DR (MAJ) HARICHARAN
In the previous articles, it was attempted to decipher the pathology of the whole socioeconomic-politico-corporate equation which underlies the anomaly leading to the present-day problem of the Covid-19 pandemic.
We have now clearly in front of us a virus which was first known to have spread from China in 2019, it’s vaguely traceable to a lab and a wet market in Wuhan of China but still not clear whether it was engineered with an intention to create a pandemic or a specific strike capability in the form of a biological warfare agent.
Nevertheless, in 2021 ending now this article and future such articles will continuously try to document the scale of destruction inflicted by the virus and also what all it exposes about our systems which were supposed to be in place to avert such catastrophes which eventually unfolded as expected.
The total death toll in our country has an official figure which is supposed to be 10 times lesser than the original, it is unpardonable to not acknowledge the fact and retrospect the whole calamity and see where all the world went wrong.
Firstly if the virus was made intentionally as was the tone and tenor of the former US president’s statements made against a Chinese lab, then it was a huge failure on the Indian intelligence gathering system to have not known or even suspected it.
If it had been suspected then to have not acted upon it, to presume that if the US couldn’t do anything about it how can we expect a poor country like ours would, is not feasible because China is our immediate neighbour and do not have information on the breakout even if it was late would have made the public more aware and possibly saved more lives or bought more time before a vaccine would be ready.
The reason for intelligence failure can only be presumed to be its unaccountability or incompetence or misplaced concentration on some other country of lesser importance than China as a threat.
Secondly, the next failure seems in the inability of the administration in the country (both central and state) to control the spread, once the denial phase about the pandemic not being present in our country was over it is evident that except in success of false reporting and cover-up in the mass media reporting, it was a failure in all fronts in not being able to control its spread.
The reason being the absence of knowledge attitude and practices in the country except for a few pockets of educated communities like in Kerala indirectly indicated the low level of literacy amongst the public, especially for a pandemic-like condition.
The third failure was that of the health system which collapsed under the load of the cases to the extent that even now we don’t know how many died due to the unavailable care during the pandemic. Failure was expected at preventive health system side because the public health system was in decrepit condition even before the pandemic evident from still high mortality figures of preventable diseases like malaria, TB, dengue, road traffic accidents, air pollution-related deaths, maternal and infant deaths due to malnutrition etc. The reason is a very low budget allocation to public health (less than 5 percent of GDP) in our country.
The fourth failure was not being able to produce a vaccine in sufficient quantities and administer it before the second wave struck, we had the choice of only two or three vaccines when there were three more available in the global market, only one was supposed to be fully indigenous but that couldn’t be produced at a scale which could drive the huge immunization program which was needed at a war footing notwithstanding the safety concerns which also needed proper address.
This failed because evidently there was neither the central nor the state government which seemed to be in command of the situation to order the vaccines from the private companies and it seemed in the end that the central government realized it was its responsibility after much dilly-dallying during the crucial moments of a war-like situation.
The fifth failure was at the front of the Indian economy which was being handled much at the national level in the form of various packages and budget announcements, but on ground, realities showed that the hardships faced by much of the rural and urban migrant labourers were left unaddressed and we know the effect of low socioeconomic conditions on any disease, it’s an independent risk factor of poor prognosis at all levels of disease including at preventive level.
It was evident in the form of the second wave taking a toll on the rural poor who were caught kind of unaware after the local body elections which gave the pandemic a great surge in the form of the second wave to the extent that there was no place for the last rites for the dead bodies and they floated in major rivers of the country without proper safety measures of dead body disposal.
The sixth failure was at the level of mass media which failed to document all such failures and also find the root causes of such failures so that corrective measures can be taken, the failure of the media has only caused a great reassurance for the mastermind behind the virus (if any) in the form that in future there is no need for conventional warfare to destroy the economy of a country like India it’s enough to reintroduce this very same virus once the immunity amongst the population is gone and because our memory is short and even shorter because of the glaring failure of the mass media, one shouldn’t be surprised if there would be no repeat incidents of havoc by biological agents like viruses bacteria and fungi.
