When the bodies began to pile up in the US early last year, Dr Donald Trump floated a horrifying suggestion. Inject Covid patients with disinfectant fluid and shine UV light into their lungs to cure them. Promptly, many Trump bhakts drank cleaning fluids and died, or were admitted to critical care.
Next he turned on Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s foremost global infectious diseases expert who had served five presidents before the Don. Soon enough, T-bhakts began to chant ‘Fire Fauci!’ Fortunately for America, there was no ‘Ab ki baar, Trump Sarkar!’ and Joe Biden has done in 100 days what his predecessor could not, or did not want to do in over a year: stop the soaring body count. Rulers with absolute self-faith in their infallibility abhor experts and scientists. Experts question. They disagree. Their advice is based on time-tested scientific data models and experience that do not bow to a politician’s ego.
An important reason behind Indians dying like flies in hospital corridors and parking lots gasping for oxygen, and pyres burning on pavements, is the establishment’s contempt for science, genuine expertise and projections. Government data is fudged or is opaque, as is disbursement of resources. Last week, the health ministry claimed that Covid-19 numbers were declining in many states based on a recent count. Experts called out the claim since data gathered just a couple of days before did not make a trend. Scientists had reportedly warned the Centre about an imminent second wave that could peak between May and June. But listening to experienced advisors when victory had already been globally declared would be owning up to failure—so the sarkar kept its own counsel and did not order enough vaccines.
India is paying dearly for our rulers’ suspicion of credible scientists and economists. Every independent-minded economist or scientist has either been removed, quit or is ignored in this mythological ecosystem of flying chariots and desi ghee cures. The coronavirus nightmare is punctuated with the worst kind of quackery. When our Union health minister a decent, soft-spoken physician leads a panel on the efficacy of cow urine and cow dung in curing diseases, where is hope? Worse is the patronising advice of the government to use oxygen “judiciously” as if overworked doctors and dying patients are playing fast and loose with the gas. The repeated denial of an oxygen shortage, the bookings and arrests of traumatised individuals tweeting for oxygen or an ICU bed, and police harassment of citizens show a clueless state in disarray, worried only about its image.
It is not too late. Hire top medical scientists, researchers, economists and other experts to create a pandemic control system and suggest a way forward. Hold off on the Central Vista housing scheme and divert the money to our moribund rural healthcare system. Make data transparent so that experts can build proper containment models.
Audit and monitor the distribution of foreign aid in an impartial manner. Take the help of the rural media to anticipate, identify and target hot zones in the interior. A calamity of this kind is daunting for any government, especially when millions of Indians refuse masks and social distancing. Whether Nero fiddled or twiddled his thumbs is a technicality—social media has displaced the Opposition. Optics matter. To see or not to see is the question.
Ravi Shankar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org