Centre’s Obsession With Image Management Derailing Efforts Against Covid-19: Priyanka Gandhi

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Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has criticised the central government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, accusing it of refusal to “acknowledge the magnitude of the problem”. In an exclusive interview with CNN-News18, she has also expressed concerns over the rural spread of the disease in Uttar Pradesh, saying it could have “massive consequences”, especially in the backdrop of what she said was an inadequate testing infrastructure. She also suggested a five-point plan, including a vaccination policy, to manage the outbreak. Edited excerpts:

As per UP figures, the COVID-19 cases are in control and ‘not too high’. You think this is a correct assessment or is the state government playing it down? 

Yesterday morning, there was a news report of 100 people dying in a single village. A few days ago, there was another news item about approximately 40 people dying in another village. Our reports from workers in every block are that people are dying in considerable numbers every day after showing COVID-like symptoms. I say COVID-like because many are not able to get tested or treated in rural areas. We have all seen the horrific videos of the shallow graves along the banks of the Ganga and the dead bodies floating in its waters. If the Chief Minister feels that the number of dead is “not too high” then I would strongly advise him to encourage the correct figure to emerge in the public domain. If the extent of the spread of the pandemic is wrongly assessed and the damage done by it is underestimated, then the fight against it will not succeed. In the interest of the people of Uttar Pradesh, it is imperative for the government to acknowledge the truth. Only then will it be able to do what it takes to save lives.

There are horrific pictures of dead bodies floating that show how grave the situation is. Yogi govt says no one should dump bodies in the river. Too little too late and meaningless?

This is typical of the way BJP governments have been reacting to the Pandemic both in the states and at the Centre. It’s a five-step process:

• Refusal to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem.

• Failure to plan in depth and put in protective measures with a propensity to rely on shallow, event based measures designed to enhance their own PR.

• Retreating in to their silos and abdicating responsibility as the pandemic hits its peak and devastates the lives of people.

• Aggressively oppressing and attacking the public when they act in desperation to save their loved ones and the truth of the disaster begins to emerge.

• Re-appearing in public to take credit once the problem seems to hit a natural plateau and attempting to blame others for the disaster before it.

It’s a completely inexplicable response to a crisis.

Instead of helping people with resources to perform the last rites of their relatives, the government threatens them with dire consequences.

Instead of doing all it can to provide people and hospitals with Oxygen, it puts FIR’s on those who ask for help and threatens to confiscate their property.

Instead of ramping up testing exponentially, identifying hot spots and taking action, the government first bans private testing, then reverses the ban but ensures that only 20-35% are RTPCR tests so that the positivity rate remains supressed.

There is no semblance of governance in Uttar Pradesh. The idea that Yogiji is a qualified administrator is hollow. He is a failure at governance and the people of U.P are paying with their lives for his incompetence.

Isn’t it a worrying fact that COVID-19 has now spread to rural parts?

It is extremely worrying because it will have massive consequences. The availability of medical help, even basic medicines for home isolation, let alone oxygen, hospital beds etc is severely compromised. From the reports I have been getting, people are scared, there is a stigma against COVID so many don’t accept or declare that they might have it. In addition testing is not easily available. People are dying in large numbers and many are not even clear that the deaths are COVID related. In U.P, there is a concerted attempt by the authorities to declare those dying of comorbidities or related issues as non-COVID deaths.

Nearly 400 districts across India still have a double digit positivity rate, this is a sign that we are not testing enough. The current testing capacity is around 20 lakhs, almost 80% of this is in urban areas. This means that we don’t really have an accurate assessment of the status in rural areas. The situation is frightening and tragic.

What in your mind is the solution?

Well, one solution would have been to plan and put in place measures for the emergence of the second wave. There was enough warning, the government had all the resources at its disposal. India is one of the largest producers of oxygen in the world, why are we having to beg other countries for help today? Why did the government do nothing between the first and the second wave? It could have put in place a logistics network and increased the number of oxygen tankers in the country so that if a crisis hit, oxygen could have been transported to hospitals with ease. Instead we increased the export of oxygen seven times in 2020. We are one of the largest vaccine producers in the world. While the US placed orders with Indian vaccine manufacturers in July 2020, our government waited till January 2021 to place its first order. Most countries ordered vaccines in quantities many multiple times that of their population. We ordered 1.60 crore vaccines for a population of almost 140 crores. Not only that, between January and March 2021, we exported 6.63 crore vaccines and vaccinated only 3 crore Indians. We exported 11 lakh doses of Remdesivir in the last six months.

But now that we are in this tragic situation where our government has completely failed to protect us and abdicated responsibility. I do not know if this government is willing to listen but if they are then:

• Firstly, they ought to make a clear vaccination policy. They need to centralise procurement and decentralise distribution. Presently they are functioning in reverse. Their central government’s vaccination policy is based on political exigencies rather than being driven by the need to save the maximum number of lives. Nowhere in the world are states and cities in the same country compelled to issue tenders and compete against each other to acquire vaccines.

