The second wave has cost India more than one could fathom. As people wait in line to turn their families to the funeral pyre, bureaucracy and governmental agencies are busy tackling India’s International image. Following the events leading up to the horrifying figures and struggling citizens during the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic, Jaibatruka Mohanta attempts to probe where did we go wrong.
By Jaibatruka Mohanta, a fourth-year student of B.L.S. LL.B., SVKMs Pravin Gandhi College of Law, University of Mumbai.
In the fall of 2020, while the pandemic advanced steadily across the world, India saw a steady decline in cases. The World Health Organization (WHO) and our doctors did foresee the inception of a second wave. However, the government failed to address the possibility of a surge. As a result, India took on the second wave without prior preparedness or a failsafe vaccine policy.
At present, India is recording about 4 lakh CoVID-19 positive cases and over 2700 deaths each day.[i] And these are only official figures. The number of bodies being cremated and buried is way more.[ii]
The present article will focus on the government’s callousness and stagnant approach towards the pandemic. The article will also analyse India’s misplaced priorities and its lethargy in recuperating the medical infrastructure over the past year. Further, the piece will focus on the Election Commission’s response amidst increasing cases and crowded rallies. And whether the Epidemic Act and Disaster Management Act are cut out for the COVID-19 and the second wave.
The Second Wave of COVID-19: God Willing?
The official figures are rising alarmingly.
When the second wave had hit us, most governments were imposing a night curfew, and some with a higher caseload were tending towards a weekend lockdown. It almost seemed as if the virus was at its prime during the nights and weekends.
Although the government and administrative bodies were aware of the second wave, the same was not visible in the measures taken by the states and Center.
On April 12 this year, amidst the tussle for securing beds in hospitals, 31 lakh devotees took the holy dip into the river Ganga at the onset of Mahakumbh.
Given the number of people who visit Mahakumbh every twelve years, it could easily pass as a super spreader. However, Uttarakhand’s Chief Minister Teerath Singh Rawat thought otherwise as he placed all his trust on ‘Devotees faith’ and God’s will. Quite literally.
Before the Mahakumbh had begun, CM Rawat proudly invited devotees across the world, he said:
“I invite all devotees across the world to come to Haridwar and take a holy dip in the Ganga during Mahakumbh. Nobody will be stopped in the name of Covid-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.”[iii]
Mahakumbh became a free pass to evade all restrictions in the name of faith. As faith and religion took preeminence, medical science and death figures got nudged towards the rear end.
In addition to the outpouring of people at the Mahakumbh, four Indian states and one union territory prepared to cast their votes in record numbers. On April 17, with utmost responsibility, the Indian Prime Minister tweeted, requesting people to cast their ballots in large numbers. With a special mention to the first-time voters who must ‘exercise their franchise’.[iv]
The Election Commission (EC) derives its authority from Article 324 of the Constitution of India and follows the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (People Act). Section 153 of the People Act grants the EC to extend the election process in a particular region if there are sufficient grounds.
Despite the surge in CoVID-19 cases across the country, almost all political parties campaigned in West Bengal, followed by Assam and Kerala. Each election rally had a minimum of 5000 individuals. As the country clocked more and more cases each day, political leaders encouraged people to participate in huge numbers.
Ideally and pragmatically, the EC should have invoked Section 153 of the People Act to extend the elections by six months. When the Centre and States must have focused on ensuring the safety of the citizens, they were busy appeasing them in large gatherings. For Indian political parties, vote bank politics is far more appealing than catering to actual voters.
In keeping up with the political aspirations of various political parties, the fundamental duty to vote eclipsed the Fundamental right to life.
It goes without saying that being a constitutional authority, the Election Commission must have worked independently without the influence of any person, party or agenda.
This is not the first time the Election Commission has cast a blind eye in response to the pandemic. During the Bihar polls, election campaigns were brimming with crowds let on a loose without social distancing. Despite the lack of basic health infrastructure, these rallies received massive media coverage that focused more on election results and sloganeering. And less on the annihilation of COVID norms.
During and after the elections, the government had claimed that Bihar saw no surge in COVID numbers due to the polls and rallies, but the second wave seems to nullify that logic. Currently, Bihar is registering close to 13,000 cases each day and has crossed more than one lakh active caseload.[v] So, either the data from during the polls was underreported, or the current data is exaggerated.
The same applies to the other poll-bound states. Almost all political parties are more concerned to establish their ruling in the states than to gear up medical facilities.
Inconsistencies in Indian Laws
Two laws came into play in India during the pandemic; the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 (Diseases Act), and the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (Disaster Act). Both these acts are inconsistent and fall short of tackling the COVID-19 crisis.
The Diseases Act consist of only four small sections. It authorises the Central Government and the state governments to control any epidemic.
However, the Diseases Act was amended in April 2020 to curb the CoVID-19 Pandemic. Interestingly the amendment covers the following aspects:
- Any act of violence against health workers or other medical staff shall be a cognisable and non-bailable offence.
- It defines the term “an act of violence”, construing it as harassment or harm or injury or loss or damage or obstruction or hindrance against healthcare personnel for the discharge of their duties.
- It lays down the punishment for the commission of violence against healthcare personnel with imprisonment for 3-months to 5-years, in addition to a fine of INR 50,000/- to INR 2,00,000/-
- S. 3A requires justice to be delivered within the shortest period in time and not exceeding six months at a time. If the trial is not concluded within one year, the Judge is bound to record reasons.
The act safeguards healthcare workers and their interests. However, there are no amendments in this act appropriate enough to tackle the pandemic.
