Nine Things BJP Leaders Said Recently About the Pandemic – But Shouldn't Have

With remarks ranging from flippant and insensitive to downright dangerous, BJP leaders have led the pack on 'what not to say in the middle of a pandemic'.

New Delhi: It has been 414 days since the World Health Organisation (WHO) first declared COVID-19 infections to be a pandemic and 389 days since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured the country that “21 days” of lockdown was all that was needed to “win the war” against the coronavirus. In the interim, India has seen the number of active COVID-19 cases rise, then fall and now quickly rise again, as a severe second wave of infections spreads across the country.

India today has 1.93 million active COVID-19 cases, which is nearly double its active case load at the time of the first wave last year.

Time may have passed, but our leaders’ understanding of how this virus spreads and what measures need to be taken to curb it does not seem to be benefitting from science, the experiences before them or even common sense. Making remarks ranging from flippant and insensitive to downright dangerous, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have led the pack on ‘what not to say in the middle of a pandemic’.

Here is a list of examples put together by The Wire of things BJP leaders have said over the last two months, but shouldn’t have.

1. ‘We are in the endgame of the pandemic’ – Health minister Harsh Vardhan

On March 7, around the time when India’s daily COVID-19 caseload was slowly beginning to rise again, none other than the Union health minister decided that we’re doing just fine.

“We are in the end game of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, and to succeed at this stage, we need to follow three steps: Keep politics out of the COVID-19 vaccination drive, trust the science behind COVID-19 vaccines, and ensure our near and dear ones get vaccinated on time,” Harsh Vardhan said then.

The health minister’s declaration of victory was clearly far too early. It can be said that he couldn’t have known mutant variations of the coronavirus would wreak havoc in the coming weeks, but what he should already have known was that (1) every country in the world where the coronavirus had infected large numbers in 2020 had already experienced a second wave and that (2) India definitely did not have enough vaccines to stave off  a new spike, let alone match its inoculation targets. It was this complacency which made the government go ahead with events like the Kumbh mela at Haridwar and an unnecessarily long campaign period for the state elections due in April.

Also read: COVID-19: As Thousands Gasp for Oxygen, Government Tardiness in Spotlight

We know that at the current pace of vaccination, India will only reach 70% coverage by the end of 2021. Since nothing has changed here in terms of demand or supply, Harsh Vardhan should have known it’s not the “endgame” just yet.

Cabinet minister and senior BJP leader from Dehi Harshvardhan stands to attention while speaking to Prime Minister Modi in this file photo from 2014. Credit: PMO

Union health minister Harsh Vardhan standing to attention while speaking to Prime Minister Modi in this file photo from 2014. Photo: PMO

2. ‘Oxygen demand needs to be kept under control’ – Piyush Goyal

As reports of scarcity and desperate pleas for oxygen supply pour in from different parts of the country, Union minister Piyush Goyal thinks state governments are to blame as they aren’t “controlling” demand enough.

“State governments should keep demand (for medical oxygen) under control. The demand-side management is as important as the supply-side management. Containing COVID-19 spread is the responsibility of state governments and they should fulfil this responsibility,” Goyal told ANI.

“If cases continue to rise unlimitedly, then it will pose a major challenge for the healthcare infrastructure of the country. We are with state governments, but they need to manage the demand and take concrete steps to contain COVID-19 spread,” he continued.

Goyal also said he had received reports of oxygen overuse and wastage.

His remarks were widely criticised on social media, and #TooMuchOxygen began to trend on Twitter.

As The Wire has reported before, in people with severe COVID-19, the disease and the body’s inflammatory response together undermine lung function. These patients need to receive oxygen to reduce the load on their lungs to filter the gas from the air – as much as 130 litres per minute.

As a Scroll.in investigation has shown, the Centre has been dragging its feet on setting up the 162 new oxygen plants announced eight months ago. Only 11 such plants have been installed thus far and of them, only five are currently running.

In May 2020, Goyal had claimed that India would be the first country to recover from the pandemic because “we have 130 crore aspirational Indians”.

