As COVID-19 Spreads to Rural Areas of UP, Is Yogi in Denial Mode Again?

Even as the world witnessed horrific images of dead bodies floating down the Ganga, Adityanath is busy trying to impress upon all and sundry that not many villages are really affected by the pandemic.

Lucknow: The whole world may be talking about how the second wave of COVID-19 has spread into the vast rural expanse of Uttar Pradesh, where, deprived of legitimate last rites, many dead bodies were abandoned in free-flowing river streams and sometimes even hastily covered under the soft sand of the river banks, to be exposed by rains.

But that horrific and dark reality seems to remain well beyond the comprehension of Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of India’s most populous state, who has apparently yet again got into denial about the sad and unprecedented plight of the common man.

The chief minister is busy trying to impress upon all and sundry that everything is under control and that not many villages are really affected by COVID-19. An official press release issued by the state government on Wednesday claimed that 68% of villages in the state do not have any cases of COVID-19. This press release was issued after reports said the virus was spreading to the villages of the state ever since the panchayat elections were held last month.

Panchayat polls prove to be fatal

It is pretty clear now that panchayat elections became a ‘super spreader’ for the rural areas, where all COVID-19 protocols went for a toss once electioneering was in full swing. And that did not come as any surprise. Those engaged in election duties had expressed their apprehension about the polls posing a life threat to them. But the government was hell-bent on going ahead, which according to teacher-employee unions, resulted in the deaths of more than 1,600 people engaged in poll duties.

Even when the Allahabad high court ordered a partial lockdown, which would have come in the way of panchayat elections, the UP government appealed before the apex court, which promptly granted a stay on the high court order. It was said that Adityanath was particularly keen to go ahead with the panchayat poll because they were the first major elections to be held in the state under his leadership. His over-confidence about sweeping these polls prompted him to proceed at all costs. It was another matter that the election results shattered his expectations. The Samajwadi Party left the BJP far behind in the election. It is believed that the BJP’s poor showing at the hustings was attributable largely to the anger of people, who bore the brunt of the second wave of COVID-19 as the Yogi government failed miserably to provide oxygen, medicines, beds or ventilators to helpless, dying patients.

While the pandemic had already created havoc in cities and towns, the villages were initially safe with very few positive cases. But crowding and failure to follow protocols such as wearing masks during the panchayat elections let loose the virus into villages and hamlets, where the fear of death looms large.

In order to prove that the “king is always right”, the government went to the extent of even undercounting the number of government employees who died while performing panchayat election duty. As against the Shikshak Maha Sangh (Teachers Union) claim of 1,632 deaths, the UP government put up a total figure of just three. Even the state election commission had earlier confirmed the death of 77 teachers and employees engaged in election duties in just 28 of UP’s 75 districts. Strong reactions by the teachers-employees unions finally compelled the government to work out an additional compensation package in the form of a job for one family member of the deceased employee. This announcement came from the chief minister on Thursday.

People show their voter ID as they stand in a queue to cast their vote for the Uttar Pradesh Gram Panchayat election, in Agra, Thursday, April 15, 2021. Photo: PTI

Threats and intimidation

The problem with the state government and chief minister is that their first reactions are usually negative and tend to reflect their denial of ground realities. Even the acute shortage of oxygen that took numerous lives across the length and breadth of the state was not only flatly rejected but the chief minister, but he went to the extent of threatening anyone talking about the shortage of oxygen with arrest under the National Security Act. “No one has died of shortage of oxygen,” was his curt declaration. He refused to also admit that there was a dearth of beds in hospitals and ventilators were in extremely poor supply or inoperational, as also that many primary health centres (PHCs) and community health centres (CHCs) were shut.

While RT-PCR tests were sparsely available in rural areas and even where the test was being carried out, the chief minister’s mandarins were busy flooding the media with official statements claiming that UP was way ahead of all other states on all counts of COVID-19 management.

The UP government seemed to cross all limits when it went about claiming that its “special surveillance teams” had reached the last mile in rural areas. What made them revel in their own self-proclaimed glory was a feature story published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which merely noted the UN agency’s role in the campaign, but the government claimed that its efforts were “praised”. Ironically, this self-congratulatory attitude came at a time when dead bodies were seen floating in the Ganga and other rivers.

Yet again, far from accepting the reality, the chief minister preferred to give it another twist. “There have been reports of some bodies found floating in the Ganga as also of some bodies being buried under the sand alongside the river,” Yogi Adityanath said. He, however, sought to attribute such happenings to compulsion on account of economic reasons or due to tradition. “Some people could have just immersed dead bodies in the river because of lack of financial resources, but I am also aware that some people go for jal pravah (immersion in water) as a part of their social tradition,” he insisted.

He however went on to add, “But we have to discourage people from doing so, because such bodies could pollute the rivers.” He has directed district officials to ensure that Rs 5,000 is given to families which cannot afford cremation expenses and also to dissuade people from going for jal pravah, even if it is part of their tradition.