New Delhi: In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with PTI, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Saturday said the entire world is shaken by the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in India and there are queues everywhere, whether for oxygen cylinders, for life-saving medicines, for hospital beds and even outside crematoriums.
He accused the government of misreading and mishandling the situation and alleged that all early warning signs were ignored, including from scientists.
Here is the transcript of the interview:
The second wave of coronavirus has hit India hard. We see people gasping for medical aid, medicines, oxygen. They have no access to facilities in the national capital and across the country. How do you see the situation and the response of the government?
It breaks my heart every single day to wake up to the absolute devastation around us. This is not a wave; it is a tsunami that has destroyed everything in its wake. There are never-ending queues everywhere. There are queues to get an oxygen cylinder, queues to refill the cylinder, queues to get life-saving medicines, queues to get a hospital bed, and now there are queues outside crematoriums.
There is a fatal shortage of every single item we need to tackle COVID-19. Our capital’s best hospitals are bursting at the seams. We are getting frantic SOS calls for oxygen from India’s top doctors. Hospitals are petitioning high courts for oxygen. Our healthcare workers are seeing patients die in front of their eyes, they cannot save people. India is now the world’s coronavirus epicentre. The entire world is shaken by what they are seeing in India.
None of this should have happened. There were multiple early warning signs. Forget the signs, scientists clearly warned the government this would happen they ignored them. We could and should have been much better prepared. And now, where is the government in this crisis? It is completely missing in action. They are obsessed only with saving the Prime Minister’s image and blaming others. The new buzzword is that the system’ has failed. Who is this system’? Who runs the system’? It’s just a ploy to avoid admitting responsibility.
Did the government falter in assessing the COVID situation? Who is at fault?
Absolutely. The prime minister is at fault. He runs a highly centralised and personalised government machinery, is solely and substantially devoted to building his own brand, is utterly focused on imagery rather than substance. The fact is that this government completely failed to understand or to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic – right from the very beginning, despite repeated warnings. Since the very start of this pandemic back in 2020, I kept trying to warn the government about the disaster ahead if we did not urgently prepare but they attacked me and ridiculed me. It’s not just me anyone who tried to sound the alarm, the state callously and thoughtlessly ignored.
Modi government let this virus enter India through our airports in February and March of 2020. And then it panicked and without consultation or thought imposed the world’s harshest lockdown. Migrant workers were left to fend for themselves and an unprecedented exodus began from the cities. The poorest of the poor were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres home with no support, no aid, no assistance. In his sheer ignorance, the prime minister said he would defeat the virus in 21 days, akin to the battle of Mahabharata!
Modi government is plainly arrogant and focuses on perception over reality – declaring victory against the virus is absolute insanity and demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the nature of what this virus is. The only way to fight corona is with humility and by realising that you are faced with a relentless opponent, who can adapt and is very resilient. The prime minister had an entire year to better prepare, protect India, and think through this crisis but what did they do?
Did the prime minister and the govt add sufficient oxygen capacity, ramp up testing, increase hospital beds, ventilators? Did the prime minister think long-term about the state of our health infrastructure and start building for the sort of subsequent corona waves that almost every country in the world was experiencing? It was sheer luck that we emerged out of last year’s nightmare, to a point where we had less than 10,000 new cases in a day early in 2021. We were not testing enough then. We are not testing enough now. Where was the preparation for this massive second wave? Why were the jumbo facilities put up last year dismantled? Why did they raise oxygen exports over 700% – think of that number, 700% – in the months before this brutal second wave?
What could the government have done differently to address the second wave?
The Modi government was both grossly negligent and blindly overconfident. The Bharatiya Janata Party announced the end of the pandemic and congratulated the prime minister for his success even as the second wave was just beginning. The prime minister himself is on record as having said that India had successfully fought the pandemic and won. In reality, there was no coherent strategy.
One, the government should have built massive capacity over the last year testing, oxygen, hospital beds, ventilators. Two, they should not have declared victory prematurely. Three, the prime minister and his government did not even acknowledge there was a problem. How can you fix something you don’t even accept exists? Four, the government did not act on scientific advice or evidence. They continuously ignored rising cases and were busy instead with election campaigns. They encouraged super-spreader events. They even bragged about them.
Our prime minister and home minister were not even wearing masks in public over the past few months. What sort of a message is that sending to citizens? Five, most importantly, the only solution we have is vaccination. We are supposed to be the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world. And yet, India is desperately short of vaccines. We are making them, why weren’t our people first in line to be vaccinated? If that is not a failure to plan and execute, what is?
With India seeing around four lakh cases a day, the highest in the world, is there a case for the national emergency considering the unprecedented crisis?
We are already in the midst of a national emergency. But just declaring something is not the answer. The biggest problem of this government is it announces and then absconds. Now that the situation is completely out of control, they have dropped the ball and thrown it to the states. They have made the states and citizens truly ‘Aatmanirbhar’. Rely on yourself is the motto. No one will come to help you. Definitely, not the prime minister. The need of the hour is to hold hands, work together and heal our people.
