Indian climate. The cost of storing it in minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit across India is huge. They seek legal immunity and state guarantees even if their RNA messenger (‘immune system-hacking’) experimental vaccine kills people. Instead the Indian made Covaxin, which even vaccine expert in White House Paul Offit said can beat the B.1.617 variant of Corona, was decried by Congress and Leftists. They mocked it, calling it a Modi drama. Are they performing democratic opposition?
We may ask why High Courts are whipping Uddhav and Kejriwal for criminal negligence. Delhi HC accepted the PIL against Delhi Chief Minister Kejriwal for criminal negligence. Maharashtra is now reducing tests instead of increasing them to keep numbers down. Whose fault is it? All states arranged tankers to carry oxygen from Indian railways oxygen trains but not Kejriwal. Should not the people of Delhi raise the issue and assign responsibilities?
This account of Congress’ attitude to an issue of extraordinary importance. A party with such a commanding historical legacy could play an impressive role by mobilizing the nation and leading a fight against the disease. It would have enhanced its prestige and might also have given it a new lease of life.
Navigating the Covidian Sea by our Govt has been painful and tumultuous experience for our citizens and for the world. Even the otherwise compassionate Supreme Court has been alarmed by the Govt’s dithering and evasive disposition. This is not the Rafale, pmcares, or electoral bonds matter. This is about life and death, about disaster of possibly monstrous proportions. The Govt is being forced to take the bull by the horns. I’m sure the Foundation too will do the same.
2. Prime Minister Modi was on the right path when he said on 24th March 2020: ‘If the situation is not handled in these 21 days….several families could get devastated forever…This virus could spread like wildfire…There is no other method to escape coronavirus (except social distancing)…Jaan hai to jahan hai…Carelessness of a few can put the entire country in jeopardy’.
II PM’s boasts and sermons
3. But with negligible testing despite early warnings by ICMR in Apr 2020 that over 80% of the spread was through asymptomatic carriers, complacency set in quickly, and on 14th April 2020 PM, while mocking at the deteriorating situation in the West, boasted: ‘If we look at Corona related figures in the world’s big powerful countries, India today is in a very well-managed position…Corona cases in those countries are 25 to 30 times than that of India…The path that India had taken within our limited resources has become the topic of discussion in the entire world today’. Our PM was unstoppable and on 28th Jan 2021 in his speech at WEF Davos he reminded the world how wrong it had been about India: ‘Mujhe yaad hai pichle saal February, March April mein duniya ke kai naami experts aur sansthaon ne kya kya kaha tha. Bhavisyavaani ki gayi thi ki poori duniya mein sabse prabhavit desh Bharat hoga. Kaha gaya tha ki Bharat mein corona sankraman ki tsunami aaye gi. Kisi ne 700/800 million bhartiyon ko corona hone ki baat kahi to kisi ne 2 million se zyada logon ki mrityu hone ki baat ki thi…Bharat ki saphalta ko kisi ek desh ki saphalta se aankna to uchit nahin hoga. Jis desh mein vishwa ki 18 percent aabadi rahti ho us desh ne corona pe
prabhavi niyantran kar ke poori duniya ko, manavta ko, badi traasdi se bhi bachaya hai’. (‘I remember last year in February March April what all was said by world’s distinguished experts and institutions. They had prophesied that in the whole world, India would be the most affected country. They had said that there would be a tsunami of Corona infections in India. Some had talked about 700-800 million Indians being infected by Corona, some had talked about more than 2 million people dying….We should not compare India’s success with that of any one country. A country in which 18% of world’s population lives has, by effectively controlling corona, saved the whole world and humanity from disaster’. And despite the humiliating ‘Second Wave’ he continued to compare India’s vaccination drive with that of the world in his address to the nation on 7th June 2021: ‘Bharat mein vaccination ki raftaar aaj bhi duniya mein bahut tej hai, anek viksit deshon se bhi tej hai’ (Even in today’s world the speed of vaccination in India is very fast, faster than that in many developed countries’). Unfortunately this claim is not supported by published data in ‘ourworldindata.org’ up to 7.6.2021.
