India is a veritable chamber of horrors right now. Every day appears to mark a new record-highest number of daily cases, with the country witnessing 3,52,991 new COVID-19 cases and 2,812 deaths on 25 April. Patients are dying due to a lack of oxygen in hospitals—at least 24 patients died in a hospital in Nashik, in Maharashtra, on 21 April, and another 25 died in Delhi, the national capital, two days later. The next day, on 24 April, the solicitor general Tushar Mehta lied to the Delhi High Court that the central government had “ensured that nobody in the country was left without oxygen.” Meanwhile, oxygen tankers are being blocked by state governments, and people have resorted to looting cylinders. This medical horror unfolding in the country was inevitable, given the leaders and the ideologies that India chose for herself.
It is also an experience of déjà vu. In August 2017, over 60 new-born babies, with chests the size of an adult human’s palm, died in less than a week in a district hospital in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state, led by the chief minister Ajay Singh Bisht—more commonly known as Adityanath—denied that the deaths were a result of a shortage of oxygen, and maintains this narrative till date. A paediatrician at the hospital, Kafeel Khan, had accused the state government of not paying the hospital’s oxygen supplier, which led to the shortage and the deaths.
The state then arrested Khan and led a farcical investigation against him, as evidenced in the order releasing him on bail and the departmental inquiry absolving him of negligence. But the state did not conduct post-mortem examinations of the infants, did not hand over their medical records to their families, and sought to erase its negligence. As if the injustice did not matter until it was provable on paper. This greed and cruelty normalised under the BJP leadership is cancerous, and the scale at which it has infected the country is on display during this ongoing second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government has taken the difficult task of organising a pandemic response in a poor country like India and made it impossible. In April last year, after the pandemic hit India, the Modi administration extended a brutal lockdown without consulting the nation’s top scientists, adding an economic as well as humanitarian crisis to the medical emergency. As I reported for The Caravan earlier this month, the prime minister did not consult the national taskforce of India’s leading scientists in February and March this year either, despite the surge in cases.
After imposing the lockdown, Modi then invoked a draconian colonial-era law, the Epidemics Act of 1897—enacted during the bubonic plague of 1896—that focuses not on controlling the disease, but on cracking down on its subjects and suspending civil liberties. The Modi administration, of course, presented a narrative that it was using the law only in instances where healthcare workers had been targeted. As noted previously in The Caravan, the centre did not, however, enact several better legislations introduced the previous year that sought to protect healthcare workers.