Nothing is sacrosanct here, not even a pandemic. So, even as a second surge of COVID ravages state after state, governments across the country including the Centre and political leaders are doing what they do best: playing politics over vaccines and blaming everyone else except themselves for the spiralling numbers of COVID-19 cases.
It’s a pathetic spectacle. Opposition-ruled states complain of discrimination in vaccine-distribution and lament that they cannot win the battle against COVID because of shortages.
India’s Health Minister sparked off a ‘war of words’ by accusing these state governments of “politicising” a public health issue and “spreading lies’’.
In a clumsy bid to score brownie points, he singled out as the ‘worst offenders’ the two states governed by ‘unfavourable’ dispensations: Maharashtra, which is ruled by the NCP-Shiv Sena-Congress combine, and Chhattisgarh, which has a Congress regime.
Why Is COVID-Ravaged Maharashtra Getting Least Vaccine Doses As Compared To Better-Off States?
However, the facts tell another story altogether. Sample this. The union health ministry just issued an order releasing 350 lakh Covishield doses for distribution. And guess what? Maharashtra, the worst-hit state in the country, with a daily case load of 60,000 and above, will get less vaccines than the BJP-ruled states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Haryana.
Unbelievable as it may be, Maharashtra is slated to receive just 17.43 lakh doses as compared to 44.98 lakh doses for UP, 33.76 lakh doses for MP, 29.06 lakh for Karnataka, and 24 lakh for tiny Haryana.
Even West Bengal scores higher than Maharashtra, with 21 lakh doses set to reach Kolkata in the next few days. The reason for this is obvious. There is an election on in Bengal and the BJP hopes to win big.
There are other statistics to buttress Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope’s allegations of ‘bias’ against non-BJP states. While it is true that Maharashtra has received the highest number of vaccine doses so far (1,06,19,190), it is just a hair’s breadth behind Gujarat (1,05,19,330). If it sounds skewed, it is — because Maharashtra’s population is almost double that of Gujarat. By any standard, it should have got at least 50 percent more doses if not 100 percent more than neighbouring Gujarat.
Opposition States Do Not Need COVID Reminders But So Do BJP-Ruled States
The figures tell a story. Either Gujarat has a higher caseload than is being reported or it is simply the ‘most-favoured’ state, being the homeland of the two most powerful men in the country.
Ironically, these numbers were tweeted by none other than our Union Health Minister. Perhaps he did not realise the implication of his tweet, which reveals a blatant skew ‘in favour of’ Gujarat.
At the same time, the Maharashtra government cannot escape its share of responsibility for the soaring numbers of COVID cases in the state.
Clearly, the government took its eyes off the ball. Vaccines became the focus, while the earlier methods of virus-control like testing, monitoring and contact-tracing took a backseat.
In fact, PM Modi rightly reminded chief ministers at a meeting on COVID on Thursday: “What we have done is we jumped to vaccination (as a strategy) and forgot testing... We have to focus on testing... Vaccination is a long-term and continuous process.’’
He said that the country had managed to control the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 without vaccines. “We shouldn’t create panic in the public,’’ he said. “As vaccines are produced, they will be delivered.’’
While his admonishment to Opposition-ruled governments is important, perhaps the PM needs to do some plain-speaking to chief ministers and ministers of his own party as well. For instance, while Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan sounded off against non-BJP ruled states, he blithely posted pictures of his own party’s election rallies, where masks were scarce.
Assam Minister’s ‘No Mask’ Comments
His health minister in Assam and chief election manager for the state, Himanta Biswa Sarma said Assam was the ‘only place that was COVID-free’, and that the state would celebrate Bihu soon. He said, as per this report:
“COVID is under control in Assam. There is no need to wear masks. The central government can issue orders, but in the context of Assam, there is no COVID as of today. Why should we create unnecessary panic? I will tell people when there will be a need to wear masks again.”Himanta Biswa Sarma
He then sought to defend his ‘no-mask’ statement with this tweet:
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat invited the entire country to take a dip in the Ganges during the Kumbh. And people came in huge numbers, all without masks and no concept of physical distancing.
What Centre Should Focus On Instead of ‘Electioneering’
It has taken a crisis of gigantic proportions to force the PM to intervene with a meeting of chief ministers. Like 2020, when the government was busy hosting former US President Donald Trump and dislodging the Congress government in MP, this year, it seems preoccupied with electioneering in Bengal and Assam, and destabilising the Thackeray government in Maharashtra.
Maharashtra needs all the help it can get from the Centre to combat the deadly virus scourging its soil. But the local BJP seems more focused on scoring political points to rock the Thackeray government.
In fact, Thackeray appealed to Modi at the meeting to restrain his party leaders from turning the COVID-19 pandemic into a political tool to target the Opposition. He said this in the backdrop of reports that the BJP was planning to hold demonstrations against the state government while the state is reeling under its worst bout of COVID.
It is unfortunate that a pandemic has become a political football instead of serving to unite leaders across the spectrum in the larger national interest.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)