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To Hell and Back

Sometime during the Delta wave, when we had already lost two members of my wife’s family to Covid, I spoke to a pollster for a column I was writing.

Did he think Coivd had dented the government’s popularity?


His surveys had revealed, he replied, that nearly every family knew someone who had died of Covid – often it was a member of their own family. How could we expect voters to forget that when they went to the polls?


   I said — perhaps a little cynically —that I wasn’t convinced that this would be the case. In my experience people tended to have short memories  and, in any case, the handling of the pandemic would be spun by a pliant mainstream media and by manipulated social media as a triumph for the government.


   In a week or so we will know if I was right. But just as I was recalling this conversation, I read To Hell and Back, Barkha Dutt’s book about the pandemic. By now, we know what Dutt did. Despite not being backed by a major news organization, she went out on the road, following the migrants on their way back to their villages and reported on Covid from all over India.


   In the process, she not only told us the truth about what was going on but also altered forever the balance between the Davids of digital media and the Goliaths of mainstream media. The newspapers had been content to analyse the progress of the pandemic based on data that was available in Delhi and Mumbai.  News television had turned the crisis into a cartoonish war, inviting politically-aligned guests to shout at each other or, sometimes, inviting well-known Delhi doctors who did not specialize in Covid to tell us what to do and what not to do.


   But Dutt’s reporting changed the narrative. She made the mainstream media focus on the human tragedies of Covid and especially on the entirely avoidable tragedy that was the migrants exodus caused by a hastily-imposed, ill-conceived lockdown. Her reports had a gritty authenticity and as thousands watched them on their phones and computers, the mainstream media narrative finally changed.


   It will be remembered, I believe, as the moment when new media set the agenda and mainstream media found that it had no choice but to follow.


   Have we forgotten the horrors she reported? Are we, in our usual way, blocking out the bad times, buying the spin and moving on? I have a feeling we are but nobody really knows.


   To Hell And Back is an important book; an instructive reminder of what happened during those terrible days. In case you have forgotten, here are some things that Dutt reminds us of.


1) For at least two months, millions of internal migrants (her figure is 100 million), among the country’s poorest citizens, remained on the margins of political, public and media attention, as they walked back to their villages. Five days after the lockdown was imposed and the exodus had begun, the government asked employers to continue paying wages. The order was unenforceable, and payments were usually never made.  The choice before the migrants therefore was stark: stay on in the city and starve or walk home and find some shelter in your villages.


   Why did they have to walk home? Well, because India was one of the few countries in the world to shut down public transport. Over thirteen thousand trains were cancelled nationwide. Local trains, buses, other forms of mass transportation: everything was stopped.


   And then the state unleashed the police force. If migrants were found to be walking in the cities, they were beaten up. Dutt writes about a man she found weeping uncontrollably, outside a Delhi hospital, his body covered in bruises. He had been viciously beaten up by the police and shooed away by hospital staff.


"So would it have made a difference if our vaccine program had not been handled by halfwits? Yes, of course, it would have." 

   There were many thousands of people like him during the lockdown, thrashed by the police, turned away by states which had shut their borders, and left to scrounge for food. Many of them died sad, neglected deaths along the way.


   And yet, on 31 March 2020 the government told the Supreme Court that there were no migrants on the road as of 11am that morning.


2) One rare moment of unity came when millions of Indians, at the government’s urging, stepped out on their balconies to bang thalis. The stated intention was to thank medical workers but in no time at all, organised WhatApp forwards declared that the real idea was to create a cosmic sonic wave that would defeat the virus.


   It is not clear how many people believed this nonsense but what is now clear is that many Indians had no desire to thank healthcare workers. Many doctors and nurses were treated as outcasts in their neighbourhoods and colonies, as potential carriers of Covid. At other places, health care workers were actually assaulted. Dutt notes that India had the highest record in the world of assaults on health care workers.


   Doctors kept dying from Covid. But nobody really cared. Even as late as a few months ago, the bureaucratic establishment denied frontline health workers the booster vaccine doses they were begging for till, in a sudden about turn, the Prime Minister conceded the request.


3) The failures of our vaccination program are well known but they bear repeating. In the US, vaccine hesitancy is a huge problem. In India, on the other hand, anti-vaxxers are not a major factor. Vaccination is the one thing we have always been good at. We make lots of vaccines and our immunisation programs have always been great successes.


   So how did we screw it up this time?  Stupidity – criminal stupidity, perhaps. The government’s first formal order to the Serum Institute on 10th January 2021 was for 11 million doses. This was not even enough to provide the first dose to the adult population of Delhi. And yet the government declared that every Indian would be vaccinated by the end of 2021. To have done that, India needed 10 million doses per day.


   A second manufacturer, Bharat Biotech produced far fewer doses of the vaccines and never quite met the production targets the government (which had cosponsored this vaccine) had declared.


   Vaccines ran out because we ordered too few, too late. The government blamed the failure on non-BJP state governments and increased the gap between the doses, which would make the limited stock of vaccines go further.


   So would it have made a difference if our vaccine program had not been handled by halfwits?


   Yes, of course, it would have. The more you vaccinate people the lower the number of deaths.


4) Just as the bureaucrats screwed up our vaccine programme, politicians behaved with terrible irresponsibility. It wasn’t just election rallies, it was vote-wining gatherings of all kinds. The Kumbh Mela should never have been allowed but the foolish Tirath Singh Rawat, Chief Minister of Uttarkhand declared that Ma Ganga would inoculate devotees from the virus. In UP, teachers in government schools were forced to do election duty. At least, 1600 of them died from exposure to the virus.


5) The feature of the pandemic nobody talks about is that many people did not die from Covid. Some died (especially the migrants) of hunger, heart attacks, exhaustion and the like. Others died from a lack of medical care, especially a lack of hospital beds and oxygen.


   Dutt argues that we mishandled the oxygen shortage, using a war-themed effort that treated Covid as a sudden invasion. In fact, by the time the Delta wave hit, we should have been ready and have adopted a more commonsensical, lower-cost approach. Oxygen plants are not prohibitively expensive and can easily be built at the local level. Dutt gives the example of Nandurbar in Maharashtra where the Collector built a liquid oxygen plant at a cost of Rs. 85 lakh. The district had no shortages while much of India gasped for breath.


   I could go on. To Hell and Back is packed with such instances. Though Barkha Dutt’s video reporting has been praised for the human element which is reflected in the book, this is not just a collection of tragedies and hard luck stories. It is also a deeply analytical book that tells us why so many Indians died, when they could have been saved. She manages to balance the personal with the general, and the individual stories with the bigger story of India’s failure to protect its weakest and poorest citizens because of bureaucratic ineptitude, political opportunism and public heartlessness.


   I have no idea whether my cynical notion that people forget and move on is valid. But reading this book has brought it all back: the pain, the horror, the death and the desperation.


   We must never forget. And we must never let it happen again.



Posted On: 03 Mar 2022 10:47 AM
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