PM Narendra Modi addressed our nation on Monday, the 7th of June, as India was approaching the tail end of the deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic which wreaked devastating havoc on the country. His speech included announcements of plans to offer free vaccinations to all adults in the coming days, along with extended support to the poorest sections of the population in the form of food rations. These were perhaps the main points of a speech that otherwise failed to address the grim reality faced by the country over the last two months. As usual, there was no room for cross-questioning or was there any attempt made to take accountability.
The Prime Minister has made a habit of appearing on our screens at his convenience in order to vaguely illustrate his thoughts on events that have transpired. His appearance, which now resembles that of a wise old sage, along with the nature of his public addresses, are more suited to the persona of a sovereign addressing their subjects for the mere sake of formality and have little in common with that of a public servant who took an oath to conscientiously discharge their duties for the people they govern.
Modi began his speech by giving a brief overview of what is already well known, that this is the worst pandemic the world has seen in 100 years and that it is a tragedy. He then proceeded to allude to the notion that the oxygen shortage during the second wave was somewhat unprecedented. “During the second wave, the demand for medical oxygen in India increased unimaginably in the months of April and May”. To say that the extent of the demand was not foreseeable is in essence an effort to wash his hands clean off the fatal outcomes that the shortage in oxygen led to.
We all remember (they are hard to forget) the gruesome images of patients being dragged from hospital to hospital by their desperate relatives in search of an oxygen cylinder, only to be let down at every avenue. These people died on our screens as we watched the reporting not of the Indian media, but that of the American or British journalists, who could not fathom what was happening right in front of them.
The Modi government would have surely been informed at the start of the pandemic last year about the quantity of oxygen available in the country. Efforts should have been made earlier to divert resources to the medical community and the government itself should have built more oxygen plants on its own instead of relying on industrial players. The Central Government, however, failed to address this issue until only in October 2020 when they invited bids for the setting up of plants, a full seven months into the pandemic. What’s more, the government did not restrict the export of oxygen until April 2021, well into the second wave.
The need for oxygen in this country would have undoubtedly been known by those who are responsible, and a failure to address the issue is symptomatic of either incompetence or carelessness, both of which are inexcusable.
Modi then made certain remarks about India’s vaccine record prior to when he had taken office. According to him, vaccine coverage in the country was at only 60% in 2014, and since then his government has worked to bring that figure up to 90%. He also stated incorrectly that in the past, Indians would have to wait decades to get a vaccine that had already been discovered and administered to the populations of other nations. He falsely believes that vaccine manufacturing hardly occurred in India and his government’s effort to develop two COVID-19 vaccines was an occurrence that broke new ground.
A little bit of research will tell you that India’s history with vaccines is actually quite remarkable. Vaccine manufacturing in India dates all the way back to 1890 with the first depot being set up in Shillong. Indian scientists were also considered pioneers in polio research during the 1970s.
It took India until 1975 to rid itself of the smallpox virus while it took the US and Europe until only 1953, but the reason for this was not the lack of vaccine coverage or manufacturing capabilities, it was due to the skepticism and lack of awareness that existed amongst the public regarding vaccinations.
Despite this, the data clearly shows that India as a country has successfully conducted various vaccination programmes over the years. The graph below shows the declining trend of vaccine preventable diseases in India since the 1980s. Modi’s claim that India’s vaccine coverage today stands at 90% is flatly inaccurate. Data from December 2020 shows that only 5 states can claim a vaccine coverage in excess of 80%, and of these, the highest was that of Himachal Pradesh whose coverage is at 89%.
So for him to make the claim that his government decided that, “vaccination will be done on a war footing”, as if to say that this was the priority from day 1 and no resources were spared to carry out the project, tells us that even with the resources and the full strength of the government, the goal could not be achieved. Once again, we observe either incompetence or dishonesty, or in this case, both.
Later on in his speech the Prime Minister made the rather unprincipled decision to throw his Chief Ministers under the bus. The State Governments had apparently started making demands to the Center that they ought to handle the health matters of their respective states since health was after all defined as the State’s responsibility in the Constitution. Modi’s government decided to pass on the responsibility to the states from the 1st of May. Soon after this, he claims, the State Governments began to understand the reality of the situation and within two weeks, officials from the State Governments began appealing to the Center to revert to the old system. As a result, the Prime Minister decided to go back to the old system wherein vaccinations, guidelines, and protocols were all handled by the Center.
Listening to Modi’s speech, one certainly gets the impression that his government gave in to the demands of the States as though they were spoiled children who would be difficult to pacify. Upon facing the situation themselves, the government then had to swoop back in to take matters into their own hands with an ‘I-told-you-so’ attitude. The reality is quite different.
The u-turn made by the Modi government with regards to the vaccine policy was not borne out of an appeal made by the states. It was in fact an order given by the Supreme Court to the Center to take responsibility. The SC chose to hear the case on its own, i.e no petition was raised by any lawyer or individual. It was baffled at the Center’s belief that private hospitals had the capabilities to vaccinate a quarter of the country’s population. It was also highly critical of the Center’s decision to leave the states to fend for themselves in terms of procuring vaccines on their own. This is unquestionably the Central Government’s responsibility.
While it is not unusual for a politician to put forth their version of events which is invariably a version that favours them, the detachment from reality in Modi’s speeches is perhaps the most disappointing element. It was clear enough for the world to see that India was struggling during the second wave.
In the Union Budget announced earlier this year, the government had proudly announced that it would be setting aside Rs. 35,000 crore to deal with the pandemic. We are yet to understand how and when this money has been spent, and whether it has been spent at all. With such funds, the government can surely purchase vaccines and invest in manufacturing facilities across the country. But what has transpired leaves us with many questions regarding this allocation.
- For instance, the Prime Minister made the false claim that his government has supported vaccine manufacturing “in every way” from day one. In reality, ICMR has invested a mere Rs. 46 crore for clinical trials, which is a tiny fraction of the funds needed given the situation.
- Another dubious invention of this government is that of the Lok Kalyan e-vouchers, which is essentially a scheme wherein benevolent individuals can purchase vaccination slots for those in need at private hospitals. Why does the taxpayer, whose money is already being used as a part of the Rs. 35,000 crore package, being put in a position to further support their countrymen?
- Modi’s claim that India has produced two vaccines is also misleading. Covaxin is a purely Indian vaccine, but Covishield is not. It is manufactured in India but it was developed by Astra Zeneca in the United Kingdom.
This is a government which announced back in February that the pandemic had been defeated thanks to Modi, and once again towards the end of May when Amit Shah spoke via a video conference. This is a government that at no point has taken any responsibility for the situation having gotten so bad. The Kumbh Mela, recognised as a super-spreader event, was allowed to go on. Political rallies in the densely populated state of West Bengal carried on with enthusiasm. The attitude as a whole was nonchalant, when efforts should have been made in preparation for a second wave. By simply looking at what happened in other parts of the world, it should have been evident to this government that a second wave was imminent. We have barely vaccinated 5% of the country, how could the government have declared victory back in February?
The Prime Minister’s addresses to the nation at this point serve little purpose. All his major announcements, which were of the free vaccinations and the extension of the ‘Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana’ until Diwali, could have merely been press announcements or tweets.
Is it right for us, as citizens to expect our administrators to be honest? We all know that there are few saints in politics. But when a tragedy of this scale is being played out, what one needs more than anything is Truth. Crystal clear Truth.
Authors: Pavan Sharma, Sandeep R
The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the authors. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of BCL India.