India must be the only country in the world facing this massive pandemic without the guidance of an expert and empowered group that is charged with fighting the virus and protecting the people, with planning ahead, anticipating needs and taking the decisions that will result in swift action to save lives.
The Government of India has said it repeatedly warned states about the second wave and asked them to map the need for essential supplies like oxygen, ICU beds, and continue with containment efforts. Would you say the current situation is a collective failure of the Centre and states?
The entire country has already been under the Epidemic Act for more than a year. The Centre has absolute power over states under the Act. This is a government that wants to control everything. When cases went down, they declared victory, and the prime minister took all the credit as he always does. Now that the situation is terrible, why are you blaming the states? Out of 162 oxygen plants sanctioned in October by the Centre, only 33 are functional. This was set up with the PM-CARES funds.
The Modi government took tens of thousands of crores of donations in his name, without any transparency, without any accountability. The states have rejected the sub-standard ventilators supplied by the Centre through these funds. States do not even get their GST dues on time. States are dependent on the Modi government for quotas of oxygen, Remdesivir and Tocilizumab injections. The Modi government has chained the hands of the states behind their backs, so they are completely powerless, and then asks them to sort out their own affairs. Obviously, the system will collapse.
Adult vaccinations are starting on May 1 along the lines you demanded, but states say they cannot start as they do not have the vaccines. What is your view? Did you seek the expansion of vaccinations too early? The UK will start adult vaccines from June?
First, the government set a target of vaccinating 300 million by August. This is the above 45-age category. They managed to fully vaccinate not even 2% of the total population. With the mounting pressure of the government not vaccinating enough, they added another 600 million to the list, by starting vaccinations for the 18+ group from May 1. But where are the vaccines?
Why did the Modi government abandon the people between age groups of 18 to 44 years by refusing to take responsibility for their vaccination? Why is there a discriminatory policy on the pricing of vaccines? Why should there be five different prices for the same vaccine? What is the strategy beyond two companies? How can that suffice for almost one billion people? We need two billion doses. Now, they are scrambling for vaccines. The numbers just don’t add up.
You have said the liberalised vaccine policy is discriminatory. Vaccine makers have reduced prices for states. Your comments?
This is the story of ‘discount sale’, where you mark up the price, and then make a show of reducing it. It is a complete eyewash. Why should states pay more than the Centre to buy vaccines? Why should the states be left to fend for themselves? Why should there be a difference in price for vaccines for the Centre, the states and the private hospitals? Why should the price of the vaccine even for the two companies be different? Why the discrepancy? After all, even when states pay for the vaccination of those between the age groups of 18 to 44 years, it is taxpayer’s money.
The government has not invoked compulsory licensing for vaccines despite repeated calls by Congress?
Dr Manmohan Singh asked for compulsory licensing in his letter to the prime minister. The Congress president has repeated it several times now. Other countries have done this. The US ramped up its vaccine production using their Defense Production Act. We have to do whatever it takes, within our laws, to ramp up the domestic production of vaccines here. We have a domestic manufacturing base. We can manufacture for both India and the world. All the industry needs are licenses and raw materials. It should have been done months ago.
The Congress party has said it is willing to work together with the Centre in the fight against the coronavirus. How will you make it accountable then?
The Congress party has said from day one that it is willing to work with the government in the fight against the coronavirus and for a year now, even in just the last few days, the Congress president has repeated this position very clearly. We have been consistently giving suggestions on all possible forums. Forget taking them seriously, the government has not even meaningfully acknowledged these suggestions.
I see no contradiction in working together with the government in times of unprecedented crisis while at the same time holding it accountable for its decisions. The problem arises when the government doesn’t believe in consultation, in carrying everyone along, in tapping expertise it lacks. This government seems to think that acknowledging help is needed is a sign of weakness. The hubris and pettiness of this government are unbelievable.
The Madras high court has held the Election Commission responsible for the COVID-19 situation. Your views?
The court was echoing a widely held view. In the past seven years, like so many other institutions, the Election Commission of India has also crumbled. The court has said what it believes, I don’t want to make any further comment. Let your readers judge for themselves.
Our Institutions are a warning system – they give us feedback and information on how to respond to crisis but our institutions have been completely destroyed and taken over.
The press, judiciary, election commission, bureaucracy – none of them have played their role of guardian/watchdog. This means India today is like a ship in a storm, sailing without any information.
Coronavirus is just part of the problem – the real problem is that India now doesn’t have the capacity to respond to any major crisis because of what has been done to its systems over the last six years.
There have been demands within for internal elections and a new Congress president? Are you ready to lead again in such times, especially when there are demands from various quarters within for you to lead?
I have always favoured internal organisational elections within the Congress and these will be conducted in time. It is for the party workers to decide as to who should lead the party. I will do whatever the party wants me to do. But right now the focus is on controlling the pandemic, saving lives, and alleviating India’s widespread suffering and pain. There will be time for everything else in due course.