The India Cable: Infections Set New Record Every Day; After Oxygen Crisis, Expect Vaccine Chaos

Plus: Delhi HC commends India to God, more nations impose bans on India flights, SC treads on HC turf, faces pushback, Indian DSRVs seek lost Indonesian sub, Bobde bows out of inglorious term

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
April 23, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India registered 332,730 fresh infections yesterday, setting a new global record for a single day. There were 2,263 deaths yesterday, out of a total of nearly 1.87 lakh. Cumulatively, India has had more than 16 million cases, of which 2.48 million are active. There are concerns that the death toll from a ferocious new Covid-19 wave may be much higher than official records, which underplay the scale of a resurgence that is overwhelming the country’s medical system. “The country is being run by God,” the Delhi High Court has said in exasperation. At this point, even the staunchest devotees couldn’t possibly presume that the judge was referring to their personal ‘God’. 

Images of funeral pyres from a cremation ground in Delhi tell their own story. The crisis is making headlines at The Hill. The last scheduled flight from India before it is put on the ‘red list’, operated by Vistara, landed in London Heathrow early this morning, our time. The UAE has banned travel from India for 10 days from Sunday due to the worsening Covid-19 situation in the country, as has Singapore. This morning, Canada imposed a month-long ban on flights from India and Pakistan ― flights from India make up 20% of inbound traffic, but 50% of positive cases detected. Israel has issued a travel advisory warning its nationals, including those who have recovered from or been vaccinated against Covid-19, to refrain from travelling to India.

“Forget the common man on the street, even if I were to ask for a bed, it would not be available right now,” Justice Vipin Sanghi of the Delhi High Court remarked yesterday, looking at the shortage of beds at Covid-19 hospitals in the national capital. That tells you of the state of affairs in the country, where the Modi government followed a strategy that emphasised victim-blaming, and criminalised and stigmatised public behaviour during the pandemic instead of communicating risk containment strategies. As a gentleman quipped, “When did they invoke the Disaster Mismanagement Act?”

The Supreme Court has on its own taken cognizance of a “national health emergency” and directed the Centre to provide today a national plan for the supply of oxygen, medicines and vaccines. 

Under tremendous pressure from the Opposition and facing the outrage from the suffering public, Narendra Modi was forced to cancel his travel plans to West Bengal today, although he is campaigning even today, in dematerialised form. His lieutenant Amit Shah was campaigning at full throttle in West Bengal yesterday, mostly without a mask and ignoring social distancing rules. And once more, the party dangles the bait that Nirmala Sitharaman had thrown at Bihar’s voters last year ― free jabs. Sadly, some voters will be taken in again.

The Election Commission has evidently chosen to look the other way or, like Modi himself, the Commission is also wearing its mask a little too high.

Meanwhile, the states are demanding a reduction in the GST rate on Covid medicines, medical oxygen and related equipment like Remdesivir, from the present 12%. States want the central government to convene a meeting of the GST Council, which has not met for the last six months.

In Kerala, the state once described by Modi as Somalia, people are coming together to contribute to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund, as the state has announced free vaccination for the age group of 18 to 45. Yesterday’s contributions crossed Rs 30 lakh. 

The music composer Shravan Rathod, half of the chartbusting Nadeem-Shravan duo of Nineties Bollywood ― starting with Aashiqui (1990) ― has succumbed to complications related to Covid-19 in Mumbai. He was 66. 


Senior lawyers push back against Supreme Court

The Supreme Court yesterday took suo motu cognizance of various issues arising out of the second wave of the pandemic in India. It also expressed its inclination to withdraw various suo motu cases already taken up by high courts on related issues. A day before his retirement, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde orally observed that the High Court’s interventions, despite the best intentions, were “creating confusion and diversion of resources”. However, in the absence of a stay on high court cases from the top court, at least three high courts ― of Delhi, Bombay and Madras ― carried on hearing suo motu cases. “Till the matter goes to the Supreme Court, this is not a matter we can adjourn,” the Delhi High Court made it clear.