III Underestimating Covid-19
4. Despite PM Modi’s initial warning on 24th March 2020 about the destructive potential of the virus, complacency gradually set in due primarily to a low fatality rate. The Modi Govt was aware of the silent spread of the virus, primarily through asymptomatic carriers. In Feb 2021 publicly available National Sero Survey data of ICMR indicated that at least 21.4% of India’s population i.e. 297 million people were probably infected with Covid-19. But the Govt continued to publicly rely on infection data based on RTPCR and the less accurate rapid antigen tests. Influenced by low mortality rates, the Modi Govt welcomed the spread of what it believed was a relatively benign virus to gradually build herd immunity.
5. Therefore, while the developed world scrambled to negotiate and/or place large orders on reputed vaccine suppliers from about the last quarter of 2020 up to March 2021, the Govt of India showed no urgency to place large enough orders on vaccine suppliers in India or abroad to quickly vaccinate the bulk of the population. Instead, it actively and openly promoted indigenous medicines like Coronil and ‘2-deoxy-D-glucose’, which were backed by researchers of Patanjali, not just to boost immunity but as cures for Covid-19. This despite the fact that neither had been peer reviewed nor adequately tested.
IV Misleading claims of control
6. Mass gathering for religious purposes, as in Hardwar, where the Uttarakhand CM showered flower petals from a helicopter were allowed by the Central Govt despite clear violation of the Covid protocols. Such gatherings contributed to the spread of the contagion on a massive scale. It consistently underplayed the spread of Covid-19 and the resulting fatalities under the overarching strategy of preventing panic. Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan could claim even as late as 30th March 2021: ‘the situation is under control’. PM himself along with Home Minister conveyed more or less the same message by disregarding their own Govt’s lawfully promulgated Protocol for ‘strict’ compliance of mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding public gatherings. This was evident from their assembly election campaigns till the penultimate week of April 2021 when number of Covid cases and fatalities per day crossed 3.5 lacs and 3,500 respectively leading to public, media
and judicial uproar over the way electioneering was continuing while people were dying in large numbers.
V Evasion of Disaster Management Act.
7. Global and domestic outrage and horror surfaced due to aggressive reporting by media of bodies floating in the Ganga, of unmanageable cremations and burials, of overflowing hospitals, of people dying due to unavailability of oxygen. Media also reported actual death figures from crematoria and burial grounds which were at odds with figures released by State governments. When faced with the open public knowledge of the destruction wreaked by the double mutant strain of SARS-CoV-2, the Modi Govt tried to distance itself from responsibility mandated by the Disaster Management Act 2005, and thrust responsibility on State Governments too for procurement of vaccines, while accusing them of mismanagement and vaccine wastage.
8. States were to procure the vaccines, on the ground that some states had asked for that authority, a point labored by the PM in his address to the nation on 7.6.2021. This was violative of the spirit and substance of the Disaster Management Act 2005 passed under Entry 29 of the Concurrent List: ‘Prevention of the extension from one state to another of infectious or contagious diseases’. While Health is a State subject, as contended by the PM in his address to justify his Govt’s move to thrust the duty to procure vaccines on the States also, a nation-wide pandemic was not something on which States could legislate, without the approval of the President under Art 254(2) of the Constitution, as the Centre had already passed a law under Entry 29 of the Concurrent List. The Constitution was therefore very clear on this issue.
9. On the issue of the law, the Disaster Management Act gave a clear mandate to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) chaired by PM to approve a ‘National Plan’ and to ‘coordinate the enforcement and implementation of the policy and plan for disaster management’ (Sec 6.2.f). And to ‘take such other measures for the prevention of disaster, or the mitigation, or preparedness and capacity building for dealing with the threatening disaster situation or disaster as may consider
necessary’ (Sec 6.2.i). The National Plan had to be reviewed annually to ensure that ‘appropriate provisions shall be made by the Central Government for financing the measures carried out under the National Plan’ (Sec 11.6). The Centre had vast powers under the Act. There was no escape for the GOI from procuring not just the vaccines but also from financing the measures necessary to deal with Covid-19.
