Increasing Pyres, Gaumutra and the Crumbling System
By Rangdajied Marweiñ | SHILLONG:
The recent Delhi High Court ruling, terming deaths due to non-availability of oxygen as genocide, is a pointer to systemic failure. A deep public health crisis cannot loom large without breaches at multiple levels: financial instability, policy paralysis and arrogance of power. Needless to say, that such malaises have become an everyday setback for a democracy like India. No longer can the largest democracy of the world self-praise, as only after reaching the Everest of Vikas (development), can there be such an oxygen crisis. We have reached great heights indeed.
The absence of accessible health care has turned big cities into an open crematorium. Pyres are lit on city spaces which only invokes a deep sense of disbelief in the narrative of Vikas (development) and Vishwas (belief) – the prime slogans of the current political regimen. Michel Foucault must have been squirming when he could see that the convenient truths constructed by the power can no longer secure the power itself, even if bouts of sacred gaumutra (cow urine) is sprinkled all around. An activist of a political party opening the tubes of a ventilator in a hospital to pour gaumutra in a patient’s mouth is the most defining and momentous picture to remember in a country running out of space to burn its dead.
The country, after witnessing a devastating first spell, had one year time to prepare for a possible mutant strain with deadlier effects. True to going overboard with the democratic nature, state governments and political parties prioritized efforts into election preparations. Even when scientific bodies forewarned and implored the government to take cognizance of added virulence of the virological entity, it fell into deaf ears. Instead, our union health minister wanted to know the findings of an expert committee on the qualities of a cow. The same health minister remained tone-deaf to the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium (INSACOG) sharing its findings with National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). The report warned of mutants called E484Q and L452R, being of “high concern.” But seemingly neither preparedness nor knowledge was of importance to the government of the day.
Apathy found its high charade in the continuous shout of “Didi. O, Didi.” Instead of fighting corona, the entire union government top brass got busy fighting Didi in Bengal. The worst was when the prime minister exhorted a gathering to listen to his election campaign and lauded it as the biggest ever rally that he attended.
Around the same time, the biggest religious gathering of India – Kumbh Mela – went on. In effect, super-spreader events like these resulted in a massive rise of infection and India started counting a large number of deaths due to lack of oxygen supply and continuously dwindling hospital beds. Soon, images of patients waiting outside the hospital and dying on the street began surfacing. In such a distressful moment, exuberant political rallies, with loud claims of capturing Bengal from national leaders, sounded like Nero’s fiddling. At a time when pyres are burning endlessly and crematoriums are full of corpses, it all amounts to willful disregard to COVID norms and a complete absence of any accountability.
The first time that any accountability was questioned was when the Madras High Court pulled up the Election Commission of India (ECI) for not following Covid Protocols and allowing the virus to transmit. It created a semblance of law, as the High Court threatened the ECI that it would make counting stop if Covid protocols were not adhered to. Following this, for the first time, rallies were limited to 500 with distancing and mask-wearing. ECI also declared strict protocols for allowing officials to enter the designated counting areas only after tests.
Moving to Northeast India
Amidst such crisis, people of the northeast watched anxiously even as influential leaders – such as the health minister of Assam – downplayed the spread of infection.
People of Meghalaya for instance started feeling the lack of medical infrastructure in the state, which was soon confirmed by government officials themselves. The private hospitals in cities and towns, ill-equipped rural health infrastructure, and the lack of medical logistics, caused a heavy fear of an overwhelming number of cases. The vaccination process too could not assure much as people themselves did not turn up to take the vaccine. Many started losing near and dear ones. The returnees came back with a great amount of hurry and scare from other cities of the country. All these exposed cracks in the overall health machinery of the state and the government’s capability to stand by the people. The situation became grim when the government itself expressed concerns about scanty resources at hand, which led people to become even more precarious.
A plan to ramp up the health infrastructure with vaccination for all has also met with possible crisis as vaccination has not been made free for and by the central government. The central government passed the task of procuring vaccines on the resource-strapped state governments.
For most states in the northeast, there is hardly any economic prowess. Investing money on major projects becomes a far cry unless the central government can step in. This has also been the case with procuring vaccines, wherein such states in the past have had dismal welfare expenditure. The situation resembles a catch-22, where the northeastern state governments can neither buy the vaccines on their own nor can they demand more, considering the cases in the states in comparison to other parts of India.
Recently, the High Court of Delhi also pointed to the central government’s mismanagement in allotting vaccines. A state like Gujarat was being allotted more than Delhi. This is quite reflective of what is happening with the northeastern states as well.
COVID test kits are fast running out of stock for the whole country, let alone the northeastern states. The possible impact is that states cannot continue with the compulsory RT-PCR tests for all entrants. As a consequence, many states, such as Meghalaya, are restricting inter and intrastate transport. This shall again impact the supply of essential food items, leading to hoarding and a rise in prices.
Governments across the northeast need to plan the vaccination steadily and expand COVID hospitalization facilities. This is the peak time to ramp up welfare spending. There should be no disruption in the treatment of serious patients. Therefore, the task is to store all necessary drugs and ramp up essential infrastructure such as oxygen plants. If the governments will gear itself up to the task is another question.
(Edited by Anirban Paul)
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