Updated: April 27, 2021 11:19:42 am
In the unprecedented Covid crisis, the Centre and Opposition-ruled states face off over critical supplies of oxygen and vaccines. Coming after a long, bitter election campaign in four states and a Union Territory, the divide has hardened. Congress president SONIA GANDHI in an interview to MANOJ C G speaks on the role of the Opposition, the management of the Covid crisis and what needs to be done. Excerpts:
Mrs Gandhi, how is Rahul Gandhi doing? Your son-in-law has recently recovered from Covid, how’s the family?
Rahul is now improving. As you know, Covid is an unpredictable disease and we have to wait and watch for some more days. Of course, I am worried also about Dr Manmohan Singh, and all our other fellow citizens who are facing an unprecedented crisis on account of this pandemic affecting so many loved ones. What is happening is horrifying and I wish everyone the very best and urge everyone to remember that precaution, prevention and treatment are the keys to fighting Covid.
This is one of the worst public health crises in recent times. In the Emergency Room, it is said, a detailed investigation can wait, all hands need to be on deck for critical care. Given this situation, how do you see your role and the role of the Congress?
I feel our role is two-fold. The first is to insist upon transparency and accountability and join with the people to put pressure on the government (to) recognise that nothing is more vital now than to save lives. The abdication of leadership that we are witnessing today is shocking and culpable. It is as if our people have been abandoned by the all-round collapse of governance and relinquishment of responsibility. Therefore, our role as an Opposition to listen to people and to convey their anguish becomes all the more imperative. We have to put as much pressure as possible on the government to act even now. It is still not too late. Timely action, leadership and management of Covid can still save lakhs of lives.
The second is to use our network of workers and leaders to provide as much help, assistance and healing to those who are suffering. Our party has set up control rooms in every state. Our frontal organisations, including Youth Congress, are reaching out…we are pooling our resources to help as many people as possible (with) access to oxygen, beds and medicines…I am regularly in touch with our state governments and so are a number of our colleagues.
What’s your view of the Centre’s Covid crisis management?
The Modi government’s response to the second wave of Corona has been a complete disaster, bordering on utter negligence and leaving the people to fend for themselves. The entire focus has been on the Assembly elections instead of rising to the occasion to provide leadership and management of the huge upsurge in disease. Even now, their decisions are arbitrary and partisan. Their duplicity is inexcusable.
But that’s only one aspect of it. The abdication of governance has been a complete let down. There has been no strategy or preparation at all.
Their own sero-surveys gave ample warning of a second wave, the Parliamentary Committee on Covid produced a 120-page document enumerating the actions they ought to have taken and the Opposition, including the Congress, warned them repeatedly. They ignored all three, even accusing us of spreading panic.
No new facilities were created. The capacity for beds was not increased. The medical sector was not supported financially in any way. The adequate provision of medicines was not done. The necessary economic support to the migrant labour and the disadvantaged by way of Rs 6,000-income support was not provided. They have now proceeded to turn India into an importer of vaccines and oxygen, when we were in effect producing more than enough to cover our needs. They exported 1.1 million vials of Remdesivir without ensuring adequate provisions for fellow Indians.
They have failed on every single front and yet, even as their political opponent, I don’t feel a sense of retribution. I feel deeply, deeply saddened and very angry at what they have done – or more accurately not done. It is truly tragic that we have come to this. Lives are being lost because those in charge didn’t get their priorities right.
The virus doesn’t follow political faultlines. In the first phase, the states worst hit were non-BJP-ruled states but UP and Karnataka curves are rising. Shouldn’t the discourse around Covid be framed beyond party lines?
Firstly, the virus is everywhere. For the last one year, the Congress Party has extended its full cooperation to the government. We believe that fighting Covid is not a “You versus Us” battle but is a “Us versus Corona” battle. This battle is, therefore, beyond political alignments. We have to fight this battle together as a nation. The Modi government must realise that the battle is against Covid, it is not against the Congress or other political opponents.
I was deeply saddened by the contemptuous response of the Modi government to the comprehensive and carefully considered suggestions I have sent as well as those made by Dr Manmohan Singh and Rahul at various times. Is it correct for the Modi government’s ministers to attack Opposition leaders or find faults with Opposition States in the middle of the pandemic, instead of reaching out to work together?
If the government reaches out to the Congress for help and ideas…are you open to sitting down (with them)?
Of course. My answer is an unequivocal yes. This is why we wrote to the Prime Minister giving positive and concrete suggestions and repeatedly offering help. The Congress Party has years of experience in government and disaster management.
What are the key things that need to be addressed right now?
There are so many issues that require immediate attention: making provision for oxygen; stopping black marketeering of medicine; availability of beds; homecare protocols; vaccination; quick testing and tracing; economic support to the disadvantaged and genetic sequencing of the virus apart from general Covid management. Since you ask about priorities, I will say this.
Firstly, immediately divert all resources towards supplying oxygen to hospitals across the country. News report of deaths of patients owing to lack of oxygen in so many places are devastating and reflect criminal callousness on the part of the authorities. Where was the advance planning? Should no one be held accountable? Let us not forget that India is amongst the largest producers of oxygen in the world. We produce 7,500 metric tonnes of oxygen per day. We have enough oxygen to meet our needs. So will the government tell us the reason for the current scarcity of oxygen?