10. The 3 Judges of the Supreme Court hearing this matter were aware of the requirement of a National Plan like document to deal with Covid-19, when they asked the Solicitor General to share this policy document rather than stating points in an affidavit, with Justice Chandrachud saying: ‘As legally trained minds, we are trained to see documents’ (IE 1 June 2021). But the Centre chose not to show it’s National Plan for dealing with Covid-19.
11. But even as the Modi Govt launched efforts to procure vaccines both from within and abroad, attempts were made to suppress media’s explosive reporting. The Supreme Court quickly stepped in to clearly warn both the Central and State Govts that it would ‘treat this as contempt if any citizen is harassed. If citizens communicate their grievances on social media, we do not want clampdown on information. Let us hear their voices’ (widely reported in media on 30 April 2021).
12. Simultaneously Modi Govt launched unnecessary campaigns targeting social media platforms like Twitter and Whatsapp, as well as Opposition leaders for allegedly spreading anti-national and anti-Govt propaganda and misinformation campaign to malign the Party and the Govt. The ‘toolkit’ complaint by the BJP, and Govt’s follow-up, was the centerpiece of this campaign.
VI Concealing the fact of vaccine insufficiency
13. In order to accelerate the acquisition of vaccines Foreign Minister was sent to the US on a five-day blitz starting May 24. The Modi Govt has, however, not indicated any significant breakthrough. We do not appear have enough vaccine, now or in pipeline, to vaccinate (both doses) our population, even if children are excluded. Centre’s contract with ‘Biological E’ to procure 30 crore doses seems to indicate that Mr Jaishankar’s trip may not have achieved much. The acquisition of vaccine from Biological E (which is still in stage 3 trials) is really in the future, and the company may start production only towards the end of 2021.
14. In view of the above, the Centre thoughtfully told the Supreme Court Bench headed by Justice Chandrachud that it would vaccinate the ‘entire ELIGIBLE population’ by end Dec 2021. Given the current mandatory gap of 84+ days between the first and second dose of Covishield, which accounts for the bulk of our vaccine, ~30% of the population would by definition not be ‘eligible’ for full vaccination till 31 Dec 2021. In an interview to NDTV on 5 June 2021 it was candidly stated by Director AIIMS that vaccine shortage was indeed a factor for the large gap between doses.
14. Amid searching queries by an agitated Supreme Court the Central Govt was told by the Court that ‘the Government of India has to procure the vaccines and distribute them’ (reported in Indian Express 1 June 2021). So PM Modi’s decision announced in his address to the Nation on 7th June 2021 to centrally procure the vaccine is due to Supreme Court’s clear advise to the Central Govt which was also supported by the mandate of the DM Act.
VII Shortfalls in genome sequencing
15. Genome sequencing is an essential investigative weapon to identify dangerous strains of the virus. Despite a genome sequencing target of 5%, sequencing could be done only for less than 1% (till Feb 2021 end) of the total positive samples by the 10 Government laboratories under the rubric of ‘Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortium’ or INSACOG formed on 30 Dec 2020 under the control of Dept of Biotechnology. Its work of monitoring the strains of the virus was hampered by lack of coordination between State authorities and labs, logistical problems associated with transfer of samples quickly and at very low temperatures, and inadequate funding. Labs also faced serious obstacles in procuring stores from foreign suppliers due to Ministry of Finance’s 15 May 2020 Order prohibiting global tenders for orders up to Rs 200 crores in order to fulfill ‘Prime Minister‘s address to the nation on 12.5.2020 to promote self reliance, make in India’ campaign’7. This resulted in GOI’s labs being unable to import reagents and medical grade plastics from foreign suppliers. Waiver for reagents was given in January 2021. The labs have therefore struggled to follow WHO’s detailed guideline ‘Genome Sequencing of SARS- CoV-2: A Guide’8 which highlighted the critical importance of genome sequencing in these words on page 57 of the Guide: ‘Rapid sequencing of virus genomes now achievable in varied settings, and analyses of SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequences have a huge potential for informing public health efforts surrounding COVID-19. The rapid generation and global sharing of virus genomic sequences provides information that will contribute to the understanding of transmission and the design of clinical and epidemiological mitigation strategies’.
