Divided by a virus: How the COVID-19 management in India appears as if no one is in control

Shekhar Gupta
Monday, 15 June 2020

Unfortunately, the answer to all three is, yes. It underlines the toxicity of our tunes. It also tells us why the fight against the pandemic has been so chaotic the world over, and now, in India.

The pandemic debate is all divided by ideology, and top BJP leaders are exploiting a grave crisis in cynical political self-interest. The result looks like nobody is in control.

Can a virus have a religion? Can a pandemic have an ideology? And can humble Hydroxychloroquine have politics riding on it?

Unfortunately, the answer to all three is, yes. It underlines the toxicity of our tunes. It also tells us why the fight against the pandemic has been so chaotic the world over, and now, in India. What began as a firm, total lockdown that everybody participated in is now degenerating into political name-calling between the ruling party and opposition, the Centre and the states run by non-BJP parties.

More disappointingly, this also bedevils most public discourse on an issue so life-and-death, our focus should have been on dealing with it rather than employ it to pour out partisan emotions, whether of blind loyalty, deepest dislike, fear or fantasy.

The virus was given a religion early enough in our country when the initial spread was all linked to members of the Tablighi Jamaat. Even the chief minister of Gujarat, who is handling of the crisis has been among the three worst in the country, was saying until two weeks ago that the virus spread in his state as the Tablighis returned. That congregation, however, took place in mid-March. Three months is a long time in the life of a virus. Now, the official number of deaths is about 20 times more than the numbers of all cases in mid-March, and nobody remembers the Tablighis.

Of course, much other evidence emerged, especially with the Sikh pilgrims returning from Nanded in Maharashtra, that the virus didn’t love any particular religion, but the practice of congregation by any religion. The virus, actually, is quite secular in its malevolence. Just that in our dishonest debate, it suited some of us to paint one religion on it.

The debate on the pandemic, from lockdowns to clinical treatments to prognoses to infection and death counts, is all divided by ideology. If you love Narendra Modi, Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, they’ve done nothing wrong. If you detest them, they are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

If you like them, you also like epidemiologists who paint the most optimistic scenarios: The pandemic will disappear by some month, from April to September. If you detest them, you believe those who predict millions dead, including in India. Mercifully, they missed their first deadline in May.

For sure the pandemic cares two hoots for ideology as long as it’s armed with this still indestructible virus. But it has done something we couldn’t imagine: Divide epidemiologists into ideological lines. Epidemiology, we understand, is a very well-established science with a centuries-old tradition. It is now another casualty of 2020.

Much has been written about Hydroxychloroquine or HCQ, the humble, old, cheap anti-malaria drug in use for almost seven decades. It is just that Trump “prescribed” it to the whole world as a game-changer (without any scientific evidence) and Narendra Modi began dispensing it. Inevitably, it became a political football.

One side jumped to hail it as God’s own pre-stocked answer for coronavirus, and the other to condemn it as not only ineffective but also the second most dangerous thing after rat poison. All of it had zero scientific basis. It is also the most hastily researched drug, with each side looking just for the evidence to defend its politics.

So politicised has it been that even a medical journal as diligent as The Lancet fell into that trap and published in breathless haste a study rubbishing it that even an alert sub-editor on any news desk would have flagged for the dodginess and the opacity of the data it was based on.

Even diligence as elementary as a Google search of the company called Surgisphere that supplied the data would have warned them of the minefield they were walking into. Just what Melissa Davey, a reporter at The Guardian figured in her brilliant investigation.

I like particularly an editorial The Hindu wrote on this disaster. I also wish I had written a line as good as this, but because sadly I didn’t, so I quote from the paper. “Post-COVID world is a panic-driven one that has left no institution or appraisal process untouched”, and then it goes on to say, “The key lesson is that it is a mistake to assume the scientific process as one divorced from the influence of power, privilege, finance and politics”. Credit where it’s due, it was this sharp editorial that sparked the thought process for this week’s National Interest.

How does all of this matter? Isn’t everything politicised, polarised and bitter these days? Why should a pandemic be spared?

The answer is a counter-question. If your country (in this case, the whole world) is facing a war over the definition of an enemy, the justification of fighting back or the effectiveness of the weapons you will employ?

Politics never goes into a freeze, but you can put partisanship in suspended animation for a bit and leave it to the specialists and soldiers. Mocking them isn’t going to help, as we notice with the senior members of the COVID Task Force. They brief the media in the afternoons in New Delhi.

Surely, they give us much less information than we need or deserve. I have complained about it too. But constantly ridiculing them, especially in social media, isn’t helpful. Next time you see them on your screen, even someone as calm as Dr Balram Bhargava, the director-general of ICMR, see the deepening dark circles under his eyes. Others are no different. This same team has been running this thankless operation for more than three months now. It is a lot of stress.

We know that most – a very, very large percentage – of even those who fall quite sick will recover. That percentage can be increased if our focus is where it needs to be: Test, test early, get oxygen to people before it is too late, and find hospital beds for those who really need them. Mumbai’s data tells us (impossible to find any such data in Delhi, unfortunately) that almost 60 per cent of all fatalities take place within four days of the patient’s diagnosis. It only shows they are being found and treated too late. Even something as simple as early oxygen (not ventilators) will save more lives. We need to be demanding and working at things like that rather than using infections and fatalities to score political points.

You have to be conscious these days of the fact that subtlety is another name for suicide (for the argument, not the columnist). That lesson was again underlined to me from some responses to my National Interest the previous week on why the Modi government was failing to implement any economic reforms.

So, let me idiot-proof this before a storm breaks out that I am asking people to stop questioning the Modi government. When BJP leaders, including Modi’s number two, Amit Shah, use the pandemic to launch an assault on State governments run by opposition parties or to topple them, they are exploiting a grave crisis in cynical political self-interest. The result of this conflict, working at cross-purposes and name-calling is now showing. The COVID situation, at this moment, looks like nobody is really in control.

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