COVID flare-up exposes governance failures - GulfToday

COVID flare-up exposes governance failures

BRP Bhaskar

@brpbhaskar

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

India Covid-19 cases

A worker disinfects nozzles of oxygen cylinders in a factory amid the spread of COVID-19 in Ahmedabad, India. Reuters

“This is not a wave, this is a tsunami,” exclaimed a Delhi High Court judge.

“We are sitting on a volcano which may erupt any time,” said Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of the southern state of Kerala.

Their words epitomised the mood in India last week as the second wave of COVID-19 surged, raising seizures and deaths to record levels.

Cries for vaccine, hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and ventilators that rose across the country revealed gross failure on the part of the Central government to make adequate preparations to face the second wave. Early in April, COVID seizures, which were dipping for months, started rising again. In a fortnight the number of daily cases trebled and broke the record set by the United States in the last days of Donald Trump’s presidency. The death rate, too, rose.

It soon became evident that the governments at the Centre and in many states were not ready to meet the situation. Hospitals in Delhi and other northern cities reported deaths of patients for want of oxygen. Some stopped admissions due to lack of beds.

Plants in India are engaged in mass production of two vaccines, Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield and the locally developed Covaxin.

In January the Centre launched what was projected as the world’s largest COVID vaccination programme. It said 300 million most vulnerable people, such as frontline COVID warriors and senior citizens, would be immunised in the first phase, which would take six to eight months to complete.

While this phase was still on, it started the next one, which was to cover all persons above 45 years with co-morbidities. As the disease spread rapidly, the Centre announced last week extension of the programme, beginning May 1, to cover all above the age of 18.

With most states reporting acute shortage of vaccines, the Centre asked the manufacturers to step up production and allowed use of the Russian vaccine Sputnik. It also decided to give emergency approvals to all vaccines already in use in other countries.

According to official data, only 130 million Indians have received vaccines so far. It is not clear how many of them have received both the prescribed doses.

A stark fact emerging from this figure is that even one per cent of the estimated population of 1.39 billion has been immunised so far. As many as 170 million of the most vulnerable people may still be waiting for vaccine.    

That raises the question why India, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed was now the Pharmacy of the World, ran out of vaccines so soon. Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi criticised the Centre for undertaking large-scale export of vaccines without ensuring that there was enough to meet India’s own needs.

It now appears that India’s mass vaccine production programme was not a wholly domestic project. According to The Guardian, the West had encouraged India to become the lynchpin of COVID vaccine production. The arrangement presumably involved export commitments. Modi may have acted with a lofty motive but he seems to have failed to safeguard the country’s interests.

India produces enough medical oxygen to meet its needs. The current shortages are due partly to exports and partly to faulty delivery systems. Deaths due to oxygen shortage could have been averted if the government were alert.  

On Friday a big Delhi hospital, where 25 very sick patients had died in 24 hours, said it had 60 more very sick persons and only two hours of oxygen supply. The public statement helped. The authorities delivered oxygen cylinders within two hours.

Oxygen is now on the way from Russia. Air Force planes are helping to move supplies within the country quickly. On Sunday a new oxygen plant was opened in Gujarat, Modi’s home state. The Prime Minister’s office said 551 new plants would be set up in the country soon.

The Delhi High Court held three sittings last week to address the oxygen problem. The Supreme Court also took it up later.

In a radio talk Modi said COVID vaccine would continue to be free. Actually, it is given free only in government hospitals. Private hospitals charge Rs 250 for each dose.

Soon after Modi spoke, the government directed those in the 18-45 age group to register for vaccination at private centres. This means they may have to pay for the vaccine.

The largest producer, who supplies vaccine to the Centre at Rs 150 per dose, has said it will charge state governments Rs 400 per dose and private hospitals Rs 600.

Modi has not responded to these developments. He has a catchy slogan which he repeats often: Less government, more governance. Under him India is experiencing more government, less governance.

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