No Lessons Learnt
'No space for rational advise’
Weeks have gone by since the disastrous second Covid-19 wave unfolded, but the Modi government refuses to realise the folly of its ways and rectify its policies.
The Supreme Court hearing the Covid pandemic issue had raised valid questions and expressed reservations about the vaccine policy of the centre. The three-member bench, headed by Justice DY Chandrachud, had asked the government to reconsider the existing policy and suggested that the centre should decide on the allocation of vaccines to states and the delivery schedule, instead of leaving it to the states to negotiate with the two vaccine manufacturing companies. This, they said, would “produce chaos and uncertainty”.
More importantly, the court also expressed reservations about the vaccine pricing policy. It said differential pricing would lead to discrimination of the 18 to 44 age group, particularly the disadvantaged sections amongst them.
The court said, prima facie the rational method of proceeding in a manner consistent with the right to life (which includes the right to health) under Article 21 would be for the central government to procure all vaccines and to negotiate the price with vaccine manufacturers.
The court also said that once the centre centralised procurement, distribution of the vaccines within the states and union territories could be decentralised.
The response of the government to this rational advice was to defend its policy. It asserted that this was an area for the executive to decide and that should not be subjected to the interference of the court. The government claimed that its vaccine policy was “just, equitable, non-discriminatory and based upon an intelligible differentiating factor between the two age groups”.
The affidavit reveals the mendacity of the centre in making such claims. It declares that vaccines will be free, as all state governments have announced that free vaccination will be given to those in the 18-44 age group. The centre has forced the states to bear the burden of procuring vaccines from the two vaccine companies at higher prices which amounts to profiteering. The centre is not giving any financial assistance to the states, though Rs 35,000 crores were the allocation for vaccines in the union budget.
The states will have to spend a chunk of their health budget for vaccines to the detriment of general public health expenditure. The states are thus forced to accept discriminatory pricing and then give the vaccines free.
Further, as Professor R Ramakumar has pointed out in an article in Scroll.in, the affidavit reveals that the 50 per cent allotted for states and private hospitals is to be shared on a 50:50 basis, which means that the states can get only 25 per cent of the allocation. An equal share (25 per cent) will be going to the markets and private hospitals with exorbitant rates being charged. Here is a clear case of private profit being given precedence over the public good.
Faced with the fiasco of the vaccine rollout and the rate of vaccination falling to the extent of 60 per cent in the states in the last fortnight, any sensible government would have seized the opportunity provided by the supreme court intervention to rework its vaccination programme. But this is not a sensible government – it is a regime blinkered by its neo-liberal and Hindutva nostrums.
One can only hope that the Supreme Court will muster the will to direct the government to change its policy based on the citizens’ right to life (and health) provided for under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.
The other reason for the government’s disastrous handling of the Covid wave is its inability to rely on science stemming from its Hindutva outlook. For what else can explain the conduct of the union health minister and minister of science and technology, Harsh Vardhan?
As Covid cases surged in mid-April, the minister held a meeting of officers of various departments, regarding the research programme on indigenous cows. Absurdly titled as 'Scientific Utilisation Though Research Augmentation Prime Products from Indigenous Cows (SUPRA-PIC), it is reported that various projects are being undertaken such as the scientific validation of panchgavya (a concoction of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd and ghee). A sum of Rs 100 crores have been allotted for different projects.
The minister was unhappy about the delay in taking up these projects and said that the pandemic cannot be an excuse for the slow progress of the mission. This at a time when people were dying because of a shortage of oxygen.
If only the minister had spent as much time last year to ensure that oxygen plants in 150 district hospitals were set up and that too at the cost of only Rs 200 crore.
The government’s claim in its affidavit to the court that it relies on scientific opinion and experts is open to serious question. Otherwise, how is it that the health ministry guidelines still recommend the use of drugs like hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir and ivermectin for treating Covid patients?
The World Health Organisation and other medical experts have recommended against the use of these drugs for treating Covid-19 patients; in the case of remdesivir, it is applicable to only a small sub-group of patients. But in India, these drugs are widely prescribed, helping pharma companies make a windfall profit and also promoting black marketeering.
But then what can be said about the government’s reliance on science and health experts, when the National Task Force on Covid-19 did not meet even once in the months of February and March this year when the second wave was building up?
The Hindutva obsession with the cow has now resulted in the grotesque sight of men going to gaushalas in Gujarat, to smear their bodies with cow dung and urine to get immunity from the virus. After all, Gujarat is the original laboratory of Hindutva in India.
The priorities of the Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh are also clear. Last week, the government issued a directive to set up “help desks” for the protection of cows in every district. The cow shelters will be equipped with oximeters and thermal scanners for the staff employed there. This at a time when thousands are dying of Covid, in villages all over the state, with no medical care or help. (The state government has since denied this- TC)
The denouement in this inhuman drama are the macabre and distressing scenes of hundreds of bodies of Covid victims floating down the Ganga from various parts of Uttar Pradesh.(The state government has issued a directive now asking people to cremate their dead-TC)
This government will not learn nor correct its ways. That is the tragedy for the people and the country.
Prakash Karat is a member of the CPI-M Politburo.
Cover Photograph PTI - Bodies recovered from the river Ganga being buried on the banks in Buxar.