Guest post by HIMANSHU SHUKLA
As India updated its COVID cases on April 30th, it became the first country to register over 4 lakh infection in a single day. This record breaking second-wave spike in the country opened the Pandora’s Box of the Modi-led central government’s claim of defeating the pandemic. The government patted itself for successfully defeating the virus and bringing normalcy in the country, without getting hit very hard like many other countries. The second wave of virus has showed up the naked picture of the hollow claims that the government made about their preparedness to tackle COVID.
India is now the epicentre of infection, accounting for 46% of world’s total cases and quarter of deaths. The ravaging crisis brought about cries for oxygen countrywide. Mass deaths due to unavailability of medical care is the new picture that India portrays of its incompetence in dealing with the second wave. The recent editorial of Lancet slammed Modi government, mentioning that the second wave is a ‘self inflicted national catastrophe’.
With different states managing the COVID catastrophe in their way, the Uttar Pradesh ‘model’ of battling the virus calls for special scrutiny, given its position in the country.
Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state of India which also provides the largest cut of seats to the incumbent party, BJP. The state government is also run by the saffron-clad Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath who is the face of militant Hindutva politics in the contemporary times. He is known for his communal and hateful speeches along with authoritarian governing of the state. The Yogi model of fighting the second wave of COVID in Uttar Pradesh is the story of a disastrous mishandling of COVID spike, along with administrative incompetence and attack on the civil community offering people necessary help. The Yogi government repeatedly came out with arbitrary and non constitutional decrees which did not address the deplorable state of medical conditions and instead attacked the voices exposing the shabby system of governance and administrative negligence which contributed to the rise of both cases and deaths in the state.
Uttar Pradesh’s latest official data shows a daily growth of COVID cases by 30,000 and more than 300 deaths every day. The health infrastructure of Uttar Pradesh remains an ailing one with availability of one doctor for 19,962 people. The recent surge of cases jolted the medical infrastructure which in no time got overburdened with COVID cases. Most of the hospitals were flooded with critical patients. And just when Uttar Prasesh was under the shadow of burning pyres, Yogi Adityanath was busy ‘rallying around’ West Bengal. These election rallies were later known to have become super spreader events for COVID infection.
The cries for oxygen cylinders, life saving drugs, ambulance, ICU beds and ventilators paint the picture of a crisis hit Uttar Pradesh, where people are eventually dying due to non availability of medical facilities. The social media overflowed with images and videos of desperate people asking for help, showing their oximeters and reports. Several people passed away in ambulances, waiting to be attended and treated. The Yogi administration exhibited an attitude of denial on the cases and CM himself tweeted that there is no shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and asked the state police to charge people with NSA and seize their property for rumour-mongering and denting the image of government by planting propaganda messages. This was the tactical solution that the state government announced to counter the genuine public demand in this time.
The very day Yogi Adityanath announced there was no shortage of oxygen in the state, a heart wrenching picture of a women emerged giving mouth to mouth resuscitation to her COVID positive husband in Agra who later passed away due to unavailability of oxygen. This episode exposes the ignorant and fake claims of the government regarding oxygen availability. The government also passed an order asking oxygen suppliers not to give oxygen to cases related to individual person bringing many patients under home isolation into trouble.
Various incidents also emerged where police confiscated oxygen cylinders from patients and help groups. One of them was from Agra where police seized oxygen cylinder from a female patient while her son pleaded that she will die. She eventually passed away. Similarly, a person helping patients with oxygen in Jaunpur by selling jewellery was charged with Pandemic Act. State institutions in Uttar Pradesh achieved new low everyday by their acts of crime against humanity and life in order to build an illusion that everything is under control.
Yogi administration not only behaved ruthlessly with COVID patients but it also charged hospitals exhibiting the non availability of oxygen supply. Many hospitals which put out the pamphlet for non admission of patients due to oxygen shortage were asked to respond to governmental enquiry. Similar attack was carried out on journalists by warning them to face punitive actions for being critical to state government for handling of COVID calamity. The situation got grim enough to invite Supreme Court attention which asked government not to take action against SOS and help call messages of people.
Multiple letters were written to the state government by MPs and MLAs even from BJP for complaining about the interrupted supply of essential medical resources. COVID-dedicated mobile numbers of medical officials and staffs remained off or were not answered. State administration in this time of crisis appeared to be far away from public access in every possible way.
The Yogi model of dealing with COVID crisis relies on creating a facade of normalcy in the state by repressing the realities of state failure in ensuring proper medical treatment. This is done by passing arbitrary regulations, to target anyone calling out against the paucity of government. The only convenience state is providing its citizen is of death due to maximum state negligence.
