By Debasis Mallick (12 min read)
In a recent report published in The Economist (22nd July, 2021), the death toll from Covid 19 in India has been estimated at 4 million which is ten times the official estimate of 400,000. This is based on a study carried out by Abhishek Anand, Justin Sandefur and Arvind Subramanian at The Centre for Global Development, Washington. According to the report, the death toll of India is grossly under reported to hide the number which equals the rest of the world and is much higher than 600,000 in USA and 500,000 in Brazil. This is despite the claim of the Government of India that the reporting system on Covid infections and mortality is robust and transparent. In support, the Health Ministry refers to its system of decentralized structure of generating the report right from the District level on daily basis. If we accept the study of Centre for Global Development as factual, the number of deaths at the global level reported by WHO doubles up to 8 million out of which half the baggage is carried by India.
Interesting to note that Arvind Subramanian, former Chief Economic Adviser of Narendra Modi’s NDA, is part of this study group. Mr Subramanian, after resigning from the post of Chief Economic Adviser joined Ashoka University as Professor of Economics in July, 2020. He decided to relinquish his job of Ashoka University on the ground that the university was unable to provide him space for academic expression and freedom. Coming back to the issue of jaw-dropping scale of mortality due to Covid in India, the research paper says about adopting three calculation methods over seven states of India: one, data from civil registration system that records births and deaths; two, blood tests showing the prevalence of virus alongside global Covid fatality rates and three, an economic survey of nearly 900,000 people done thrice a year. This study conducted in seven states has taken into consideration the mortality statistics arising from all causes and compared the data to mortality of previous year and extrapolated to pan India to arrive at the death toll of 4 million.
Karan Deep Singh, a New Delhi based reporter of New York Times, in his article dated 20 July, 2021, has also referred this study as a comprehensive examination of the true death toll of the pandemic in a nation with 1.4 billion people. “At the height of second wave,” writes Karan Deep Singh, “interviews by New York Times reporters at cremation grounds across three states in India revealed an extensive pattern of deaths far exceeding the official figures.”
Medical journal Lancet has described India’s second wave of covid as a self inflicted catastrophe or a man made disaster. The British medical journal didn’t stop at that. In it’s editorial, it estimated the total death toll in India could exceed one million by August 01, 2021 creating panic among the rank and file of Indian citizens. It termed India’s vaccination programme as botched and concluded, “Modi’s actions in attempting to stifle criticism and open discussion during the crisis are inexcusable….. It seems Modi Government is more intent in removing criticism from the social media than to control the pandemic.”
People in India might recollect that John Hopkins University (JHU) of USA in its study in March, 2020 wrote that 300 to 400 million people were likely to be infected by July 2020. They referred the underdeveloped health infrastructure, lack of managerial ability and the maladministration to be the likely causes of such massive infection in India. This report was vehemently criticized by the Government of India as a result of which the university subsequently disassociated itself from it. JHU clarified, “The use of our logo was not authorized in this case and JHU is engaging with CDDEP on it.” Incidentally CDDEP, i.e, Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy is a research organization of USA, founded by Mr Ramanan Lakshminarayan who is incidentally an economist, not an epidemiologist. He appeared in a number of TV interviews in India in March, 2020 when Modi declared complete lock down; he came up with astronomical number of likely infections of 300 to 500 million by July, 2020. He also predicted a death toll of 2.5 million by that time. What was the basis of such claims made by an economist and his NGO known as CDDEP based in USA? They have adopted the mathematical models used in USA and UK and extrapolated the forecast for India.
Ramanan Lakshminarayan had got some support base in India too. Barkha Dutt after her interview with him tweeted, “Many are saying these projected numbers by Ramanan Lakshminarayan will cause panic. I disagree. I think him telling us that India could get 300 to 500 million corona cases by July is a call to action. It brings home gravity of what could happen if we don’t isolate diligently.”
Arundhati Roy wrote a long article captioned we are witnessing a crime against humanity in the British newspaper The Guardian, dated 28th April, 2021. Arundhati Roy has made a scathing attack on the Modi Government on every possible front, from its vaccination programme to its mismanagement of oxygen supply, shortage of hospital beds and even Hindu backlash on Muslims in the states of Gujarat and UP. She has literally mocked Modi when she writes, “Modi the magician takes a bow for saving humanity by containing the coronavirus effectively. Now that it turns out that he has not contained it, can we complain about being viewed as though we are radioactive? That other countries’ borders are being closed to us and flights are being cancelled? That we’re being sealed in with our virus and our prime minister, along with all the sickness, anti-science, the hatred and the idiocy that he, his party and its brand of politics represent?”
India’s handling of Covid during its first wave was acclaimed internationally. In spite of the forecast of 300 to 500 million people likely to be infected by July, 2020 by some of the foreign media, the actual numbers could be restricted to 5 or 6 million. Contrary to this US, with its much vaunted health infrastructure, was virtually reeling under the fury of virus with 200,000 deaths by end July, 2020. India, however, failed miserably to control the second wave. There was definitely a sense of complacency, as the intensity of the first wave was not so severe, it was expected that the country would be able to manage the second wave as efficiently as it did for the first. But that it was not to be became quite evident within a month of the arrival of second wave. The second wave of the virus was of different characteristic which resulted in an indirect attack on lungs. This mutant caught medical practitioners unaware and the country could not cope up with the shortage of oxygen and medicine supplies and hospital infrastructure.