• Secondly, they should use all the power and resources at their disposal to immediately set up testing and treatment facilities in every block and village. Involve all help at hand – paramilitary, military, civil society, state agencies, etc. At this stage, managing and containing the rural spread is most urgent.

• Thirdly, the black fungus and white fungus epidemics are emerging responses to COVID and its treatment. As time progresses there may be more medical conditions emerging as off shoots of the virus. It is imperative for the government to listen to experts and engage meaningfully with them in order to prepare for the inevitable third wave. It needs to issue much clearer directives. People seem divided into two groups at present – those who have access to too much conflicting information and those who have no information at all. Both create the circumstances for life threatening situations to arise.

• Fourthly, divert funds from vanity projects like the Central Vista Project towards the fight against COVID. It’s not just the money, building a residential palace for the Prime Minister at a time like this sends a very wrong signal to the public about his priorities. It is insensitive and hurtful to those who have run from pillar to post in search of help and lost loved ones due to the lack of facilities. There is so much that can be done with those same funds. For example, just yesterday I was talking to some of the teacher’s from UP who have lost more than 1,600 colleagues on election duty, some of these funds could have gone towards compensation that will sustain affected families or even towards a comprehensive financial package to support doctors and healthcare workers who are risking their lives to keep the rest of us alive.

• The fifth thing that I feel really needs to be done is for the government to stop obsessing with PR and image building. More than anything else, it is this obsession that is derailing every effort to fight COVID. Concealing data impedes the measures needed to identify, isolate and treat patients. Harassing and penalising those who ask for help or even those who attempt to provide help instils fear in the public mind and obstructs the flow of correct information that is essential to save lives. All this indulgence in cooking up tool kits and attempting to show every constructive suggestion as an anti-national affront is a waste of the government’s time and resources. It is a shame at a time like this.

Fundamentally, they need to realise that it is incumbent on them to save lives. Whether they like it or not the responsibility to govern the nation during this unprecedented calamity falls upon the Prime Minister of our country.

The government says it’s in control and the states have to take responsibility.

During the first wave they completely centralised their response to the crisis, now they conveniently want to pass the buck. The same Home Minister who was micromanaging lockdowns to the extent that orders were being passed outlining steps to be taken by Resident Welfare Associations, has vanished after the West Bengal elections. Where is he today?

Do you see the hypocrisy? They are functioning on a short term PM’s Image Management Plan rather than on a long term COVID Management Plan. Unfortunately for them, leadership is about taking responsibility not passing it on to others. They have been arbitrary in their treatment of states throughout this crisis. Their assistance has depended on the party to which the Chief Minister belongs. When people in Delhi and Punjab were gasping for air, more oxygen tankers from Haryana’s facilities were being sent to distant BJP ruled states than to Delhi and Punjab.

The Centre has not even paid many states their GST dues in months or indeed shared the Rs 1.8 lakh crores of cess they collected from fuel price hikes in the last year. Many states remain financially strapped.

If the centre genuinely wants states to manage this massive crisis it should give them the resources to do so and not destabilise them. After all, as the first wave began, they toppled the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, at the start of the second wave, they dropped the Congress government in Puducherry. Between the first and second waves they tried to subvert legitimately elected governments in Maharashtra, West Bengal and Rajasthan.

In hindsight, it is so tragic that they spent their time on such undemocratic misadventures instead of bringing all the states together in a truly democratic spirit to plan and prepare for the second wave. It is the people of India who end up paying for these misplaced priorities with their lives.

BJP leaders talk a lot about collective action and constructive politics during a crisis but their words belie their actions. At any rate, it is the Prime Minister who is directly responsible for protecting the people of India and steering the country through this crisis. It is so all over the world. No one held the governors of U.S states responsible for mismanaging the COVID pandemic in America- Donald Trump clearly carried that can.

Indian Youth Congress and its president Srinivas BV have been questioned over hoarding allegations. Is this serious? 

The allegations of hoarding and profiteering are certainly non-serious, in fact they are ridiculous. If you can’t help people when they are desperate and dying and someone else steps in to do what is meant to be your job, you should be grateful for his existence rather than indulge in harassing him and his organisation for no evident reason.

I don’t think anyone can dispute that the Indian Youth Congress’s conduct has been exemplary through the course of the pandemic. Its cadres have strived tirelessly to provide relief completely free of cost to affected people across India right from the first wave until now. Their work speaks for itself.

In any case the government seems to waste too much time and too many resources in these sort of actions rather than focussing on saving lives. It’s truly a sad state of affairs.

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