In a particularly outspoken interview where he does not mince his words, one of India’s most highly regarded Human Rights activists has said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 60-day lockdown, announced with four hour’s notice, was: “A crime against the people of India. It is and must be recognised to be a crime against humanity.”
Harsh Mander added: “I have used the word crime very very thoughtfully and advisedly”.
In a 48-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Harsh Mander also spoke about his personal experience at India’s premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences. In October, when he got COVID-19, he got himself admitted into a general ward of this hospital and described the experience “as close to hell as I can imagine”. He called it “an unending nightmare”. He said AIIMS was guilty of “at least gross negligence, which could have led to my death”.
Mander told The Wire the lockdown simply ignored the fact the vast majority of the Indian people cannot isolate in their homes and do not have running water to frequently wash their hands. More importantly, it ignored the fact hundreds of millions would go hungry and starve if they cannot earn. The financial or ration-based compensation given to such people was grossly inadequate. As a result, lakhs of people were left with no option but to depend on charity. They would stand for hours in queues that were two or three metres long waiting to be fed. The process stripped them of their self-respect and dignity.
Mander said the lockdown was designed to protect the well-off who, ironically, brought the disease to India but the price and cost was paid by the poor. As he put it: “The state drew clear lines between those who were to be saved and those who could be sacrificed; those whose lives mattered and those who were expendable”.
Asked by The Wire if this language meant he was accusing the government of calculated murder, Mander replied: “I am accusing them of calculated murder by creating an environment where death was inevitable”.
Making a telling but controversial comparison between Narendra Modi’s handling of COVID-19 in India and Imran Khan’s handling in Pakistan, Mander said that the Pakistani Prime Minister had displayed “much greater sensitivity and compassion for his working-class fellow country-people than Narendra Modi.” Under repeated questioning, Mander said India would have been better off if the COVID-19 challenge had been handled with the same sensitivity and compassion Imran Khan showed in Pakistan. In particular, if Imran Khan’s example of refusing to go in for a stringent lockdown had been followed in India.
Asked how he responds to the argument that given the size and complexity of the country – a sub-continent with 1.3 billion people – India had done the best it could, Mander bluntly replied: “It did the worst it could”. He added for a generation and longer India will have to pay the consequences of the lockdown.
Mander said the lockdown “laid bare our broken society, the near-complete estrangement of people of privilege from the working poor in India”. He added the middle class had “lost the trust of the poor”. He said “the middle class let down India”. They only cared for themselves. They were selfish in their attitude and outlook. They didn’t bother about the poor.
In the interview to The Wire, Mander also spoke in detail about his own personal experience when he got COVID-19 in October and deliberately chose to admit himself to the general ward of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. He said: “Nobody gave me a change of clothes…the nurses and ward boys were screaming at each other and the patients…the ward boys were untrained, many were out of work hotel room boys…nobody would allow you even to go to the toilet”.
Mander added that the general ward at AIIMS had monitors that did not work and nobody bothered to check the oxygen level of the patients. He said most of the patients in his ward “were convinced they were going to die and were in a panic”. Many spent their time crying out of fear. He said doctors and nurses were reluctant to enter the ward for fear of their own lives.
Speaking in detail about what happened to him, Mander said shortly after he was admitted to AIIMS he lost his memory for around ten days. As far as he remembers, he said it happened when he went for a bath. Thereafter he has no memory of what followed. His wife later told him he stopped answering phones and stopped speaking to anyone. When she checked with the doctors they repeatedly insisted he had gone into depression. When she pointed out this could not have happened overnight and that he was speaking on the phone just hours earlier, the doctors simply repeated he was in deep depression.
At this point his wife took charge and had him discharged from AIIMS. Later she took him to a private hospital where an MRI was done. It showed “extensive brain damage and internal bleeding”. Clearly this was a result of something that happened at AIIMS but Mander has no idea of what it was or might have been.
Worse still, the doctors and nurses at AIIMS did not detect his head injury even though Mander says blue patches appeared on his forehead i.e. signs of internal bleeding. They also continued to give him blood thinners which, in the circumstances, was clearly the wrong thing to do.
When doctors at a private hospital saw his scans they simply could not understand how he was still alive. This, he adds, suggests that if his wife had not intervened he would have died at AIIMS and his death would have been wrongly called a Covid death.
Mander told The Wire that so far he has not formally complained to the Director of AIIMS about what happened to him but, under repeated questioning, he said he is now likely to do so. He said he would raise the conditions in the hospital for sure and think about whether he should also raise his injury.
Asked by The Wire what he thought of the fact the Home Minister, several cabinet ministers and several chief ministers went to private hospitals when they got COVID-19 rather than government-owned public ones, Mander replied: “It is shameful beyond description”. He said it’s a clear sign they do not trust their own public hospitals. They refused to trust their own life to a government-owned hospital.
Watch the full interview here.