As a journalist in the Capital for half-a-century, I have witnessed trauma and heartbreak. Connaught Place in flames, rampaging mobs dragging Sikhs from their homes, a migrant exodus of Biblical proportions during the lockdown. Pipe bombs and terror attacks. But the recent explosion of Covid-19 cases and chaos and heartbreak in its wake were different from any previous tragedy. It impacted practically every second home. The signs of impending doom were all around, so how could our planners have failed to respond with greater urgency? The continuous wail of ambulance sirens throughout the night, WhatsApp groups and social media flooded with desperate pleas for help in getting a hospital bed, oxygen cylinders, remdesivir, plasma et al. Each day brought fresh bad news, friends struggling to survive or slipping away. A regular flow of obituaries in the newspapers reminding us that many of yesteryear’s newsmakers were also victims. My husband and I returned from hospital to learn that a dear friend had died in his sleep at home that same night. The result of his test confirming he was positive came only after his death. Not an unusual occurrence since the overburdened labs are deluged with a mounting backlog. The city’s health authorities seem to have thrown up their hands, completely at sea over tracking data.
Tale of two Cities
In March, I spent considerable time in Mumbai, when cases were rising steadily all over Maharashtra, even as we in Delhi with amazing hubris deluded ourselves into believing that the worst was over. Mumbai may have had a very high number of corona cases, but what stood out was the way in which the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation under a dynamic municipal commissioner, Iqbal Singh Chahal, had put systems in place. Instead of a chaotic, uncoordinated central war room, he had divided his city into separate wards and assigned specific responsibilities. I got a first-hand insight of how the system worked since my cousin lived in an apartment block where 40 people tested positive during the month. Amazingly, every single person who required quarantine beds or a hospital bed was accommodated, without anyone having to pull strings. The building manager silently coordinated with the BMC, which allocated a hospital or centre and sent an ambulance within the hour. Chahal is rightfully getting plaudits, but so should his boss. Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray may have a reputation for being laidback, but he realises that delegating authority is the mark of a confident leader. When he appointed Chahal, Thackeray told him that, if you do well, you can take the credit; if you fail, I will take the blame. A contrast to the Capital’s culture, where every official and scientist looks only to the top for inspiration and shies away from individual initiatives. The country’s Principal Scientific Advisor sees nothing ironic in informing us that a third Covid wave is inevitable, in the midst of a second wave, which he failed to properly anticipate. In Delhi, the most concrete help in arranging relief, oxygen cylinders, oxygen dispensers, medicines etc came initially from gurdwaras, NGOs, good Samaritan groups and resident colony associations, not from officialdom.
After patting ourselves on the back a year ago that we were the world’s largest dispenser of vaccines, we now discover that we have a major vaccine shortage. Our leading manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India, has also defaulted on its international commitments that were paid for by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) last year. SII CEO Adar Poonawalla began manufacturing AstraZeneca from October last year, long before the Health Ministry cleared the vaccine in January 2021. By the end of 2020, the SII had stockpiled 200 million doses. Poonawalla risked $200 million of his own money and another $600 million was raised internationally. The Centre took over distribution of vaccines in India and banned exports in March, but still did not spell out its requirements to the manufacturer. Which businessman is going to expand facilities without any clear-cut financial commitment or an offer of investment for ramping up production. The government’s financial clearances came only in late April.
Even after a week, the Central government could not explain to the Delhi High Court just why the Capital was starved of its fair share of oxygen. Patients were gasping for breath and hospitals lived in constant panic that their oxygen supplies would not last the night. Yet oxygen supplies and ventilators airlifted as aid from abroad could be seen lying at Delhi airport hangars. Our bureaucrats have wasted precious time in organising a centralised coordination system to deliver oxygen. The court compared the Central government’s delayed responses to that of an ostrich burying its head in the sand. An apprehension, hopefully untrue, that there is favouritism at play in allocating vital resources to states must be dispelled.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 9, 2021 under the title ‘Delhi’s Darkest Days’.