The Virus and the Math of Vaccine, Votes and Worship

Three questions in the aftermath of India's brutal crisis.

The past year while all of us battled the novel coronavirus, I lived with the added burden and fear of cancer.

Cancer care and treatment during a pandemic is hard, very hard. During my frequent visits to the hospital, the innumerable procedures, therapies, tests, diagnostics, the uncountable surface contacts, I could see the virus just about everywhere. In the month of December, we counted the number of hospital visits from May 2020, till December end – 61 days. On those 61 days we had some interface or the other with a hospital or a diagnostic centre.

Since I had no choice but to up my game, I soon became a pro with all movements and safety protocols undergoing a mini SWAT analysis every few weeks. I would feel burdened by this level of vigilance but to tell you the truth, I got used to the drill. 

I did feel vulnerable but it was not of the visceral, morbid kind that I have begun to feel of late. The point I am making is this:

Even during my worst moments and utmost suffering, even when my body was home to “co-morbidities” (that horrible word), the virus did not threaten my being in a way that it now threatens you and me. 

I have asked myself innumerable times in the last few days, why this is so. And the only answer I get is that this burden of mounting collective trauma is perhaps harder to bear.

Also read: Youth Sought Oxygen for Grandfather via Tweet, UP Police File Criminal Case Against Him

I had solace in a treatable disease and even as a cancer patient I could count myself lucky for being afflicted with a treatable version of the malady. But what solace do I seek now, as friends, family, young, old gasp for breath and brave the fury of an unsparing mutant virus. What makes this grief turn quickly to a brimming, overwhelming anger is the realisation that we are here, to a large extent, because our leaders just did not care enough.

They instructed us to love this country above all else, but forgot to give back even a fraction of the love and dignity this country gave them. It is hard to come to terms with this government’s reckless apathy and blatant misuse of power. It really is. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign rally in support of BJP party candidates for the West Bengal Assembly Polls at Gangarampur in South Dinajpur district, Saturday, April 17, 2021. Photo: PTI

The “pharmacy of the world” today is short of vaccines with no plans.

Not just vaccines; oxygen, remdesivir, favipiravir, ivervmectin, doxycycline, azithromycin, zinc based supplements, PPE kits, hospital beds, ventilators, RT-PCR test capacity, crematoriums – all are in short supply. 

The sight of corpses burning on pavements; the horrific news of melting-metal plates in crematoriums; the plight of our aged and struggling parents standing in queues amidst jostling crowds, facing the prospect of breathing in the wanton virus only to return from their expeditions without the jab; the stories of friends, family, young, old in an ever competitive struggle to get access to the scarce life-saving drugs and resources has become a gut wrenching reality of our times.

Human status and dignity lies in tatters, as we scrounge around for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds, and as loved ones are cremated with kerosene and other less holy inflammables. The sights and sounds of this viral apocalypse are so intense that it makes my own anguish pale and seem far away. 

Thomas Paine had warned us long ago that “a body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”

To hold your elected representatives accountable is an equal duty of every citizen. Only when we ask questions is there an obligation to even look for answers. Here are three of mine, drawn from what all of us seem to be asking. They are also three big reasons why we are in, what has been aptly termed, “a viral apocalypse”.

A patient wearing an oxygen mask is wheeled inside a COVID-19 hospital for treatment in Ahmedabad, India, April 26, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave

First: Why is India, one of the largest vaccine producing countries in the world short of COVID-19 vaccines?

Our requirement is of 1.45 billion doses to cover 70% adults. With our vaccine capacity only about 60-65 millions doses a month, this target will take around 22-23 months, if all goes well. These figures were known. What advance agreements, what preemptive purchases, what investments in expansion of domestic capacity were made?

I was discussing this issue with a friend in the US (who votes Democrat). Her reaction, which can be read as the ultimate indictment, was that even Trump knew that he had to make preemptive purchases and enter into firm contractual agreements early on. Why were these contracts and capacity expansion not planned and executed on time?

We understand that India is under obligation to export to countries under the Covax programme. We are also led to understand that AstraZeneca, has sent a legal notice to its vaccine-partner, Serum Institute of India (SII), for its failure to meet its obligations to other countries as a part of the Covax programme.

Also read: Amid India Surge, Gavi Asserts Serum Institute’s Obligation to Supply Vaccines

This is all a bit confusing: we prioritise exports over domestic use in the initial months of this year to meet our export commitments, and yet are served a legal notice for reneging on the same! This only means that there is a capacity issue and that we have not planned and expanded our production to meet both our export and domestic commitments. Is it true that SII submitted a financial application for capacity enhancement in September 2020 and that it has been cleared only last week? 

My second question draws from Suddhabrata Sengupta’s insightful article on the astrology and morality of the Kumbh Mela. Since the ‘current’ Kumbh at Haridwar as per religious protocol was scheduled for 2022, not 2021, “How did it get advanced by one whole lethal year at a time India’s second Covid wave was expected?”

How is that the questionable science of astrology and the questionable ethics of the political class, superseded concerns of life and safety of all? There was enough evidence of wild-fire spread of the double mutant variant of the corona virus. Yet the ruling regime allowed astrological mumbo-jumbo to trump science, worse still, allowed itself the impunity to stake the lives of people. Seventy lakh devotees congregated for a holy dip in Ganga during a pandemic and in a year that could have been traded off for the next. If this isn’t a measure of the ruling regime’s hubris and impunity, what is?

Also read | Kumbh 2021: Astrology, Mortality and the Indifference to Life of Leaders and Stars

Third question: Why were elections in West Bengal (with 294 assembly seats) conducted in eight phases amid a raging pandemic?

Tamil Nadu with 234 assembly constituencies, together with 30 of Puducherry, and 140 of Kerala were conducted in a single phase on one single day – April 6, 2020. Even if we factor-in the communally sensitive nature of West Bengal and history of electoral violence, the rationale for an eight-phase election during a pandemic defies logic.

Villagers stand in queue to cast their vote at the polling station, during the first phase of Uttar Pradesh Gram Panchayat election, in a village Phulpur, Prayagraj, Thursday, April 15, 2021.

What set of reasons and compulsions propelled the Election Commission to sanction these numbers of phases?  The Kumbh mela was driven by astrological nakshatras – were the West Bengal elections similarly driven by the math of electoral nakshatras?

For weeks believers and non-believers, BJP supporters and detractors, experts and common-folks alike, have struggled to come up with plausible answers that doesn’t shatter their faith in a system they chose.

How can the mighty government, led by the largest political party in the world allow bad things to happen to good people? The total amount of suffering, unleashed by both the fury of the mutant virus and the conceit and complicity of those in power is beyond decent contemplation.

During the few hours that it took for me to write this, lakhs will be afflicted, tens of thousands will be running for a supply of breath, and thousands will eventually die as they fall short of it. My questions will endure not because they are the most comprehensive questions asked, but because evil and suffering will endure and adequate answers will prove to be implacably elusive. 

Rajshree Chandra is a political scientist.