More than once while switching between news channels, have I been fooled by Yogi Adityanath’s devious, deceptive trick. What appears to be a news story about the ‘extraordinary’ success of his government in dealing with Covid is not a news story at all, but you only find this out if you spot ‘impact feature’ written in an obscure corner. The first time I came upon this deceitful self-promotion film was when pictures of corpses floating in the Ganga first appeared. Soon after came reports by some of the world’s best reporters of shallow graves on the river’s sandy banks and proof from crematorium data that the Yogi government was lying about the death toll. Through it all, the Chief Minister continued to calmly tell lies about how 70 teams were wandering in the villages and going house-to-house to test for Covid. He lied brazenly about there being no shortage of beds or oxygen in his hospitals, and now the latest version of his propaganda film claims that Uttar Pradesh is vaccinating its huge population faster than any other state.
When I listened to the Prime Minister’s speech last week, I saw him make a similar attempt to use denial to distract from reality. Modi began by saying that till he took office in 2014 only 60 per cent of India had been vaccinated. If this were true, we would not have been able to eliminate smallpox and polio. He then declared that he first changed his vaccination policy at the request of chief ministers and was taking charge of vaccine procurement once more because state governments had failed. The truth is that when it was discovered at the height of the second Covid wave that India was desperately short of vaccines, his Vaccination Task Force hastily passed the problem onto state governments. Why nobody in this task force has been sacked yet is a question that this column has asked before and will continue to ask till heads roll.
The truth is that the Prime Minister himself only realised the desperate need for vaccinations after the second Covid arrived ferociously, and his first response was a gimmick. He declared that there would be a Vaccination Utsav for four days from April 11. He boasted that we had defeated the first Covid wave without vaccines. Then he left it to members of his task force to act as spokesmen and all they did was make tall claims about how everyone would be vaccinated by December. If they do somehow manage to procure 216 crore doses by then, how are they going to get them into people’s arms?
Only when they stop lying to themselves and us will our officials realise that what they need to do on a war footing is to build rural health facilities. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are states in which I have travelled extensively more often than I can remember, so trust me when I tell you that rural hospitals, primary health centres and sub-centres exist mostly on paper. They are usually filthy dumps in which basic hygiene is unknown and often they function without electricity or clean water. So where and how will vaccines be safely stored if electricity is nonexistent or unreliable? Rural hospitals lack such basic things as ambulances and clean toilets. All these things will be needed in the next few months.
Once the physical infrastructure is built there will come the problem of training rural health workers on how to maintain Covid protocols and how to vaccinate on a huge scale. It will be their responsibility to vaccinate more than half the population of India. It will be their responsibility to ensure that vaccinations are stored at the right temperature so that they do not go bad before being used. Has the Prime Minister’s vaccination task force come up with a training programme? There is no point in saying that healthcare is a state subject, because it is not in pandemic times, just as the procurement of vaccines cannot be.
When Yogi Adityanath stops promoting himself he may discover that his huge budget for self-promotion will be much better spent on educating his semi-literate rural population on how important it is to get vaccinated. Many continue to refuse vaccinations because of rumours that they cause impotency and death. It does not help that an Indian icon like Baba Ramdev has said very bad things about doctors and allopathy. He seems now to have changed his views and agreed to get vaccinated himself, but the damage that he has done is incalculable. If we are to deal with Covid’s third wave more competently than we have dealt with the second, then there must be an urgency injected into this war. We do not see this yet.
Last week we saw Yogi Adityanath in meetings with the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, and we saw an important Congress leader join the BJP with much publicity and fanfare. None of these political shenanigans will help the BJP win elections in Uttar Pradesh next summer if a third wave rages through the state like the second wave did. This will be the first election in which the most important issue is going to be healthcare. This is good because India cannot afford any more mistakes in dealing with the worst calamity we have faced in living memory. There can be no more bungling.