Coming back to accountability, it is not much difficult to expose the fact that for all these failures the administration is responsible which includes the legislative and the executive which was in place for the sake of such very exigencies, just basking in the glory of having provided other basic necessities like public services in the form of ration food, water supply, building roads, buying second-hand defence equipment at huge costs, etc are not some great achievements. It would have been great if the administration came up to the expectations by doing the things necessary to avert huge public tragedies at the national level which is not less than a war waged upon us.
Intelligence failure is clear because we know that SARS, MERS, NIPAH, and other flu-like viruses (bird, swine and chicken, etc) have been regularly coming into the country for almost two decades, keeping people with just arts and commerce background people in the bureaucracy and promoting them to the higher intelligence collection and activity level would have lead to this failure.
Though some kind of surveillance was in place (exposed by the fact that Pegasus spyware was used on the phone of one of the public health scientists) but as a whole, it was a failure, probably the spyware of the enemy was more efficient and probably had gauged the effect of such a virus very accurately before release (if it was so) , but even if we presume it was an unintentional accident from a laboratory experiment in China or some other country, the previous instances of potential viral agent attack should have made the intelligence systems more robust and scientific and efficient at spying on the enemy rather than on our own scientists.
Next is failure to stop the spread, the administration knows well about the already existing burden of airborne diseases like tuberculosis which is already a huge challenge.
If there was in place good knowledge attitude and practices to stop the spread of tuberculosis, for which our country holds the record for the highest number of cases in the world, it would have been easy to control the spread of Covid 19, but unfortunately, because most of our politicians are from unscientific backgrounds and also most of the bureaucracy also is selected from non-science backgrounds it was evident that nothing changed in the system to correct itself even though there was a chance for the same.
The third failure of that is the health system which could have been corrected long back, it was very well known from bad health indicators of the country like the high mortality from common diseases could have been tackled by high public expenditure on health, but instead, there were just announcements of more AIMS like medical colleges made with utter neglect of the primary health system.
Neither the AIIMS like institutions made any difference nor the dilapidated primary health infrastructure in the wake of the pandemic because even basic goods like the PPE kits, masks, oxygen, etc were not insufficient supply. This could have been definitely correctly proven by the fact that Kerala was doing much better in terms of lower mortality due to COVID-19, mostly due to a better public health delivery system.
Fourth is the vaccine front, it was clear from my previous articles that there was a systematic reduction in public institutional capacities to produce vaccines by shutting down the various vaccine manufacturing government companies for the previous two decades and that was not corrected citing the necessity to follow neoliberal policies in favour of free-market economy which made the corporate pharma companies more powerful than elected governments (however unscientific they are) and lead to the situation wherein the government had to depend on private companies for a vaccine at war footing which was not forthcoming.
Also, the regulatory mechanisms seemed to be too bureaucratic to not allow quick resolution of the defects of private-public partnership to allow vaccine delivery quickly. There was much time since almost a decade when the course could have been corrected and when there was loss of lives reported due to lack of public supply of some publicly produced items like anti-snake venom (which wasn’t so profitable to produce by a private company).
Finally, the economy could have been much better if it was handled in a more rational rather than blind brazen neoliberal sense, reduction in corporate tax and increased taxes on public goods like fuel leading to inflation has reduced demand and hence supply and a spiral of reduced production and jobs has hit the economy since the pandemic, crony capitalism has gained a lot which is evident from rising stock market indices and corporate profit in spite of decreased demand and negative GDP.
Even on this front, there was a fair chance to course-correct, limited changes happened when there was this popular economic policy called the “development with human face” wherein midday meal scheme and MGNREGA was introduced (which has helped the poor but has not prevented the catastrophe at national economic level though) it seems as though much of the debacle at the economic front seems due to unabated crony capitalism which just sold second-hand items to the public without much innovation and originality, including second-hand stale news from the internet most of which was false.
All their glaring failures lead us naturally to question whether there is something fundamentally wrong in our culture that leads to such uncorrected continuity of wrong public and private life leading to continued calamities which unfolded in front of the country but the country seems to be not shaken to reality in spite of the destruction and the expose by the virus.