Among the states affected by the second wave of Covid-19, Uttar Pradesh exemplifies the mix of incompetence and callousness that has characterised the Indian state response to the crisis the most. UP is witnessing some of the most brutal effects: No oxygen, no ventilators, no hospital beds, shortage of medicines, overcrowded crematoriums and cemeteries, and black marketeers. The crisis is compounded by a government that insists that there are no shortages, and points to relatively low “official” numbers of positive cases and deaths. Recent data shows that testing went down by 20 per cent two weeks ago as test positivity increased to 18 per cent in the same period. Testing has since gone up in the state.
Beyond denialism, the then Covid-positive chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, announced that citizens reporting shortages would be detained under the National Security Act for “spreading rumours” and “spoiling the atmosphere” and that their property would be seized. Nowhere else in the world has anti-terrorist legislation been invoked to threaten citizens voicing their needs during a pandemic, adding fear to their despair.
When the foreign press started publishing images of overflowing crematoriums in the capital, Lucknow, the state response was to board them up. A government that seeks to deny problems, suppress information, manipulate data is a government that has lost control.
Lucknow is merely the tip of the iceberg. Far away from the state capital, the stories of suffering in small villages are yet to be adequately reported. Small community health centres with very basic facilities often service dozens of villages. Many districts are not even reporting Covid deaths because people are simply not being tested. This is despite the fact that one can find innumerable reports on social media of patients coming in with fever and breathlessness and then collapsing. Neither the government nor private hospitals have sufficient oxygen supplies. Whereas people in cities are now seeing the effect of a collapsing health infrastructure, this was already a stark reality for people in rural areas.
The rot is not confined to the party in power. Institutions in UP are weak and demonstrate similar disregard for human life. The Allahabad High Court allowed the four-phase panchayat elections to be held over two weeks, in the midst of a surge of infections, against expert advice. According to reports, including from an RSS-affiliated organisation, several teachers and police forces called on panchayat polling duties have already died from Covid. Though the State Election Commission denies that these deaths are linked to polling, it has been upbraided by the same Court that pushed for the organisation of these elections in the first place.
Many civil servants of the UP bureaucracy are doing whatever they can to provide assistance to the people. However, they work under a shadow of fear, repression and incompetence — which hamper their efforts.
Now in the fourth week of the surge, the state government is finally taking measures that should have been implemented months ago: Increasing the number of hospital beds, placing vaccine orders on the global market, ordering the building of oxygen plants — contradicting its own statements that everything is under control in UP. These welcome steps, nonetheless, remain woefully insufficient.
As Christophe Jaffrelot has recently argued, the Covid catastrophe accentuates existing fault lines of the political regime. There is a pattern in UP of deploying state machinery and using the law for extra-judicial goals and unleashing state repression. Last year, it ordered the confiscation of the property of people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Cash rewards were promised to those helping with their arrest, and photographs of protesters, along with their addresses, were plastered on giant hoardings in Lucknow. It also revived the 1986 Gangster and Anti-Social Activities Act to unleash India’s largest state-sponsored wave of police encounters.
Recall the story of Dr Kafeel Khan from Gorakhpur, who bought oxygen with his own money in 2017 when supplies ran out at the hospital he worked in. Thirty children had died in two days but the government denied that this was due to oxygen shortages. Khan was jailed for nine months and a public backlash against his arrest was given communal overtones by the BJP. The underlying problem remained unaddressed. The first wave of the pandemic, in March 2020, was also communalised as Muslims were portrayed as being responsible for the spread of the disease.
The severity and ferocity of the second wave has, for now, silenced some of these communal voices. People across all classes, castes and religions are affected. Civic response to the crisis has been the only source of light in this darkness, as people unite to help each other in life and in death. Citizen groups are creating oxygen banks and community-run kitchens are feeding the poor. Volunteers, irrespective of their religion, are performing the last rites of cremation and burial. This upsurge of solidarity brings a glimmer of hope, while the divisions stoked by the regime in place in Lucknow since 2017 are held in abeyance.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, such solidarity may pose the biggest threat to BJP politics, which relies heavily on sowing division. For every crisis since demonetisation, they have deflected blame and directed public anger towards some “other” but now that the virus is at everyone’s doorstep — including BJP’s gau rakshaks, RSS’s karyakartas — only the government can be blamed for callousness and incompetence.
In Epidemics and Society: From the Black death to the present, Frank Snowden writes: “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning… every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”
The BJP may later seek to project the epidemic as an act of God or a foreign import, something beyond control. However, while the virus may be a force of nature, the BJP government’s response to the pandemic has exposed the heartless, instrumental and calculating features of their politics, where everything is subordinate to political and electoral gains. To this mix of incompetence and callousness, the UP government has added denialism and state repression. India need not have suffered on this scale. To prevent the recurrence of such devastating tragedy in the future, we must use the pandemic to hold a mirror up to our priorities as a society.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 10, 2021 under the title ‘A list of dont’s’. Mahmudabad is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Ashoka University and member, Samajwadi Party; Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University. Views are personal