Rasheeda Bhagat

Bumbling and fumbling through a pandemic

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on June 16, 2020 Published on June 16, 2020

Covid has exposed the dark side of India’s healthcare system. As always, the poor are paying a heavy price

The country is awakening to the painful reality that initial hosannas to the Central and State governments led by parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party (Delhi), AIADMK (Tamil Nadu), BJP (Gujarat) and Shiv Sena (Maharashtra), for adequate management of the corona pandemic, lie in smithereens.

Covid-19 cases in India have crossed 3.32 lakh and deaths are mounting. Numerous attempts to link the numbers to our population do not cut ice. Nor do the feeble attempts saying so many lakh die of heart attacks, or cancer or road accidents.

The fact is that this pandemic has pierced through the carefully cultivated bubble that India is the haven of healthcare infrastructure. Reports from Delhi and Mumbai, our political and financial capitals, of incompetent/heartless hospital response in timely treatment of the infected, disprove the once touted mantra of India being a dream destination for medical tourism.

Video clips from independent journalists reporting from Delhi and Mumbai, of corpses lying in hospital corridors alongside the infected, who are waiting for beds, are heart-rending. The social media is full of terrifying stories of relatives running from hospital to hospital in India’s mega cities being denied beds and losing loved ones.

Imagine the plight of the infected in rural India that we so lovingly call Bharat.

No country for poor

The exorbitant “packages” listed by leading private hospitals during this pandemic show once again that this is no country for the poor. Our governments treated migrant labourers as less than human; they were left stranded in cities, denied shelter, money, and transport to go home, till it was too late for many.

Additionally, many were beaten mercilessly for trying to cross State borders. And then quarantined in cramped, unhygienic enclosures. Yes, civil society did step in and ordinary citizens showed more heart than our administration, in giving them food, water and a shred of dignity. But during this crisis we made beggars of those on whose backs our posh residential complexes, glittering malls and swank hotels have been built.

The same class divide comes in finding hospital beds. The treatment of the severely infected comes with a huge bill — of ₹5-10 lakh or upwards. In a place like Delhi, several hospitals refuse to admit patients unless they pay a few lakh rupees upfront.

Delhi hospitals in particular have broken records in exorbitant charges for corona-infected patients. Ironic that the party ruling Delhi has “aam aadmi” in its title . And in a hospital in Madhya Pradesh, an elderly patient was tied to his bed, as his family could not pay the bill.

Reports both from Mumbai and Chennai say there are hospital beds now but no healthcare workers! Perfect. In Tamil Nadu, the Health Secretary, accused of mismanaging the State’s response to this pandemic, has been transferred. Those in the know say it is too little too late.

By the way, a priority for the Tamil Nadu government, during these harrowing times, to either divert attention or provide comic relief, was to change the spellings of nearly 1,000 places in the State. How ridiculous the changes are and how troublesome on the tongue can be seen by just one example. Coimbatore, will now be called Koyampuththur!

China’s muscle-flexing

So where is the planning, and the much required Centre-State collaboration critical for handling a situation that is more frightening than a war or a terror attack. Talking of war, why has China chosen this moment to flex its muscles on the border? Does it perceive the Indian government to be so weak, that on its obvious prodding, even a tiny country like Nepal is heckling us?

These are questions that the mainstream media should be asking. But in the two most virulent, popular hate-spewing channels, where Pakistani spokespersons are insulted and humiliated regularly, I’ve been waiting, but in vain, for similar treatment to be meted out to Chinese spokespersons!

Returning to Covid-19, another factor that is triggering mass hysteria is the way this infection’s morbidity and mortality have been projected in the public mind. The morbid fear of it and the paranoia caused in popular perception about the lethality of this disease is causing skewed reactions… like a Chennai doctor’s hearse being stoned or relatives not coming forward to bury their loved ones.

By all accounts infections are yet to peak and we may see some crazy numbers. But only a small per cent will die — less than 3 per cent. The majority will recover; mild infections are being managed at home with medication and supervision and good recovery rates.

Things will get much worse before they get better. And once again, millions of Indians face the consequences of the economic downturn that is bound to follow. Let’s put aside fictitious finance packages; only direct cash transfers — economists recommend ₹7,000 a month — will help ward off abject poverty and mass hunger-related deaths.

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Published on June 16, 2020
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