India COVID crisis: Whataboutery in the republic of grief

Grief hangs heavy in the air afflicted by death, distress, despair and depression.

Published: 09th May 2021 06:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th May 2021 10:58 AM   |  A+A-

Mass cremation of COVID-19 victims at Old Seemapuri Crematorium as coronavirus cases surge in New Delhi, Friday, April 23, 2021.

(For representational purposes) Mass cremation of COVID-19 victims at Old Seemapuri Crematorium as coronavirus cases surge in New Delhi, Friday, April 23, 2021. (Photo | PTI)

Grief hangs heavy in the air afflicted by death, distress, despair and depression. A flailing state left its people helpless. Pleas to save a life compete for attention with intimations of death in social and personal spaces. The eloquence of heartache is binding strangers in an uncommon intimacy of sorrow.

Desolation comes wrapped in haunting images – of the wife desperately trying to revive the husband in an autorickshaw in Agra, the grandson driving with his dead granny in the car struggling to find a crematorium, of the daughter who couldn’t get an ICU for her mother appealing for legalising of mercy killing.

Memories jostle for attention of friends and families as they recall the last conversation, stare at numbers from the contact list which won’t flash on the screen again. As the writer Joan Didion observed, “When we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves… as we were, as we are no longer, as we will one day not be at all.”

Despair has overtaken hope – this is verily the republic of grief. The spirals of smoke from pyres wafting across geographies have left the nation gripped by nauseous inadequacy. That lives were lost will weigh heavily. What will and what must haunt a people is the brutal, inhuman manner of the loss, left breathless by feckless politics and a system submerged in apathy.

Aggravating angst is the parade of utterances. A cabinet minister said, “We don't stop elections in a democracy”. Must the process endanger the voters? Of course, elections have been interrupted midcourse – the 1991 parliamentary polls were paused. Indeed, Section 153 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 expressly states, “It shall be competent for the Election Commission for reasons which it considers sufficient, to extend the time for the completion of any election…”

Grief demands closure on questions – on the why and who which led to the hapless circumstance. Tragically, the questions are drowned in a din of Whataboutery – and answers stranded between claims which cannot be validated and charges which are not refuted.

India and the world have been told nobody saw the surge coming – that no epidemiologist or study predicted the magnitude of the surge. Arguably, nobody predicted the scale – over 275 cases and three deaths every minute.

Critically, the question is who or which study informed the chant of victory over the pandemic – principally the claim of the health minister about the “end-game”.

Fact is the case curve was moving upwards from mid-February and, indeed, the principal scientific adviser said, “we saw signs of a next surge but the scale and intensity of it was not clear”. There has also been speculation and reports that the Covid task force did not meet for months – and these were not refuted with any credibility.

The troll brigade has breathlessly panted that other countries – the United States and the United Kingdom – did worse in terms of per million cases and ratio of fatalities. That is true. But must the measure how well a nation does depend on how poorly another did – does pride rest on the embarrassing failures of others? Some others held forth that polls were decoupled from the pandemic.

The unravelling of the surge hopefully will wake them from the delusion. At the other end of the spectrum of the Whataboutery is the troll brigade of the Opposition – particularly the Congress which is amplifying its irrelevance by a curious addiction to distracting discourse. Sure there is centralisation of policy and funding. Does that excuse states from doing what was needed to be done when the curve was flattening in December and January?

At the end of 2020-21, states were sitting on cash of over Rs 3 lakh crore. Did the states use the resources to beef up capacity? The second wave is affecting rural India. Take the state of public health centres. In 2019, India needed 1.89 lakh sub centres of which only 1.57 lakh were in place – the largest gap typically is in the poorer states of UP, Bihar, Bengal and Jharkhand. The per capita spend on health of states is abysmal – at `1,250 in Bihar or `1,602 inUP would be barely enough to cover two shots of the vaccine and maybe an RT-PCR test!

There is no disputing the attention deficit at the Centre. Take vaccine procurement. What was the basis or advice which dictated the quantity of the first tranche and the pause till April 28? Yes for seven decades health care has been neglected. But that does not take away from the paucity of allocation or execution since 2014. The 2016-17 Budget promised to devolve funds to panchayats for sustainable development. The 2017-18 Budget promised transformation of 1.5 lakh sub centres. The programme of Aspirational Districts aimed at improving health outcomes. Yet in April 2021 the work of Rajendra Bharud at Nandurbar is a stand-alone success story.

Typically, the quest in India for accountability ends in the ghetto of ricocheting rhetoric. The seductive temptation to personalise success or individualise solutions frequently institutionalises systemic failure. India which accounts for a sixth of humanity cannot afford the messy status quo. It can and must do better!

Shankkar Aiyar
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar:
A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit
Revolution, and Accidental India


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  • Rajiv Nehru

    A good analysis doomed to be estimated on the reader's sense of political loyalty? Nay, rather sense of personal political bigotry.
    1 year ago reply
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