Panchayat election and rise in cases
Uttar Pradesh Panchayat election took place amidst the rise of COVID cases. The state election commission announced a four phase election from 15 to 29 April and counting on May 2nd. The devastating surge in COVID cases due to public gathering and non-following of social distancing measures started to take place in the UP due to election related gatherings. Yet the state election commission took no crucial steps to check the rise of cases and remained adamant to complete the election process.
While the election was going on in different phases, local newspapers covered multiple news of the death of government teachers and associates due to COVID. Many requested for leave as they were experiencing symptoms but were made to do their election duty due to which they succumbed to the virus. The state Teachers’ association submitted a report mentioning deaths of 706 teachers due to COVID by the end of all the phases. It includes heart wrenching death of a pregnant teacher. The sheer negligence on the side of state govt and election commission which led to the loss of so many lives isn’t death just by infection but also involves institutional insouciance making government responsible it. It’s hard to find such pattern of decisions which voluntarily causes so many deaths in any democracy.
Undercounting, misreporting and juggling of numbers
COVID made essential the accounting of numbers in government files. From testing, positive cases, recovery to deaths, every category contribute to giving a clear picture of the actual condition of state response to the crisis. It tells us whether the state administration has utterly failed to combat the virus or remained competent enough to withstand the burden of rising cases. Therefore, the control on the numbers and foul play around them remains an easy path to take, which the BJP governments seem to specialize in. Something similar happened in Uttar Pradesh in relation to data published about COVID. Massive undercounting of COVID cases and deaths is being done around the state in order to paint a picture of an efficient administration and a comparatively less affected state.
But a devastating picture arises from crematoriums where the number of pyres burnt following COVID protocols remained way more than the actual number published. The mounting of cases was to such an extent that crematoriums started giving waiting tickets; the metal of electric crematoriums melted due to overuse; public parks were converted into temporary cremation grounds. The situation was so unprecedented that the High Court asked the government to report deaths on daily basis to the judicial officer. Disquieting videos of endless funerals showed an altogether different reality which was contrary to the claims of government. This under counting is not only veiling the real severity but also stripping off people from the dignity of being citizens of the state. As their deaths are not counted, they remain aliens, as if they never existed in the data of government.
Similar management was done with testing. Mass testing yet looks as an unachievable target in Uttar Pradesh. Even in major cities of Uttar Pradesh, one has to be lucky to get tested on time. Testing centres run with limited kits which were outnumbered by people coming to be tested. Rural parts of Uttar Pradesh witnessing the spike of cases are not having proper testing mechanism to trace and test the actual population infected. Henceforth, undercounting of real deaths, misreporting of cases, under testing as well as foul play of data are the most faithful medium of Yogi administration to curb the spike of virus.
High Court in the recent period repeatedly questioned the resistance of the state government in dealing with the second wave. Strong comments were made by the judiciary over the complacent and casual form of actions by state government. Court said that the death due to shortage of oxygen is no less than genocide. Amidst the state-wide deficiency of medical equipment, the state govt ordered to provide thermal scanner, oximeter to gaushalas for looking after the health of holy cow. This is the non achievable height to which any regime could exhibit megalomania and remain passive for the loss of human life.
What the Yogi model actually entails
The Yogi model of tackling the second wave of COVID gives a lived experience of authoritarian leadership where human life is treated as the least dignified thing. The repressive actions against anyone raising questions over government and complacent administrative rhetoric of normalcy even with the hyper-visible misery of COVID patients is enabling the building up of a repressive and undemocratic regime in Uttar Pradesh. Fundamental and civil rights of citizens in the state no longer matter. Yogi is trying to deal with the second wave in his familiar militant hindutva style by taking punitive action against everyone who is critical to the arrangement and seeking help, while polarizing the majority by posing that everything is well managed.
The Yogi administration is trying to infuse wilful forgetfulness of the ravaging crisis in public mind by censoring almost everything which exposes the truth of mishandling and this is having disastrous consequences. It is trying to maintain its unchallenged hegemonic domination at the cost of human life.
Yogi is trying to deal with the crisis not by taking series of substantive steps which could further the fight against virus but by targeting all forms of criticism under draconian and haphazard schemes. It’s difficult to feel like living in a democratic space where police acts like storm-troopers and tries to preserve the image of government by acting against any form of dissent. The monkish personality cult of Yogi Adityanath who remains unaccountable to any democratic ethos and goes on to make arbitrary decision in the name of bold steps is resulting counterproductive for people in this pandemic. Curbing the press, lodging indiscriminate FIRs, functioning in an unaccountable way, eroding the civil, political and fundamental rights of citizens, citizens are made subjects, living in denial of their basic necessities. Nowhere has any pandemic been battled by downplaying and being consciously ignorant to it but by taking decisive steps to battling it. Under the ravaging condition of pandemic, people need a benevolent and sensitive government which could work for them rather than targeting them for genuine demands.