The Supreme Court is being widely criticised within the legal community for its decision to take suo moto cognizance of Covid-19 related issues while the high courts are already dealing with them. Senior lawyers termed it “unjustified”. The Supreme Court today took offence to the criticism by senior advocates who pushed back but in typical fashion, the CJI-headed bench adjourned the case to Tuesday, and relieved Harish Salve as an amicus curiae in the matter on his request. Urging the Supreme Court to allow the high courts to deal with Covid-19 related issues at the local level, the Supreme Court Bar Association has filed an intervening application in the Supreme Court in the suo moto case. 


After oxygen crisis, expect vaccine chaos

Was the Modi government prepared for the second wave of the pandemic? Even as the country suffered its most calamitous surge, the country’s national scientific task force on Covid-19, which is supposed to advise the central government on its response to the pandemic, did not meet even once during February and March. The task force met on January 11, and then on April 15 and 21, after the surge hit. That easily nails the lie of BJP’s IT cell chief, who is not the smartest bot at the best of times.

It is now evident that the Modi government overestimated India’s capacity to make COVID vaccines. An analysis of the latest iteration of its vaccine policy shows that the states and private sector now bear twice the burden that the Centre has borne all these months, and barely had a few days to prepare for it. The lack of forward planning means that there won’t be any meaningful increase in vaccine supply, domestic or imported, until June. Without coordination between the Centre, states and private sector on price, supply and delivery of vaccines, there could be chaos, as with the oxygen supply right now. But the question that is agitating most minds is: why is India learning details of its vaccination strategy from Adar Poonawalla and not the Centre?

Pfizer has offered a “not-for-profit” price for its vaccine for the government immunisation program in India but is yet to get a response. India will start receiving Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine by end-May, as per its local distributor, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories. That’s later than expected, and could slow the country’s immunisation drive some more. Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot coronavirus vaccine is expected to be imported for “fill and finish” by June or July this year. And the registration for vaccination against Covid-19 for all aged above 18 will begin on the CoWIN platform and Aarogya Setu app from April 28.


Indian DSRVs seek lost Indonesian sub

The Indian Navy has deployed its deep submergence rescue vehicles, acquired in 2018, to locate an Indonesian Navy submarine which disappeared north of Bali with 53 sailors on board. The German-built submarine KRI Nanggala has less than 72 hours’ worth of oxygen on board. Regional navies, including those of Singapore and Malaysia, have swung into action and the US, Australia, France and Germany have offered help. Indonesia shares a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with India, which is bound to give assistance. It is also important for projecting India as the regional naval power with the biggest and best resourced navy.


Bobde to bow out at midnight

Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde retires today, bringing to an end one of the longest terms at the helm in recent memory. His last hearing will be of a suo motu case regarding the Covid-19 crisis engulfing the country. This case perfectly encapsulates his legacy as Chief Justice of India. Senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde says, “His leadership of the institution, during a time of national crisis, has not led to any enhancement of its stature.” Gautam Bhatia is scathing: “Evasion, hypocrisy and duplicity: the legacy of Chief Justice Bobde.” In a tenure of 15 months, there have been no rulings on major constitutional matters, no matter how urgent – even though time has been found for pointless contempt of court cases. No appointments have been made to the Supreme Court, though there are five vacancies, four of which came up during his tenure.

“As CJI, Bobde has only caused disappointment with his silence, letting the executive have its way and even making strong remarks on sensitive issues and subjects. He has kept important matters pending, and has hardly intervened to provide any relief to the most marginalised or the weak in India,” says Prashant Bhushan. In 15 months, the government has not been held to account even once, and the Solicitor General and other government counsel have been given carte blanche to say what they want in case after case, and were never questioned. The failure to hear arguments on urgent matters, whether the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the status of Kashmir, electoral bonds or even the contested farm laws, cannot be excused on the plea of Covid-19. Not when the court could devote hearing after hearing to contempt proceedings against Prashant Bhushan. The failure to rule on Siddique Kappan’s habeas corpus for six months – even to dismiss it if necessary – cannot be excused when the court could (rightly) take up Arnab Goswami’s case and wrap it up in a day.


