The saying “when you point a finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you” is attributed to the Navajo people of the American Southwest. And Kabir reminds us that “bura jo dekhan main chala… mujhsa bura naa koye”.
In that spirit, citizens who are angrily blaming the authorities for the unimaginable health and healthcare catastrophe that India is facing should look at what they could have done differently themselves. And by the same token, all those who are blaming the US and other countries for not coming to their aid sooner, should look in the mirror and review what they and their own country could have done better, and how they are treating other countries counting on them.
The list of actions and decisions that resulted in the current unprecedented pandemic disaster in India is long and disheartening. There is enough blame to go around, including a government that allowed the Kumbh Mela and election rallies to proceed. On the other hand, the citizens who chose to attend the Kumbh Mela and election rallies in the midst of a pandemic should have known better too. These policy failures hardly explain the jump in cases in states far removed from the event location, such as Maharashtra and Karnataka.
Given India’s population density, a highly contagious virus variant could spread easily regardless of any actions the government could or should have taken. However, that still does not absolve the government of its failure to do everything they could have done based on what they knew, and even said they would do.
The critical management and leadership issue is hospital and ICU capacity and oxygen and other critical medical supplies. The timing of another wave and the sudden resurgence and rapid spread may have been hard to predict but there is no excuse for a lack of preparation.
In Mumbai, municipal commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal has shown how sound management and leadership can make a difference, in contrast to the mismanagement and lack of leadership displayed across the country. Chahal is already thinking about and planning for Mumbai’s preparedness for the third phase of the Covid vaccination drive and plans for developing hospital infrastructure in the event of a third wave.
A study shortly after Wuhan cited in The Wall Street Journal estimated that outbreaks in the biggest cities in the US would require 26 ICU beds per 100,000 people, a standard most Western nations, including the US, have already met. In China, the number of ICU beds per 100,000 was 3.6 at the start of 2020, while in India, it was 2.3. Working on ramping up ICU and hospital capacity to handle future surges should have been, and should still be, a critical priority for the Central and state governments.
Back in 2020, when it became clear that oxygen supply would be critical in saving lives, the Central government had authorised funding for Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) oxygen plants in district hospitals across the country. The PM Cares Fund had allocated funds for as many as 162 oxygen plants, and yet only some 33 had been installed by the time the second wave hit in recent days.
On social media, ruling party supporters like Kangana Ranaut have claimed that non-BJP ruled states have seen more delays than others. Yet the fact is that the largest number of such plants were sanctioned for BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, where only one plant has been installed as of recently. More “three-finger” pointing and bickering between partisans, with the grim reality being that everyone dropped the ball.
Complacency ruined it all
As is clear, while the ruling party is being blamed for its decisions, the opposition parties in power in many states have hardly been blameless. In the early days of the pandemic, both the ruling party and the opposition were emphasising that everyone follow the rules, such as masking and distancing. However, over time after it appeared that India had avoided the worst of the pandemic, leaders of all parties became less concerned about setting a good example and often acted in very partisan ways.
Plus complacency set in, as a result of premature declarations of victory, such as when BJP President J.P. Nadda proclaimed that while Donald Trump could not handle Covid-19 properly, “Modi Ji saved the country!”
Social distancing norms were flouted at events attended by Delhi chief minister Kejriwal last year, and even as recently as March 2021 at the ‘Kisan Maha Sammelan’ addressed by the chief minister. Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav aided and abetted vaccine hesitation by saying that he would not take the COVID-19 vaccine shot, and added that “don’t trust “BJP’s vaccine”.
The US was justifiably criticised for not acting fast enough in coming to the aid of India, and not releasing unused vaccines desperately needed in India and the rest of the world. Since then, the US has begun to take action, delivering urgent relief supplies, including oxygen, related equipment, and essential supplies for Indian hospitals.
At the same time, every nation will naturally look for the safety of its own citizens first, and national leaders will always be under pressure to save lives locally before being good global citizens. The finger-pointing at the US conveniently ignores the fact that a finger or two can be pointed back at India, which in spite of being the world’s vaccine factory, has decided to stop sending vaccines to Africa now, which is unlikely to go over well in Africa. India’s export ban has resulted in COVAX supplies drying up, and African countries are scrambling in a desperate attempt to find alternatives.
Meanwhile, the propaganda cells of political parties have been flooding social media with concocted stories to support their preferred narratives. A rather egregious example of this was the jingoistic claim that Ajit Doval, India’s national security advisor, cowed the US into agreeing to supply raw materials for Indian vaccine manufacturers, by threatening to withhold raw material “sole sourced” by an Indian supplier.
“Yeh naya bharat hai, ghar me ghusega bhi aur thokega bhi!” they proclaimed. The WhatsApp jockeys were clearly ignorant about, or wilfully ignored, the fact that the lipids required for manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines are produced in large quantities across the globe. VAV Lipids, the Indian company cited, is a new and welcome entrant in the arena as vaccine demand grows rapidly, but it is not exactly the only or even the first supplier of lipids.
What is unfortunate is that when the US and other nations extend a hand of friendship and assistance to a friendly democracy, the hyper-nationalistic brigades gloat on Twitter and WhatsApp that the prime minister and his NSA forced them to capitulate. “Biden was left with no choice … US’ own vaccines depend on Indian ingredients!” gloated some in the fact-free zone of jingoistic nationalism.
Neither the US nor India as major powers will ever accept undue and unrealistic pressure from other nations. The reason why the US was holding up the ingredients that Serum Institute needed was very similar to the reason India has stopped shipping vaccines to Africa. Every democracy is trying to help at home first, where charity begins, while also caring about the rest of the world.
In the final reckoning, all the finger-pointing about how much blame to attribute to whom seems utterly futile. There is enough blame to go around on all sides. The scale of the catastrophe that India is facing is gut-wrenching, and this is a once-in-a-generation or even a once-in-a-century tragedy for India.
It is well past time for all sides of the debate to focus on what can be done now and in the future, rather than waste energy on mutual recriminations and finger-pointing. There will be time enough for post-mortems in the future about who should have done what and how, when the incessant deadly cadence of casualties ends.
(Ram Kelkar is a Chicago-based columnist who works for a privately held investment firm.)