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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

In Harsh Vardhan’s exit, a Covid admission and course correction

His departure is one of the strongest signals on the handling of the ferocious second Covid-19 wave — to the government’s detractors, it is an admission of its failure; and to its supporters, a much-needed course correction to reassure the country.

Written by Kaunain Sheriff M | New Delhi |
Updated: July 8, 2021 12:06:45 pm
Dr. Harsh Vardhan and his wife take first dose of Covid-19 vaccine at Delhi Heart & Lung Institute in New Delhi (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Of the 12 ministers who resigned ahead of the reshuffle, the one that caught the eye was the exit of Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan.

His departure is one of the strongest signals on the handling of the ferocious second Covid-19 wave — to the government’s detractors, it is an admission of its failure; and to its supporters, a much-needed course correction to reassure the country.

On March 7, Harsh Vardhan announced that it was the “endgame” of the pandemic in India. But cases started to mount in the last week of March and in the run-up to the April crisis over supply of medical oxygen, his role as Health Minister had diminished.

The Prime Minister’s Office, top officials of NITI Aayog, and the empowered groups on Covid-19 took charge of the controls to deal with the situation.

Consider this:

* On March 17, the Prime Minister held a crucial interaction with Chief Ministers in the backdrop of the surge in cases in various states. At that meeting, according to the PMO statement, it was the Home Minister who listed the districts on which the Chief Ministers were asked to focus to contain the spread of the virus; Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan was the one who made the presentation on the surge in Covid cases.

* On April 8, Modi again had an interaction with the CMs on the Covid situation. At this meeting too, the Health Secretary, according to the PMO statement, made a presentation.

* On April 23, the PM chaired a meeting with 11 surge states; and in that meeting, the country’s Covid task force head and NITI Aayog member Dr V K Paul made a presentation.

President Ram Nath Kovind along with the newly appointed Council of Ministers in the Narendra Modi government.(Twitter/narendramodi)

* Modi held multiple meetings in April with key Central government officials, but Harsh Vardhan was missing. On April 4 and April 27, the PM reviewed the pandemic situation at a meeting attended by top officials including the Principal Secretary to PM and the Cabinet Secretary; on April 30, Modi chaired a meeting to review the functioning of different empowered groups. Similarly, he held meetings on April 16, April 22 and April 23 on augmenting medical oxygen availability; at these meetings too, top officials and oxygen manufacturers participated.

Harsh Vardhan, on his part, continued to defend the government by targeting political opponents who criticised the handling of the pandemic.

Attacking Opposition-ruled states, he asked them to take appropriate measures and apply the lessons that the nation had learned the past year from its handling of the pandemic.

On April 7, amid demands from some states to open up vaccination to all above the age 18, the Health Minister slammed the surge states, saying they were trying to “distract attention from their failures and spread panic among the people”. He made these remarks on the eve of a meeting of the Prime Minister with the Chief Ministers.

On April 19, Harsh Vardhan wrote a strong letter to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, accusing Congress leaders and party-ruled states of “spreading falsehoods” and “fuelling vaccine hesitancy… playing with the lives of our countrymen”.

He claimed that “irresponsible public pronouncements” by some Congress leaders had resulted in a “below national average vaccination coverage of senior citizens and even front-line workers in some of the Congress-ruled states” and “it is these very same states that have also become the big contributors in the second wave”.

Much before the second wave, the Indian Medical Association, the country’s largest medical body, had criticised Harsh Vardhan for sharing a stage with Ramdev.

On February 23, Dr J A Jayalal, IMA national president, said Harsh Vardhan should come out with a statement that he was not endorsing the sale of Coronil, a commercial product that Patanjali claimed had received certification from the Ayush Ministry, as a medicine supporting Covid-19 treatment.

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