The amendments could have incorporated provisions such as voluntary requirements for healthcare workers. To serve the medical needs of a nation as diverse and large as India, more and more individuals must join hands to support the medical fraternity.
This act empowers states to issue ordinances as well to tackle the growing crisis. Still then, the amendment could contain provisions such as ensuring every district sets up critical care units with state of the art medical facilities at subsidised rates. Although India claims to be a welfare state, the condition today defies any such claims.
Hospitals are charging lakhs for a single bed. Previously, the cost of Remdesivir was at INR 899/- by Cadila Healthcare Ltd. On the contrary, the same drug was sold at INR 2,500 – INR 3,400/- by various other companies. Only after much ado, the government had put a price cap on the life-saving drug. Despite this, there have been instances of hoarding and black marketing essential medical supplies.
In relation to the Disaster Act, laws need to be more specific. Issues need to be identified and closely monitored. Rules and regulations must be more defined instead of frivolous provisions like advisory committees, functions of local bodies, etc. The Disaster Act should have provisions that are suited for COVID-19 or any other health emergency alike.
365 Days of Crisis: India’s COVID Fatigue
With an increase in mortality rate, shortages of critical-care units, oxygen supplies and delay in COVID-19 tests, India’s healthcare infrastructure is on the verge of rupturing. As more and more hospitals turn down critically ill patients, the government’s efforts have failed to reach the citizens.
As per a 2019 report, we have one doctor for every 1,445 Indians.[vi] Now see that in the context of 4,00,000 cases per day, the number is frightening.
Prior to the second wave, the Central and state governments had almost a year to gear up healthcare facilities. Irrespective, it seems that planning for poll-bound States kept most of them busy. Recently, medical scientists have come across a new coronavirus variant in West Bengal, which is touted to be more lethal for its capacity to evade the vaccine.[vii]
While the elite can at least afford medical services, the poor and lower middle class are left to face the wrath of the second wave on their own. This time, it’s politics over humanity. The larger question remains; who will bear the brunt of such political jingoism?
The Road Ahead for India
There is a clear inconsistency in terms of the number of deaths officially reported versus the shrinking space in the crematoriums. On April 14, at least 180 bodies were cremated in only two crematoriums in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.[viii] In contrast, the official data released shows only five deaths in the city. Given the impact of the second wave, many states are unable to improve the situation even after trying. But many are still not ready to identify the problem and are resolving to cast a garb over sheer foolishness.
Caretakers and families are left on their own to fight for oxygen and essential medicines like Remdesivir and Tocilizumab. On the other hand, the Health Minister has blatantly refuted any such shortages.
In Madhya Pradesh, a minister and his supporters stopped an oil tanker transporting oxygen for an hour so that a priest could break a coconut.[ix] So that the minister could garner a photo opportunity.
Amidst death and helplessness, emergencies got sidelined for the many spectres of faith and jingoism.
The situation is becoming worse with each passing day. As individuals, we can either assist toward making it better or worse. Our role will be pivotal in steering the way out of the pandemic. It’s essential to follow the social distancing norms, guidelines for wearing masks and taking care of our general health being.
Although so far, the government has been aloof in taking crucial steps against the rising cases. Though the government came to action only towards the second half of April, many have already lost their families. For what it’s worth, we must try on our end to take stricter precautions.
[i] TIMESOFINDIA.COM / May 1, 2. (n.d.). Covid-19: India Records highest-ever 4,01,993 new Cases, 3,523 deaths: India news – times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/covid-19-india-records-highest-ever-401993-new-cases-3523-deaths/articleshow/82339160.cms
[ii] Non-stop cremations cast doubt on India’s counting of COVID dead, April 20, 2021, ALJAZEERA, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/20/non-stop-cremations-cast-doubt-on-indias-counting-of-covid-dead
[iii] ‘Devotees’ faith will overcome the fear of COVID-19 in MAHAKUMBH’: CM Rawat. (2021, March 20). Retrieved May 01, 2021, from https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/others/devotees-faith-will-overcome-fear-of-covid-19-in-mahakumbh-cm-rawat-101616253395877.html
[iv] Writer, S. (2021, April 17). Bengal elections: PM Modi URGES voters to turn up in large numbers. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/bengal-elections-pm-modi-urges-voters-to-turn-up-in-large-numbers-11618627293656.html
[v] Sheezan Nezami / TNN / Updated: Apr 30, 2. (n.d.). Active Covid cases in Bihar Cross 1 LAKH mark, over 13,000 new PATIENTS added: Patna news – times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/patna/active-covid-cases-in-bihar-cross-1l-mark-over-13k-new-patients-added/articleshow/82316314.cms
[vi] Doctor-patient ratio in India less than WHO-prescribed norm of 1:1000: Govt, November 20, 2019, Health-world, The Economic Times, https://health.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/industry/doctor-patient-ratio-in-india-less-than-who-prescribed-norm-of-11000-govt/72135237
[vii] Koshy, J. (2021, April 21). Coronavirus: New Virus lineage found in West Bengal. Retrieved May 01, 2021, from https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/health/new-coronavirus-variant-found-in-west-bengal/article34373083.ece
[viii] Bhopal crematoriums flooded with bodies: 187 cremated following Covid norms while records show only 5 deaths, April 14, 2021, India Today, https://www.indiatoday.in/cities/bhopal/story/bhopal-crematoriums-flooded-with-bodies-far-more-covid-deaths-than-official-tally-1790720-2021-04-14
[ix] Oxygen tankers meant for Madhya Pradesh being stopped by officials in other states, claims CM Chouhan. (2021, April 19). https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/bhopal-news/officials-in-other-states-blocking-oxygen-tankers-into-mp-says-cmchouhan-101618850771293.html