n the 12th May, 12 Opposition parties led by the Congress wrote a joint letter to the PM. Among their major demands were: free and universal vaccination against Covid-19; invoking compulsory licensing to ramp up domestic production of vaccines; utilisation of budgeted allocation of Rs 35000 crore for production and import of vaccines and all other medical materials needed; provision of food grains and Rs 6000 per month to the poor who are once again victims of an uncaring socio-economic system thriving on privatisation and patronage; repeal of the three farm laws for which over 200 farmers have sacrificed their lives with the farmers’ agitation having lasted over 200 days, and immediate freezing of the Central Vista project and diversion of the earmarked funds for purchase of urgent medical equipment and other emergency requirements.
All these are extremely urgent and relevant demands on an incompetent and reckless government which has cared little for the safety of its citizens, to let them die in such inhuman manner for lack of oxygen, ICU beds and even basic medicines. With black marketing and price gouging rampant for every little requirement the average citizen has been running from hospital to hospital but to no avail.
If the estimates of the Seattle-based Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation are to be believed the current official statistics at 340,000 infections and 4,300 fatalities daily need to be assessed at 20 times the official figures, averaging between seven to nine million cases from mid-April. The Wall Street Journal has quoted overseas experts tracking the pandemic in India, Ashish Jha of Brown University, USA and Murad Banaji of Middlesex University, UK of estimating the actual figures anywhere between three to eight times the official figure.
India is passing through its severest ever health crisis and the Opposition for the first time has shown unity in alacrity and spoken in one voice for the people notwithstanding their diverse political affiliations and disparate ideologies. The pandemic has brought them all together on a common platform for the cause of democracy and to speak up united against a totally inept over-centralised administration.
Pitiably the CMs of Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have decided to stay away though they are run by non-BJP parties and should have found common cause with a united Opposition. There can be no justification for their abstinent and irresponsible behaviour. Scoring political points against regional competitors or tying to the apron strings of the ruling party at the Centre for considerations of favour and fear and a ludicrous display of partisanship cannot be condoned in this gravest hour of peril. There can be no other reason why they should not have supported the just demands and added to the Opposition voice instead of standing out conspicuous in their indirect acquiescence to the Modi government which, by now is clear, has completely botched up the valuable time available from October last year until March this year when the second wave hit with a massive force, to take urgent precautionary measures knowing the pitfalls of a decadent healthcare system. Even after that it allowed political and religious displays of support which even the WHO has condemned, and has now passed the buck to state governments to fend for themselves when there is no hope left to take self-arrogated credit as in the past.
It is equally distressing to note the delayed response of the state governments in not having anticipated the central government’s attitude when the latter’s credibility was at an all time low, and now having to float global tenders and order vaccines from overseas paying five to eight times the price of the local vaccine at the cost of the tax payer’s money. Now that it seems the pandemic is moving intensely towards the south and east after having flattened in the high-infection states of western and northern India, the water has clearly gone over the head. The Odisha government for example has barely scratched the surface of its nearly 70 per cent rural population. No testing, no vaccination and now cases proliferating in the rural sector where a large majority is deprived of basics, let alone having digital literacy and connectivity to access vaccine-related information.
Why would the state government not have mobilised its main procurement agency, the Odisha State Medical Corporation Limited, earlier when it was clear that the central government was bidding for time and the local manufacturers would not be able to supply the required doses to all states in required quantities defies logic. And now the state government has decided to float global tenders and do the bidding on the 28th May for a bulk order of 3.80 crore vaccine doses to be supplied within four months. Of course how many overseas companies will bid, at what price, with how much delay, cost and customs duties and clearance at the Indian end bogs imagination. By that time infections in the state would have risen multiple times along with the number of casualties with resultant demands on ICU beds and oxygen. Conversely half the districts would have compulsorily closed down their vaccination centres for lack of supply of vaccines from the Centre which should have been otherwise the latter’s duty. Standing by the Modi government without playing the role of a responsible Opposition at this critical hour could be the biggest blunder which the people will ill afford to condone or forget.
To get vaccinated is a fundamental right of every citizen and tantamount to the right to life constitutionally guaranteed for the citizen’s welfare and wellbeing. There is no reason why they should be fed imaginary stories of prolonging the period of wait between jabs or given false hopes of vaccines to be given soon. There is no reason why they should be hunkering down for the most basic ingredient of their lives, oxygen.
In the recent film ‘Oxygen’ streaming on Netflix the protagonist wakes up to find herself in a cryogenic unit akin to a coffin talking to her Medical Interface Liaison Operator on Artificial Intelligence begging for oxygen as the door closes on her past which she can no longer remember. Referred to as just unit number 0267, her evocation of living could eerily resemble all those in this country who are losing their lives in hospitals in a nauseating replay of events due to the cutting off of oxygen supply while taking their last breaths not in any cryo unit but on a rickety bed gasping for the next cylinder.
The writer is a retired diplomat and a resident of Odisha.