Rebuttal to the International Press on India’s handling of Covid-19

Let’s turn the clock back to 2020. For many months, the world’s top health body, WHO, unequivocally discouraged the wearing of face masks by the general public. The argument was that it would inculcate a ‘false sense of security in the person wearing a mask. In June 2020, however, and after three months of having declared the n-coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, the WHO changed its stance on wearing face masks in public. The multilateral agency, which receives billions of dollars every year in voluntary contributions from member states and has the world’s top scientists and researchers on its payroll, had no clue until June that face masks were critical in containing the spread of the deadly disease.

The largest contributor to the WHO budget is the United States. Indeed, the country that provides funds to the organization to ensure a coordinated response to any health emergency has the right to seek answers. In May 2020, the then US President condemned the WHO’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and its failure to hold China, the country where the virus originated, accountable. Back then, most experts criticized Trump’s stance, but exactly one year later new evidence has emerged about the unnatural origins of SARS, including how Chinese scientists discussed weaponising coronaviruses and how lab workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell sick during the months preceding the initial outbreak.

That was about the WHO, and how the world’s most powerful health body failed in numerous instances. In India, the turn of events has been a little different. The country managed the initial outbreak with exemplary success, with even the WHO country representative, Dr. Roderico Ofrin, praising the Prime Minister, and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh on different occasions. He specifically highlighted how India’s massive population was a key challenge, but concerted efforts of the government helped achieve positive outcomes. Dr. Ofrin also specifically mentioned elements like ‘accessibility’ and ‘affordability’ of India’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This was a time when India became the fastest country to vaccinate six million people, outpacing the US and the UK by a big margin.

The picture suddenly changed when the second wave struck the country in April 2021. Within a short span, hospitals across the country were overwhelmed, and from drugs to medical oxygen, shortages of almost every critical healthcare facility erupted. There is a famous expression ‘Rome was not built in a day that underlines how great things need extensive hard work. But the mainstream media in India and elsewhere expected Rome to be built in no time. Indeed, the government failed to achieve this feat. In his recent dialogue with India’s External Affairs Minister, the US State Secretary has acknowledged India’s support to the US during the pandemic and said ‘we will never forget India’s help during the initial days of the COVID outbreak. The critics need to note that even the US failed to build Rome in a day.

Risk management is taught to students in every B-school. It is about how unforeseen and uncontrollable external events can disrupt the organization. India, when the second wave struck, was about to witness the same unforeseen event. The Indian constitution places healthcare in the state list because the drafting committee and the constituent assembly held the belief that healthcare has to be micromanaged and it is, therefore, best to delegate this responsibility to respective states. State governments in India always have a health ministry to oversee the management of health services. From hospital beds to the availability of critical medicines, it was the de jure responsibility of respective health ministers to ensure the best possible health infrastructure.

But conspiracies refuse to die. One can recall how one of the world’s richest men, Bill Gates, became the target of COVID-19 conspiracy theorists who promoted an unfounded idea that the pandemic was a cover for some covert plan to implant trackable microchips in humans around the world. The conspiracy theory spread like a wildfire, and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was compelled to address the world press and refute the claim. The scale of the conspiracy theory was such that at one time nearly 30 per cent of Americans believed in it, according to a YouGov poll. What’s more? The Italian Parliament even considered a proposal by an independent MP to refer the multi-billionaire to the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.

Here in India, social media platforms are flooded with conspiracy theories suggesting the culpability of the central government and its ministries during the second wave. Numbers are being manipulated with such flexibility that they are defying all logics and rationality; however, the opposition parties and their social media cells are endorsing them without even considering how it impacts the global image of India. The blame is being pinned on one man considering his image is the cornerstone of the ruling party. The internet has the tendency to love concocted and superficial theories. UFOs are in the news again, and so is Bill Gates for his separation from Melinda Gates. From Bill Gates’ alleged love affairs to Melinda Gates’ desire to replicate the independent woman image of Mackenzie Scott (former wife of world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos), abundant sensationalist claims are available.

However, rationality calls for a little sense. There has yet to be one single drug that can indisputably claim to be a perfect cure of COVID-19. No vaccine in the world has 100 per cent efficacy, and the irony is that India’s covaxin, which was initially resented by the opposition, outshines reputed brands. No scientist or organisation in the world knows what drug would be in demand tomorrow, and hence preparing well in advance is simply not possible. A drug that is being sought today as a likely remedy can lose its pole position tomorrow and even the WHO has a record of changing its stance regularly in this regard. India’s union government never failed, and the subsiding second wave is a testament to how it cooperated with many stubborn state governments to push the vaccine rollout and undertake other health measures.

The debate around what the media must broadcast and publish and what it should not is never-ending. After all, these left and right tilt in any polity date back to many centuries. The US has just proposed the federal budget with spending of over USD 6 trillion. The left media will portray it as a win for the general public, and by contrast, the right-wing media will criticize the high debt-to-GDP ratio besides explaining how it will negatively impact the general public in the long run.

The same international media is even more deeply divided when it comes to reporting India’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. From lockdowns to shortages – that is not India-specific but a global scenario – everything is being criticized heavily by the left-wing media. But that is how it is, and that is how it will be, despite data and its extrapolation being utterly misleading and prejudiced. International media, which sidelined all important events to report on the sensationalist Gates divorce story, has a lot of other sensible and truly journalistic things to do. For example, are there any vested interests that are influencing the acceptance and later rejection of a particular drug or vaccine from a certain manufacturer? At the ground level, are government officials allowing unrestricted flow of government aid to affected people? Many lapses exist at micro levels, but the media’s indifference is not letting truth come out in the open.

Rationality calls for a little sense; it calls for looking at the wider picture and then reaching an informed conclusion, one that is truthful and unprejudiced.

(The article Rebuttal to the International Press on India’s handling of Covid-19 published in ‘Organiser’)

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