“The government is doing work only on paper. It’s all pretend,” Surendra Singh, a resident of Rampur Pawti village in Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district, told me on 23 May. Residents across rural and urban areas of the district said that unlike the first wave of COVID-19, the second wave had ripped through the region, and the primary cause was the panchayat elections held from 15 to 29 April. There was immense anger against the state government and the bureaucracy, and village after village reported that they had received no help. In most villages it was civil-society members and residents who pooled resources to help provide aid and access to medical care—tests, medicines, oxygen, and in one case, even makeshift medical facilities.
Residents across the board complained that the government hospitals never had beds, and if they did have space, there was no staff to attend to patients and no medicines or oxygen. Several reported how they had been asked by hospitals, public and private, to procure oxygen, injections and medicines on their own, despite constant claims by the government that there were no shortages of anything. All the villages reported that their COVID-19 death toll was far higher than official numbers. A major concern was the loss of livelihood and savings due to the pandemic, and the expenses families were incurring for basic healthcare. Complaints of overcharging and the black-marketing of supplies were a recurring theme. There was a massive amount of misinformation regarding the disease and rumours about vaccines were rampant.
The narratives from the villages are a severe indictment of the management of the public-healthcare system and the pandemic in general by the state government, led by the BJP’s Ajay Singh Bisht and his administration. As several reports in The Caravan have highlighted, the district of Meerut is not an isolated case of state mismanagement of the pandemic. “The way BJP’s workers came door to door for the temple, had they come the same way to help us during corona. But they didn’t,” Kailash Chaprana, another resident of Rampur Pawti, said. “It’s all talk by the government and nothing for the people.” He added, “Now, they are doing havans”—a Hindu ritual burning of offerings—“everywhere. First, provide people the things they need so that no one has to die unnecessarily anymore.”
Every resident I spoke to said that they did not trust government hospitals primarily because there was nothing available and patients were not taken care of. Almost everyone said that the only way to get a bed was to avail of the influence of senior officers or local politicians. The condition of government hospitals was so bad that the general consensus was that it was better to recover at home than go to a public hospital and risk dying. This had spawned a few conspiracy theories that COVID-19 patients going to hospitals were dying and people became increasingly wary of testing positive.