3. ‘Never seen such huge crowds’ – Narendra Modi

While campaigning for the West Bengal elections, Modi recently said that he has “never seen such huge crowds” at a rally. The leader did not seem to care that during a pandemic of this kind, a crowd is basically the worst possible thing.

He also said that “wherever I look, I see people, only people”. He would have also seen that most of the people there were not wearing masks but he said nothing about that.

During the last few weeks, Modi has been attending and speaking at crowded election rallies on a regular basis. He then later seamlessly talks about how has been “reviewing the COVID-19 situation” in the country, as if there is no link between the two.

4. ‘The pandemic is over, we don’t need masks’ – Himanta Biswa Sarma

Assam health minister and BJP heavyweight Himanta Biswa Sarma decided at the start of April – when the upward curve in COVID-19 cases was clearly visible – that the pandemic is now over and everyone can take off their protective masks.

“There is no Covid in Assam… there is no need to wear a face mask now in Assam… If there is a need I will inform the people,” Sarma had said. He stood by this remark even after criticism, saying Assam had done remarkable well in bringing down the number of infections and so masks were no longer needed.

Assam currently has 5,268 active cases of COVID-19.

Also read: Varanasi: Cremation, Burial Grounds Show About 50% of COVID-19 Deaths Aren’t Officially Recorded

5 . ‘Maa Ganga’s blessings are in flow so there should be no corona’ – Tirath Singh Rawat

One of the BJP leaders who has routinely been denying the severity of the threats posed by the virus has been Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat. He’s had one main aim in these denials – to make sure people attend the Maha Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, held once every 12 years.

When significant concerns and criticisms were raised about the government’s decision not to cancel the event, Rawat said, “…Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga. Maa Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona.”

One top seer who attended the Kumbh has died of COVID-19. At least 34 who went back to Ahmedabad after attending the mela and 13 who went to Surat have tested positive for the virus. After it has become abundantly clear that Maa Ganga cannot, in fact, wash away the virus, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was featured in ads urging people to attend the Kumbh one month ago, has now said that attendance should only be “symbolic”.

6. COVID doesn’t affect hard-working BJP workers – Govind Patel

A BJP MLA in Gujarat, who has served as the state’s science and technology minister, believes that people who are engaged in hard labour do not get COVID-19 – and that’s why BJP workers are safe.

“Those who work, do labour work, remain unaffected by the corona(virus). Workers of the BJP have done work, have done labour work and none of them has been infected,” Govind Patel said in late March.

Patel himself had contracted COVID-19 and then recovered a few months before he made this statement.

7. ‘India’s fight against COVID is inspiring the world’ – Narendra Modi

Another victory dance performed too soon, this time by none other than the prime minister.

“At the beginning of this (COVID-19) pandemic, the whole world was worried about India’s situation. But today India’s fight against corona (coronavirus) is inspiring the entire world…India is following a human centric approach to furthering global good,” Modi said in mid February. Two months later, India was recording the highest daily case load in the world.

8. Supporting ‘Coronil’ as a COVID-19 drug – Harsh Vardhan and Nitin Gadkari

Union health minister Harsh Vardhan and Union minister Nitin Gadkari shared a stage with businessman and yoga guru Ramdev in February, while he released a “research paper” on his product ‘Coronil’.

Coronil is supposedly an Ayurvedic drug, produced by Ramdev’s company Patanjali. Ramdev claimed at the release that it is the first “evidence-based medicine” for COVID-19 and that it had been “approved by the WHO”. WHO quickly tweeted to debunk this lie.

At the launch, Harsh Vardhan said the growth of Ayurvedic products indicated that “people have accepted them”. However, as The Wire Science has reported in detail, the science behind Coronil is dodgy at best, and the “research paper” released in the presence of two Union minister is ridden with problems. To put government backing behind the s0-called drug, then, is problematic on several levels.

9. ‘People get old, they have to die’ – Prem Singh Patel

BJP minister from Madhya Pradesh Prem Singh Patel thinks that the increasing number of deaths India is seeing during the pandemic cannot be helped – because people get old and have to die anyway.