Dead bodies numbering around forty floated down the River Ganga and piled up at a “ghat” in Buxar, Bihar. The reaction of the Nitish Kumar government in partnership with the BJP: “the dead bodies belong to Uttar Pradesh”.
And, this in a nutshell is how India is handled the worst ever outbreak of the pandemic — Covid-19. The leadership seems to have melted away while oxygen-distressed Indians are gasping for breath.
As a shadow lockdown is enforced which no one — Centre or state — acknowledge, the realisation is stark: Indians are totally on their own, quite literally “aatmanirbhar” (self sufficient) from any government aid.
The Ill-judged decision to allow the Kumbh Mela in which millions of people congregated and bathed together in total violation of all COVID avoidance protocols has come back to haunt India as the Mela attendees have carried the infection in huge numbers to rural India.
As the world rushes to ensure aid for India, the government — both Centre and state — appears to be gripped by a paralysis.
Final reality of the pandemic
The complexity and final reality of the pandemic is daunting. Inconvenient truths have come back to give India a reality check. The reality of millions of poor people with no access to even primitive health care and worse, a very basic health infrastructure, which has simply collapsed under the onslaught of dealing with a death every second.
We had been so invested in cheering on the India story — our ascent as a super power — that the Indian media and leaders simply forgot that the poor still existed and existed in the most primitive conditions. The lack of government spend in health care — again both centre and state — are coming back to haunt us like reproachful ghosts.
If the terrible first decision of a lockdown at four hours notice had migrants walking thousands of kilometres, the shadow lockdown currently imposed in all but name has the same teeming millions pay the biggest price.
Entire villages have turned in to open charnel houses as people struggle to cope with families who need oxygen and ventilators. What they get is ghastly profiteering at the expense of victims as ambulances quote ridiculous prices for a ride and hospitals — if you manage to get a bed — simply rip-off desperate families in distress.
A sample: a millionaire running multiple restaurants in the most pricey real estate in Delhi and the chief executive of a mobile network decided to stockpile and black market oxygen concentrators, charging lakhs for what was purchased for ₹20 thousand.
Desperate families dug deep into their savings and paid up. The ones profiteering from the pandemic have no fear of government action because they have the connections on their speed dial.
The greedy restaurant owner who is still to be arrested had pictures with the entire Indian cricket team and retired Supreme Court judges and Army Generals as family members.
Gasping for breath
This is just one example where well connected people literally think they can get away with murder. Other well connected people are finally realising that they may have lived in a privileged bubble of entitlement but, the Indian reality has finally caught up.
In the most class-conscious country in the world, pain and lack of oxygen has been a democratising experience. The virus does not discriminate on any class or religion basis and the rich and poor are both struggling to simply survive.
The struggle for survival, near Orwellian at most levels, has seen government like the one Yogi Adityanath runs in UP to criminalise any one complaining of a lack of medical facilities or even a cry for help with police crackdowns.
The idea seems to be that we can’t help you with medical facilities but, please die quietly or we will make it worse for your survivors. If you ask for help, the Yogi government considers it a ploy to attack its image and files draconian cases.
BJP government keeps defending itself in various courts about why oxygen is not being provided but, has declared the rebuilding of Delhi’s Central Vista as an “essential service”. The cost: a mere ₹20 thousand crores to the exchequer, which could have built many hospitals. Despite widespread public anger, the BJP government is committed to going ahead with the project.
More talented writers than me will be able to tell us what the Central Vista project, once built, will be a memorial to. A public mausoleum for covid victims who died gasping for air? It reminds me of P B Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. A few lines would be instructive of the hubris and inevitable decline of those who fancy their greatness.
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
But, then our rulers don’t read real poetry, only pretend to be poets as part of the curriculum vitae, so Shelley and his puncturing of pretend greatness wouldn’t ring a bell.
Real need in a poor country
As people die without oxygen, it is clearly a misplaced priority to continue what can only be described as an obscene exercise in public expenditure. But, the ideology that builds giant statues and wants to build huge monuments does not believe in building hospitals — a real need in any poor country.
Covid and its handling has certainly exposed many leaders and the mainstream media which celebrated their “good governance”. The government is missing in action and no amount of pretence and headline management can quite cover up the scale of the tragedy.
The tragedy of boasting to be the vaccine-making capital of the world, only to find a huge vaccine shortage for Indians, the tragedy of avoidable deaths of people dying without oxygen as the government pretended that all was well.
The reality of sticking ones head in the sand about the second wave which hit across the world and had been predicted but, still hit India unaware. The tragedy of record deaths and then simply passing the buck on to unprepared states which don’t have the resources to cope with the huge toll of the pandemic.
India will be counting the real damage and victims of COVID for the next dozen years. And, will be a cautionary tale of how hubris made our leaders declare the battle against Covid over.