Kumbh & India’s COVID Spike: Is Anyone Or No One Responsible? 

The blame for the COVID mess must be shared equally by all netas, the public institutions, and the administration. 

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
 Image of Kumbh Mela 2021 used for representation.
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From exultations over India’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic we are now inundated with advice on how to extricate ourselves from the havoc. The question everyone is asking is: why did our health administration — which performed so magnificently a year ago — implode so badly now?

By the end of 2020, a grateful nation believed that the pandemic was over. Indians took pride in their country’s achievement and gave incredulous relatives and friends abroad graphic versions of our young population, its astounding levels of immunity and how well India had contained the COVID-19 pandemic.

Graphics depicting India’s low positivity and case fatality rates, together with high levels of recovery, looked exceptional for the size of our population — and stood out against the shocking non-performance of advanced countries.

For a country which started the pandemic without access to PPEs and masks, leave aside critical medical equipment, to have attained the status of self-sufficiency in producing consumables, vaccines and even ventilators to even becoming a net exporter, was a huge achievement.

India attained stardom by also showing compassion towards more than four score countries by sharing its indigenously-produced vaccines.

COVID-19 Surge: Did India’s Health Professionals & Admin Advise Absolute Caution?

Now that the situation has somersaulted, the question arises: did the health professionals — who were aware of the havoc that the impending festive season, the forthcoming elections in five states, and the colossal pent-up energy of millions of citizens could wreak — advise absolute caution? Giving specifics and in writing? Did the upsurge in other countries, accompanied by new dangers from mutants, propel any forward planning and tendering of professional advice against the impending congregations which are well-known routes of virus transmission?

What written advice was given? Was it not listened to? Was it dismissed or was it overruled?

In a matter of weeks the COVID numbers have exploded, even as young people are getting infected in droves. The shortage of hospital beds and macabre stories of crowded mortuaries and delayed funerals only point to abject failure by the very same administrative systems that had performed so magnificently a year ago. Not to have forbidden and ruthlessly contained mass gatherings and mask-less contact are responsible for the surges we now witness.

When other countries faced humongous problems triggered by human congestion and mask-less gatherings, what possessed the Indian authorities to look the other away?

The reason is simply this, and it applies to everyone responsible for managing the pandemic.

Role of Indian Administrative Officers & Execution of Public Duty Amid COVID

Over the decades, the Indian administrative system has skilfully obscured the distinction between the role of officers acting under law, and acting as formulators and implementors of of government policy. The former situation requires the execution of public duty as required by law — a responsibility which cannot be shared, supervised or dictated to.

The second requires formulation and implementation of government policies which are driven by the government in power. The two roles are entirely different. But officers at the decision-making level — both central and state — have grown accustomed to treating both as on equal footing and seeking orders to act according to law.

They have abdicated their role as statutory authorities and handed it over to non-statutory actors.

A simple story will illustrate this.

When the Supreme Court directed that no religious structure could come up on public land, a young SDM was suspended by a chief minister for implementing the apex court’s order. A former Cabinet secretary summed up by saying that on the ground, a law-and-order matter is not supposed to be decided by the chief minister or politicians but by the designated district magistrate and SDMs only.

The chief minister is not recognised under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). On the same analogy, the political executive does not exercise authority to implement provisions of several laws that address the containment of health hazards, the spread of contagion, and causing public harm.

Kumbh Would Have Definitely Been Cancelled in 2020. So, Why Do It In 2021?

Fast forward to 2021. Did the DM of Haridwar district highlight the implications of allowing millions of devotees to take a dip in the holy Ganga throughout April 2021, given abundant knowledge about how COVID spreads? Did he raise the level to the chief secretary and the state disaster management authority? Did he tender his advice in writing by ringing alarm bells about the risks involved? Likewise, did a plethora of public health agencies offer advice and caution?

If the Kumbh was to take place last year instead of in 2021, it would certainly not have been held. Then why was it allowed in March 2021, when COVID had begun to spread and congregations were known to be dangerous?

Was the intervention of the Health Ministry, the NDMA and the Cabinet Secretariat sought in writing? After all, the aftermath of the congregations was bound to affect millions of Indians — not just residents of Haridwar. It behoved a national response.

It calls into question whether the responsibilities vested under the Disaster Management Act and Epidemic Diseases Act 1897, could have been overlooked so blithely when the impending health hazards were unfathomable. Public officials are duty-bound to secure the health and safety of the citizens, not only under the Indian Constitution and Indian laws, but also under several international health conventions.

Elections Amid COVID: State Health Machinery & Election Commission’s Responsibility

The State health machinery had the responsibility to prevent, treat and control epidemics. It was obliged to strengthen and maintain the capacity to detect and notify contagious diseases and to respond promptly and effectively to deal with the public health risks. Instead, a slew of authorities vested with statutory responsibility, facilitated a super spreader event — day after day — knowing full well how disastrous the consequences would be.

And that brings one to other sorts of congregations — election rallies. The guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India (ECI) said: “The Commission, in cases of breach, will not hesitate in banning public meetings, rallies, etc of the defaulting candidates /star campaigners/political leaders without any further reference.”

But was this threat ever used over weeks of massive election rallies? Why were candidates not disqualified on the very first occasion when the COVID guidelines were defied?

When IPL cricket matches can be played before empty stadia, captured on screen and televised for public viewing, why did the Election Commission give free rein to tens of thousands of people to congregate and defy the conditions imposed? Why did the State Chief Election Officer, the District Magistrates as returning officers and the election observers not recommend drastic action to be taken by the ECI for dangerous defiance of its advisories?

What the ECI did (or rather did not do) is too well known to merit another line.

COVID Management: Why Did Officers Passively Await Instructions From Political Masters?

Today, we face a grave emergency, largely created by the spread of the virus at massive congregations, followed by failure to act in the face of impending disaster.

The authority to implement a slew of laws, rules and health advisories vests in designated officers who chose not to act and played safe.

To have passively awaited instructions from political masters and to have permitted super-spreader congregations in the face of unprecedented medical and health hazards, was criminal.

And in case this sounds like a diatribe only against officers, it is underscored that it is political leaders that set the tone by example.

The blame for the current mess has to be shared equally by all netas, the public institutions, and the administration. A competent court too could have taken suo motu cognisance of the wilful non-performance of statutory functionaries that failed to protect vulnerable people from the spread of a virulent virus.

It still can — and must.

(Shailaja Chandra (IAS retd) is a former Secretary in the Health Ministry and the former Chief Secretary, Delhi. She tweets at @over2shailaja. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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