FPJ Edit: A mature democracy will have to distinguish between disease & administrative failure, a health emergency & criminal negligence

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “There is only one thing that I dread: Not to be worthy of my sufferings.” This philosophical yearning for grit and tolerance may be a powerful personal attribute for enlightened individuals but there are times in a nation’s life when mass sufferings render such contentions meaningless. A rampaging pandemic disrupting life processes and triggering miseries societies are not prepared for, usually demolishes perceptions and beliefs that appear sagacious in normal times.

Human civilisation has been witness to famines and plagues killing millions of people in the world but economic, scientific and technological developments have helped modern nation-states in creating robust infrastructures over the last 100 years. Covid-19 unsettled the entire world, including developed nations, but the second wave that has pierced India to the soul compels us to do some serious introspection about the administration’s failure in rising to the occasion.

Despite early warnings of a relapse and of specific alerts on oxygen shortage, the horror stories coming from different states, the impossibility of getting admission in hospitals and the abnormally high number deaths raise countless questions. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that have engulfed India pinch more because there is barely any support system. In the over 15 months that we have been aware of the deadly virus, we ought to have prepared better and ensured adequate medical assistance to the struggling population. Health facilities established last year were dismantled, the empowered group of ministers on Covid-19 stopped meeting, the task force lowered its guard and it appeared that the only concern troubling the ruling BJP and top government functionaries is winning elections in states.

It is not open to dispute that the ruling establishment forgot the pandemic that was alive and kicking in Europe and America and wasted critical months after the rising curve of infections got flattened. Of the 162 oxygen plants sanctioned last year, only 32 were made operational, reflecting callousness that should be unpardonable. Now, the government announces hundreds of more plants, displaying a mindset of digging wells when the house is on fire.

India has always been an oxygen-surplus country but no action plan was put in place for transportation and logistics, creating a crisis in hospitals that will ever remain a blot on India’s face. Thousands of patients have died for want of oxygen and hospital admission. Corona does create breathing trouble but it is the unavailability of medical oxygen that kills. A mature democracy will have to distinguish between disease and administrative failure, between a health emergency and criminal negligence.

What is worse, there was an astonishing lack of empathy from certain state governments. While Chief Ministers like Uddhav Thackeray demonstrated concern and compassion at every stage, the conduct of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is worrying. His threat to invoke the National Security Act, arrest people and seize property is unacceptable. Grieving and suffering masses need a healing touch, not coercive politicking.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have done well to lead by example, by sending out an unambiguous message that there could have have been deficiencies in planning and execution but the administration should now spare no pains providing succour to embattled citizens. A public admonition for irresponsible behaviour, like the messaging from certain high courts, would have been welcome from the top political leadership. Even the Supreme Court and the Election Commission of India could have demonstrated greater responsibility in conducting public affairs over the past few months.

Allowing unbridled electioneering, the Kumbh Mela and then panchayat elections in a big state like Uttar Pradesh strengthens the charge of criminal negligence. After all, those in the decision-making capacity will have to show the way to the gullible masses. Even the vaccination protocol and drive could have been more scientifically planned and effectively executed. Ordinary people’s self-preservation instincts will ultimately help India emerge out of this unprecedented tragedy but the scars will remain.

That we saw a time when patients admitted in good hospitals died because oxygen supply stopped and bodies had to wait for hours for cremation cannot be erased from collective memory. Neither will the farcical assertions of some leaders be forgotten that there is no crisis of oxygen or beds. Lies have a short shelf-life and truth is eternal. What we sadly learnt in this agonising phase is that post-truth poppycock is far more exasperating than an Orwellian nightmare. Hope the custodians of law and society will draw right lessons from this experience. If they don’t, democracy has its own silent ways of teaching lessons.

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