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The politician as super-spreader

The economist Joan Robinson is supposed to have said that for every statement about India, the exact opposite is also true.

I was reminded of her words as I watched the latest wave of the Covid pandemic cut a swathe through India.

 

In our cities and our towns, grim-faced ministers announced ‘curfews’ (the word ‘lockdown’ is to be avoided, apparently, after the fiasco last year) while poor migrant workers thronged railway platforms looking for trains that would take them back to their villages. Small businesses prepared to go bust. Hawkers starved. Hospitals struggled to keep up with the flood of new cases while crematoria said they were full; anyone with a funeral to conduct would have to wait in line for at least a few hours.

 

   And yet, just two hours from Mussoorie where I am writing this, lakhs of pilgrims thronged the banks of the Ganga to celebrate the Kumbh Mela. There were no masks. There was no social distancing. The pilgrims were assured by politicians and others who should know better that they were in no danger because they had divine protection.

 

   Alas, no such protection was forthcoming. Each day, hundreds tested positive. God knows how many Covid cases there really were because only a small proportion of the pilgrims were actually tested. As the symptoms took hold, the condition of those afflicted turned worse and the death toll began to rise.

 

   The contrast between the imposition of curfews and the insistence on strict social distancing all over India and the super-spreader nature of the Kumbh could not have been greater or more glaring.

 

   But all calls to cancel the Mela had been rejected and even as the Covid cases mounted, state officials maintained, with increasing levels of desperation and mendacity, that the Kumbh was not a threat to public safety.

 

   Even as people were dying in Haridwar, another tamasha was taking place in another part of India. For reasons nobody can fully explain, the Election Commission planned an extraordinarily long campaign for the assembly election in West Bengal. It is true that Bengal is a large state with its own set of specific problems but it did seem odd that the Election Commission managed a poll for 234 seats in Tamilnadu in one day. But Bengal with its 294 seats took over a month.

 

   It was hard to dispel the suspicion that the Commission wanted there to be lots of time available for the BJP’s central leadership to go from region to region to campaign against the TMC, which is a local Bengal party.

 

   Well, the Commission got its wish. For over a month now, politicians have been organising massive super-spreader rallies in Bengal. There are huge crowds. There is no social distancing. And even the leaders who address these rallies and mix with local workers don’t worry unduly about masks or distancing. There is not much testing in the villages of Bengal so it is hard to tell what the accurate Covid figures are, but there is little doubt that infections are going up.

 

   How can a country with the second largest number of Covid cases in the world (or the largest number if you believe those who say that India is under-reporting its cases), occupy two separate realities? There is the India where people die or are thrown out of work, where the health structure is collapsing. And there is the India where lakhs of pilgrims cheerfully bless each other with the virus; the India where politicians urge people to gather together so the infection can spread.

 

   For every statement about India: the opposite is also true.

 

   Yes we are imposing strict anti Covid measures. And yes we are also encouraging the spread of the virus.

 

   We all know what the real reason for these bizarre alternate realities is.

 

"Once you recognise what the government’s priorities are, then it becomes clear why India is losing the battle against Covid."

   Politics.

 

   The BJP is the party of Hindutva. It fears a dent in its loyal support base if it interferes with religious festivals. Far better to let the Kumbh turn into a super-spreader festival than to risk upsetting its supporters.

 

   And the West Bengal election is crucial to the BJP. Opinion polls suggest that it has, for the first time, an opportunity to form the government in West Bengal, a huge breakthrough for a party that, only a decade or so ago, was not such a significant player in the state.

 

   Is it going to throw away that opportunity only because of a little spiked ball of death called the Corona virus?

 

   Once you recognise what the government’s priorities are, then it becomes clear why India is losing the battle against Covid.

 

   It seems probable now that the sudden surge in Covid cases is due to a more easily transmissible virus variant. This is not unprecedented. The virus mutates all the time and new variants have been discovered all over the world. In the UK, for instance, when the Kent variant was discovered, the government locked the country down and ordered vaccinations on an emergency footing. Britain is now opening up again, its numbers largely under control.

 

   In India, there has been no conclusive word yet from the Centre about any more transmissible variant. Meanwhile the UK is studying what it thinks might be a new Indian variant. And though state health authorities suggest that this might in fact be the case, the Centre continues to act as though the surge is our own fault. Why didn’t we wear our masks properly? We caused the surge ourselves.

 

   Variant? What variant?

 

   Because everybody at the top of the political structure was too busy with elections, the fight against Covid was left to second-raters and middle-level morons. It suited the politicians to pose as heroes who would send vaccines to the world. Clearly nobody in the medical establishment told them that we did not really have enough vaccines to supply the world. Now, we are reduced to importing vaccines.

 

   The UK vaccinated its people at super-speed once it knew that a dangerous new variant was around. We stuck to our own pre-arranged pace. This was passed off as a thought-out strategy when actually we had no other choice. We did not have the vaccine doses required to open vaccination to those at risk in hot-spots. When vaccines began to run out, then like all second-raters who find that the situation is slipping out of their control, the minister and his henchmen began playing politics and blaming state governments.

 

   Now that the situation is desperate, the Prime Minister has finally over-ruled the smug buffoons who have been handling our Covid response. More vaccines will be approved. The vaccine programme will be stepped up.

 

   No doubt in time, these will be lauded by pliant media as master-strokes.

 

   By then, people will have died or suffered terribly. All because politicians were too busy fighting elections to care about our health.

 

   Here’s one generalisation about India that I don’t think even Joan Robinson can dispute. Every time there is a crisis, you can count on politicians to slip up and let the people down. 

 

   And no, the opposite is never true.

 


 

Posted On: 16 Apr 2021 06:20 PM
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