I am on Twitter again, desperate to help a friend find an oxygen cylinder for a relative who is COVID-19 positive and requires urgent care. I have been doing this for a while now, as I imagine most Indians are, scouring social media for documents and screenshots for the nearest oxygen cylinder or ICU bed. As India reels under the second wave of COVID-19, it is clear that our healthcare system has collapsed and unleashed utter chaos. In these past two weeks, I have fluctuated between utter helplessness, terrifying fear, overwhelming stress and anxiety and, above all, anger.
I have never felt more helpless as when I opened my social media and was bombarded with images of India, on its knees gasping for one more breath. Images of funeral pyres of COVID-19 victims burning on the side of the road, a son in full PPE holding his late mother’s bangles as he performs her final rights or hearing the desperate cries of relatives as they stand in line outside a hospital in Gujarat, begging for an oxygen cylinder to save a loved one is now our dystopian reality.
The desperation on social media for any lead, any number which can provide some assistance in looking for a hospital bed, one more vial of Remdesivir or another strip of Fabiflu is heart-breaking. The numbness we develop as the live tweets begging for help stop completely, letting us know that the person has succumbed to this virus. This overwhelming fear for the safety of our family and friends and battling away stress and anxiety over what resources will be available should they become infected. Who to turn to? Where to find oxygen and beds? Where to even begin looking for help? This utter helplessness is overwhelming, as the “pharmacy of the world” has turned into the mortuary of the world.
That there was a second wave coming was not news to us. That the virus mutates and gives rise to new variants was also something we knew. We stood on the side-lines and watched as nations across the world battled the second wave. We knew this was coming. We had an entire year to prepare. A year in which we could have built more makeshift hospitals, vaccinated people on priority, scaled up production of medical supplies and ventilators. Instead, we dropped the ball on this virus prematurely, declared an early victory and did nothing.
This devastation wreaked by an invisible virus is the direct result of the government’s negligence and gross mismanagement of the crisis. Our government declared victory on COVID-19 in January. The COVID-19 taskforce did not meet even once when cases started to surge in February and March. ‘Make in India’ vaccines were proudly shipped abroad to 150 other countries, while our own people were left in the lurch. Our vaccination programme was sluggish, mired in controversy and lacked scientific rationale. Mixed messaging about COVID-19 safety protocols and pseudoscience, like Coronil, were peddled with government approval. Super spreader events like the Kumbh Mela were facilitated with government support. Multiple election rallies attended by thousands were brazenly conducted by all of our political leaders, in the face of mounting cases. And despite the havoc breaking out in full force in early April, elections in key states were not called off or postponed, but campaigning was pursued with more vigour. The science and the virus were consistent. Our response to this pandemic was not.
The government’s response as this crisis unfolded has been most disappointing. States complaining about vaccine and oxygen shortages were publicly rebuked. Instead of putting people above politics, at every stage, politics was put above people. I hoped the prime minister’s address to the nation would offer some concrete plan, some reassurance that the government would offer help. He had nothing to offer but empty platitudes. It has become exceedingly clear that they don’t have an action plan. In fact, states now have to fend for themselves, when from the beginning of this crisis everything from the thali banging shenanigans to the vaccination drive was Centre controlled.
This lack of proactive action and response – if it can even be called that – has only made me more and more angry. What has the PM CARES Fund even been used for? Where are the vaccines we were promised? Why does the CEO of Serum Institute have to ask for the US to lift the embargo on raw materials for vaccine production when this is the government’s job? Why is the Central Vista Project, at an enormous cost of Rs 20,000 crore, going ahead, at this time, when every single rupee we have should be spent on public healthcare and mass vaccination? How did this country go from being an exporter of oxygen to the world to now falling so short that our fellow citizens are dying on the road, choked by this virus?
Why do the people of this country have to pay the ultimate price for the policy failings of an elite few?
Our hospitals and doctors should be focussing on caring for patients, but they are kept busy moving to courts to make sure there is a steady supply of oxygen. Why has there not been a national plan for dealing with this crisis? Why are politicians still allowed to campaign in West Bengal while bodies pile up all over the nation? I feel an enormous sense of rage when an elite few, with powerful connections were vaccinated on priority but the truly vulnerable, with autoimmune conditions and comorbidities have lost their life while begging for a dose of the vaccine. All this and more leaves me quivering with anger.
But the worst is that we are left alone to deal with this crisis by ourselves, looking to toolkits online for guidance, while our ruling dispensation carries on with their petty politics, abandoning the common man to the mercy of this virus.
Archana Ramesh was born with a sharp tongue and an overwhelming need to call a spade, a spade.