In the mean time there was an urgent need to step up the vaccine production. USA imposed restrictions to export raw materials to prioritize domestic production. It may be recalled that it was not Joe Biden, but his predecessor Donald Trump had invoked war-time Defence Production Act to give priority to produce Covid 19 vaccine and personal protective equipment to domestic companies. It was the same Donald Trump who during the acute crisis of Covid 19 in USA appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lift the ban on export of hydroxychloroquine. India did lift the restrictions and resumed supplies immediately thereafter, not only to US but to other countries, such as, Brazil, Mexico as well.
In response to India’s severe crisis and indifferent attitude of the western countries, Dr Anthony Fauci, US president’s chief medical adviser told The Guardian, Australia that the world and wealthier nations in particular, have failed India which is now overwhelmed by a massive number of Covid 19 cases and high mortality. India, on the other hand joined the Covax initiative of WHO to supply vaccines to various poor countries of Asia and Africa. The humanitarian approach adopted by the Indian Government drew a flak in India, as opposition parties vehemently criticized the Government to export vaccine when there is a shortage in India.
The Biden administration soon realized the seriousness of the problem of India and assured to ship the requisite raw material to Serum India at the earliest to ensure continuity in the supply chain. Biden said, “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need.”
The sudden impact of the second wave in India confirms that the only certainty about this virus is its uncertainty on making a new copy. Just as you start thinking that you are in control of the situation, you commit a grave error, because the virus comes razing, mutated. Dr Rob Orford, the Welsh Government’s Chief Advisor for Health says that the virus is ruthless and every time it makes a new copy, there arises a chance of mistake.
So when the author of God of Small Things ridicules the Government policies, she doesn’t think about a logical analysis of the problem but prefers to speak out from the point of extreme abomination and disregard to the system. She doesn’t wish get into the nitty-gritty of the characteristics of the virus against which the whole universe is fighting out. She, as if, is engrossed in careful cataloguing of the events right from the Gujarat riot to the farmers’ movement only to score a point against Modi. She says that the system hasn’t only collapsed, in fact the Government has failed. “Perhaps failed is an inaccurate word, because what we are witnessing is not criminal negligence, but an outright crime against humanity.” Finally she concludes, “One man makes all the decisions in this Government, and that man is dangerous – and not very bright.” For Modi her judgement is that he should take a break from all his hard work. He and his men could leave in that $564 million Boeing 777 idling in the runway for a while. “He and his men could just leave. The rest of us will do all we can to clean up their mess.” A long read in The Guardian, but worth a read.
Whether people think that Arundhati Roy is a leftist or ultra-leftist because she sympathizes with the Naxals of Bastar district of MP, one thing is for sure that she has always been consistent in her anti-establishment stance . In 2010, during UPA’s rule she had gone to Kashmir and said that Kashmir was not an integral part of India for which sedation charges were levied against her. She denounces the hanging of Afzal Guru; she has been opposing Sardar Sarovar Project; she has even justified the Mumbai attacks. So when she writes in The Guardian that Modi Government have paved the ways for the two vaccine manufacturing companies to make ‘obscene profit’ or the Indian vaccine sold by these two companies are the costliest in the world and poor people of India are spending their entire month’s income to take vaccine, her sole purpose is to fulminate against the establishment. I won’t put these in the category of emotional outbursts, as some journalists deftly resort to such techniques to turn an outburst into an opportunity; she, on the other hand, is a champion in triggering the adrenaline glands by projecting sordid tell-tale stories to captivate her target readers.
If Roy’s article is a catalogue of events listed to damian the present establishment, the research paper compiled by the Centre for Global Development is ludicrous defying all logic of extrapolation to calculate the death toll in India. Estimates of four million deaths during the second wave spanning over a period of two months will not even be acceptable to the fiercest critics of Modi Government.
The need of the hour is to propagate what is known as constructive journalism. ‘If it bleeds, it leads often’ tends to confuse the reader, as he doesn’t find a solution most of the times. While it is essential to depict the true story of misery, poverty, disaster as quality reporting, stories such as these do not represent a picture in totality. A journalistic piece sans a probable solution is not what a complete journalist will ever endeavour. Sensationalism, negativity in reports need to be adequately balanced with true and fair picture in the perspective to present a comprehensive study and offer a solution to the problem. For example, lot of literature has been written, videos have been uploaded to depict the dismal picture of death, anguish, mismanagement during the second wave of Covid in India, but on how many occasions the common people have been educated to restore order, to get out of the crisis or bench mark with the best practices of the world . There is no denying the fact that the world is facing a grim reality and each country has been trying to manage the situation to the best of its abilities. It’s difficult to attain perfection when the stakes are high and uncertainties are looming large.
By the time I am writing this piece, situation in Wuhan has once again deteriorated. We may recollect when the whole world continued to grapple with spectres of death and lock down miseries last year, Wuhanites hit the dancing floor to rejoice after coming out of a year long grueling quarantine. The authorities there have again decided to test the entire 11 million people. To describe the present situation, we may quote from Star Tribune of June 18, 2021: “Your head’s in the freezer, your feet are in the oven, and your average temperature’s just right….Some people think this (pandemic) is just gone now, that this is it. And it’s not. Globally, these have been the worst few months of the pandemic.”