‘COVID-19 is an ‘Invisible’ Enemy Because Govt Refused to See It’
Author & veteran diplomat Pavan K Varma explains why Modi’s 14 May speech was disappointing & had little substance.
(As told to Indira Basu, Asst Editor, Op-Ed, The Quint)
The prime minister, after being MIA (missing in action) for the last several days, in his 14 May speech highlighted the fact that the farmers had received their dues under the PM-Kisan scheme from the government. This is a typical example of misplaced priorities.
It was an attempt to convey as though the farmers’ crisis has been resolved, when the real solution lies in having a genuine dialogue with a protest movement that has gone on for months.
The prime minister has himself never met any of the farmer leaders. And to use this occasion, at a time when the country is in the throes of a pandemic, to highlight what is the duty of the government (that is, the PM-Kisan transfers) certainly made for exceptionally insensitive optics. For the last 22 consecutive days we have had nearly 3 lakh daily COVID infections. The total cases are in the vicinity of 2.4 crores at the moment. We have been witness to thousands gasping for oxygen and relinquishing their lives at the doorsteps of hospitals over the past few weeks.
Amid Agony & Suffering, What Did the PM Really Tell Us? Did He Take Ownership?
The agony and suffering of the nation today is visible and palpable. In such a situation, the prime minister’s speech on Friday was, in my view, exceptionally below what was in order. What did the prime minister say? He warned the nation about the COVID-19 pandemic. I ask, really, Mr Prime Minister? Does the country not know this? There is hardly a family left which has not suffered a grievous loss as a result of the pandemic.
And now, weeks after the onset of the vicious second wave of COVID, the prime minister deems it fit to ‘warn’ the country about the dangers of COVID-19.
He said, in his Friday speech, that the disease has spread to rural areas. It has been evident now for days, that the entire rural hinterland of India, especially in the most populous regions, is in the throes of the pandemic. Did we need the prime minister to tell us that? The prime minister also asked for cooperation of the panchayats in the rural areas to fight the pandemic. How will you do that, Mr Prime Minister, I ask? Our primary healthcare centres (PHCs) are not in the best shape. We have collapsing hospitals, an acute shortage of doctors and paramedical staff, a dearth of beds, oxygen supply, ventilators and even basic medicines — leave alone vaccines. What are the panchayats expected to cooperate over, exactly?
Fighting an ‘Invisible’ Enemy — What the PM Should Have Spoken About & What He Actually Said
The prime minister claimed that the ‘enemy’ today is an ‘invisible’ one. I say, it has become ‘invisible’, Mr Prime Minister, because you refused to see it coming. There was a spectacular abdication of responsibility to anticipate and plan for the inevitable second wave, and this has been proven in myriad ways. Where the government went into a self-induced complacency of having ‘conquered’ the virus and put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us.
The speech of the prime minister, in my view, should have been a working speech, where he ought to have briefed the nation — not only about his grief, if he felt it, but about what actions the government is taking in concrete terms, the timelines, the strategies and planning — he should have been transparent about the shortfalls as well, and assured the nation that even though the government has acted after the horse has bolted it is trying to do its best today.
Instead of that, we heard the usual platitudes from the prime minister. He again told the citizens that their best defence against COVID-19 was to wear masks. But we’ve been hearing this from the prime minister and experts since last year. What the PM is saying is relevant, and we should continue observing COVID-appropriate protocol, but surely he had something more important to say at this time?
And that is why I point to the prime minister’s speech as being symbolic of the lack of communication on the part of the government. Why has the prime minister not held a single live press conference?
Why is his health minister completely absent from the discourse? Why is the health minister not available daily to take questions from our media and from concerned citizens? Therefore, the connect with the people has been lost — and the speech yesterday was a classic example of this.
War Metaphors Born of Hubris Have No Impact On People Who Are Suffering On-Ground
Further, even though I think the metaphor of a war-like situation, used by the prime minister, is not inappropriate, what is inappropriate is the timing of the war-like efforts. Too little is being done, and too late. When there was the time to launch war-like efforts to deal with the onset of a second wave, the government was in self-induced hubris of having ‘conquered’ the virus.
Thus, one can use metaphors of this nature, but one must understand that they have little or no impact on the people who have been in this war-like situation, battling the pandemic now for weeks on end.
COVID Mess: Whither Ownership & Responsibility?
As regards the assumption of real responsibility — the National Disaster Management Act is absolutely clear on that front. That the responsibility for taking action to deal with the pandemic and to mitigate its impact — and this was announced as far back as 14 March 2020 — these primary responsibilities for the prevention of disaster, or the mitigation or preparedness and capacity-building for dealing with a disaster-like situation — are that of the Centre.
But what do we see on ground? Take, for example, the vaccination policy. It is the central government's responsibility to have procured and to continue to procure the vaccines for the nation’s use.
The central government knows where the stockpiles are and it must be this unified agency that makes global tenders and negotiates the best prices. But we have today, along with the abdication of responsibility, a completely anarchic, impractical situation, where there are 29-plus states making a bid — often from the same producer — for a limited number of vaccines.
It's the seller's dream. This is what India has been reduced to, by passing the buck onto the states.
Therefore, what people would have expected from the PM’s speech was a little more humility, acceptance of culpability, a little more of honesty — saying that ‘we did not anticipate the ferocity of the second wave, but even so, we are doing our very best to be able to handle it now’.
Positivity as Propaganda
What we wanted was a little more detail on what is being done by the central government today; a genuine communication. This did not find a place in the PM’s speech.
And now, what else do we see? The BJP’s parent organisation, the RSS, conducted a four-day event, ‘Positivity Unlimited’, inviting spiritual gurus and other leaders, which culminated on Saturday, 15 May, with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat addressing the audience.
Apart from the abdication of responsibility, one sees this attempt to instil, even in such a dire situation, a sense of positivity.
Positivity in itself is not a bad goal, but positivity cannot become propaganda — where you drum-up or twist the facts to try and convince an agonised people of how good things are or will be, in the face of untold trauma and misery.
A Cynical Communication Exercise by the Govt
It would still be somewhat understandable in these times if the ‘positivity’ message was about solidarity and fortitude. But this RSS event seems to be another effort to tarnish anyone who speaks of suffering and of those highlighting the ground realities as being ‘anti-national’.
Ultimately, it will boil down to what the Chief Minister of UP said in his state — that anyone who, on social media or otherwise, complains of a lack of oxygen, is a victim of ‘vicious propaganda’ by the ‘enemies of the State’.
If the government’s approach is to see the suffering of the people and its expression as being ‘negativity’, whereas the spin that they are offering is that of ‘positivity’, I think it's an exceptionally cynical exercise.
(The writer is an author and diplomat, and former MP, Rajya Sabha. He tweets at @PavanK_Varma. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.