Isn’t it correct that a Parliamentary Standing Committee in its report dated November 21, 2020 asked the government to make adequate provision for oxygen in view of the onslaught of Covid? Why did the government not act upon this report?
…Secondly, bring together the resources of government and industry to immediately supplement the number of beds by creating temporary facilities on a war footing…Due to a lackadaisical and thoughtless approach in the vain belief that the pandemic had been controlled, the number of Covid beds in the country actually declined since January 2021 and now we have an absolute shortage.
…Thirdly, ramp up testing exponentially…Transparency and publicly available data go a long way in ensuring that people abide by safety rules and take precautionary measures. If you try and hide or sugar-coat the facts, if you don’t face up to the reality, you cannot deal realistically with the pandemic.
The Congress is in power in three states, what are the lessons being learnt?
Both Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have surplus oxygen supply. In fact, they have already been assisting other states with it. Punjab and Rajasthan have done a fairly good job as far as vaccinations are concerned. Those states that planned in advance and laid out a clear management strategy have done better.
Even Maharashtra, despite the onslaught of pandemic, has left no stone unturned and the results have just started showing in flattening of the curve of surging infections. Overall, the attitude of governance has to be transparent, accountable, facilitative, cooperative and supportive in crisis rather than opaque, aggressive and heartless.
The Opposition-ruled states have questioned the new vaccination policy?
No other country in the world has such an insensitive and discriminatory vaccine policy. Tragically, we have a situation where we have one nation and five vaccine prices from two vaccine manufacturers. How can the Modi government remain a mute spectator to this brazen profiteering and discriminatory pricing of vaccine? It gives strength to the argument that the government is complicit in vaccine profiteering at the cost of people in the middle of the pandemic.
Let us not forget that India is the largest producer of vaccines in the world. This capacity has been built over last 70 years beginning from the BCG vaccine to becoming an exporter of vaccine in the 1980s. Even for Covid vaccine, WHO ordered vaccines with Indian companies months before we did. India placed its first vaccine order as late as in January, 2021 and that too for a minuscule 1.1 crore doses. Not only this, our government exported 6 crore vaccines between January 2021 to March 2021, while vaccinating less than 4 crore of its own citizens during this period. It delayed approvals and adopted an excessively centralised approach.
Under the new vaccination policy, our own citizens will pay more than the price of export of vaccine from India to other countries. How can this be justified? How can differential pricing be accepted? Government of India should have borne the cost of the entire vaccination and provided it free to all citizens. This would have been the correct way forward instead of creating two groups of people and discriminating with the young in the age group of 18 to 45 years for purpose of vaccination and disowning complete responsibility for vaccinating them.
Do you have specific suggestions that can be worked on immediately?
First, the government should crack down on black marketeering of vital drugs, oxygen and other necessities created by the pandemic and ensure supply of life saving medicines at fixed rates.
Second, ensure oxygen supply to every hospital through seamless logistics. Involve the industry as a partner and make optimum use of Disaster Management Authority for deliverables.
Third, create new and sufficient hospital infrastructure on a war footing through a partnership between government and the private sector. Ramp up testing and tracing massively.
Fourth, financially incentivize our doctors, nurses, paramedical staff, frontline medical workers and other frontline Corona warriors tackling the disease.
Fifth, provide safe transportation of migrant labour from cities by special trains and other means. Ramp up MGNREGA work across the country so that those returning home and those without livelihoods have access to basic income.
Sixth, allocate Rs 6,000 per family income support without any delay.
Finally, divert funds from wasteful and unnecessary projects like the Central Vista. This is not the time for vanity or unnecessary projects. The resources freed are more urgently needed to do all that I have enumerated above.
Isn’t there a need for a political consensus?
A political consensus is essential. We must bring together all stakeholders to fight a calamity like the one we are facing. Unfortunately, the Modi government has repeatedly demonstrated that it prefers coercion to consensus. The Congress party has decades of experience. It has managed many natural disasters. Its knowledge and expertise can be of immense value to the government. I truly believe that challenging times warrant the political leadership to rise above our political differences. We have done so in the past many times. As a country and as a democracy, India has always come together in crisis.
The Covid curve in India started rising again in mid-February. The Congress, too, like other parties, held rallies, street corner meetings and road shows throughout March in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and West Bengal. Didn’t this send out the wrong signal?
You are right, and to be honest, I myself questioned the correctness of an elaborate political campaign in the middle of the pandemic. I had noticed that while those on the stage were fairly protected with masks and some semblance of distance between each other, the crowds were largely not wearing masks and very closely packed.
In fact, I spoke to some of my colleagues regarding holding big rallies once the numbers started rising significantly. Unfortunately, though not a single one disagreed, there was pressure to continue simply because we could not stop unilaterally. The institutional mechanism like the Election Commission was oblivious to issuing any directions or guidelines, which was its essential responsibility. They just looked the other way. At least our party withdrew at some point although it may not have been enough.
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