16. The PMO also unfortunately held the view that the virus was genetically stable, because ‘Two Pan-India studies on the Genome of SARSCoV-2 (Covid-19 virus) in India conducted by ICMR and D/o Bio-Technology (DBT) suggest that the virus is genetically stable and there is no major mutation in the virus’.
17. The road ahead is dangerous and uncertain. The Govt of India should make this load and clear. It should impose periodic restrictions on movements throughout India, and provide free, good quality masks to all people till the entire population in vaccinated. Free vaccines for all is a step in
the right direction.
• PM’s initial assessment of the virus having dangerous potential gave way gradually to a view that the virus was benign and stable.
•Our testing, tracking and treatment were woefully and knowingly short, and despite that knowledge the Modi Govt winked at serosurveys of even the ICMR which showed alarming spread of the virus.
•Taking a cue from PM Modi’s fondness for comparisons, while we have done 20,000 tests per million population, USA has done 102,000, Brazil 79,000, France 87,000, UK 66,000 and Italy 70,000 (source: worldometers.info). Our comparative record of vaccinations is also rather poor.
•There is hardly any family (i.e. parents, siblings, children and their spouses) where someone was/is not infected by the virus. So the claim of control was unfortunate and created a wrong sense of safety and complacency in the public and among authorities entrusted with the management of Covid-19.
•Similarly in sequencing and open sharing of data we were far behind US, UK, Spain and other countries, though we owed a duty to rest of the world in line with our PM’s claim that we have to save the world and humanity from SARS-CoV-2 strains emanating from India.
•For the Central Govt to say that the Centre alone was not responsible for procuring the vaccines despite the mandate of DM Act, because Health is a State subject, because some State(s) had in the past asked to be permitted to procure vaccines, and that therefore we decided to tell all States to do so, was clearly an afterthought to deflect attention from its responsibility for the ‘second wave’ and from the consequences of the ‘second wave’. The controversy was also meant to apportion blame on the States for shortages of vaccines.
•For the GOI to say that itvdid not expect this double mutant strain to wreck its plans for gradually building herd immunity is indefensible, because we saw in 2020 what was happening in the West especially to the US, and so without due diligence there was no reason or justification for complacency.
•In an interconnected world, especially in the context of Covid-19, there was no need to sermonize the West ad nauseam on how great our performance and preparation for dealing with Covid-19 has been, especially as compared to theirs, and then to send your Foreign Minister to the US to plead for assistance because actually we were not so well prepared, makes us look immature in the comity of nations.
•For crores of people who have taken the first dose of Covishield and are anxiously waiting for the second because they remain vulnerable to the virus, PM Modi’s statement on 7.6.2021 of administering 23 crore doses of vaccine (in about 5 months) does not offer any succor.
•To vaccinate the entire population, except those below 18 years (who too are being infected and who will in turn infect others), we need ~200 crore doses which does not appear possible in the next 6 months, during which transmission of the virus will continue at a steady pace to engulf the vast mass of people in our country. Unless movements are severely restricted and good quality masks are freely distributed till the bulk of the population is fully vaccinated, the contagion will continue to spread uncontrollably.
•PM in his speech on 7.6.2021 unfortunately did not answer the simple question as to how we arrived at this tragic situation.
•We need free masks for all and strict periodic lockdowns throughout India till the entire population is vaccinated. Free vaccines for all is a step in the right direction.