The Long Cable

Too late, Centre seeks breathing room amid oxygen crisis

MK Venu 

Providing hospitals with an adequate supply of oxygen remains a challenge, as doctors say they continue to monitor oxygen supplies from hour to hour. In desperation, hospitals have started rationing oxygen to Covid patients, and the 25 sickest patients in Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, one of Delhi’s finest, may have died due to low oxygen pressure.

A little too late, the Centre yesterday invoked the Disaster Management Authority Act to fully empower district magistrates and police to let oxygen tankers move freely without restrictions imposed by state governments. Until a few days ago, the Centre was suggesting that India has enough oxygen production capacity ― 7,400 metric tonnes. The real problem was supply logistics, mainly the lack of tankers. Since then, the Centre has been making efforts, in partnership with industry, to improve logistics by using the railways infrastructure and converting special tankers transporting industrial gases like nitrogen into oxygen tankers. Empty tankers are being transported by military aircraft. The government has also placed orders for the import of oxygen.

The effects of all these measures will be felt at least a week later, and the immediate situation remains grave. Experts reckon that the demand for oxygen may have exceeded the existing national production capacity of 7,400 metric tonnes. We may continue to face shortages even if transport logistics are improved. The demand for oxygen has grown by over 50% in the last fortnight alone. Delhi, for instance, has been allocated a higher oxygen supply quota of 480 metric tonnes but its present requirement is 700 tonnes. Other states like Maharashtra, MP and UP may have a similar story.

Clearly, the Centre had not anticipated such a big surge in demand for oxygen, largely because it had become too sanguine that India had managed to tackle Covid better than most other countries. Now, doctors are having to ration oxygen and they are telling patients with oxygen levels as low as 92-94 to make do by lying prone to increase the efficiency of their natural breathing. In many hospitals, several patients are sharing a single oxygen outlet.

Until a few months ago, oxygen concentrators were available on Amazon and were being delivered home on demand. Now, even concentrators are scarce, and companies are making fresh imports. Russia has offered to send a shipment of oxygen. To contain public anxieties, the Centre should give citizens an idea of the timeline for such shipments to arrive on our shores.

The measures initiated will take some time to relieve the crisis, maybe upto a fortnight. Meanwhile, patients are arriving in the hundreds to seek beds and oxygen, and most small hospitals have been forced to put up notices, saying that no further admissions are possible. 

The CEO of a top private hospital told me that Delhi is a hub for big hospitals because it attracts patients from UP, Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab. Delhi has about 150 large hospitals with over 300-400 beds. A few days ago, Dr Mathew Verghese, head of St Stephen’s Hospital, said that he had over 312 Covid patients on oxygen, and at one point, he had only a few hours of supply left. The Max Group of hospitals, with over 1,500 beds in different locations, had to move the high court to secure oxygen supply. Delhi hospital heads say they are constantly tracking online the movements of their oxygen tankers. 

This is an unprecedented national crisis, largely of our own making. There has been a lack of the foresight to anticipate problems and of the intellectual capacity to put adequate governance structures in place. The Supreme Court, which has sought from the Centre a plan to deal with this national emergency today, is very much part of this growing apathy and insensitivity, and only the High Courts are fighting for the citizen’s right to breathe.


Reportedly

Former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’ blue-eyed officers are seeking the “cooler climes” of a central deputation to escape the heat of the SS-NCP-INC state government. The list is rather self-evident. GST Commissioner Sanjeev Kumar, a 1993-batch IAS officer, has taken over as chairman of the Airports Authority of India, while Best general manager SK Bagde has been appointed additional secretary in the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. Former DGP SK Jaiswal has taken over as Director General of CISF while former state intelligence commissioner Rashmi Shukla has now gone to the CRPF. Another senior IPS officer, Manoj Kumar Sharma, who was in the Maharashtra State Security Corporation, has taken up a central deputation. It clearly helps to have the BJP ruling at the Centre, but such an exodus may not help the state.


WWI Indian soldiers not commemorated

Entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism embedded in imperial attitudes meant that nearly 50,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire during World War I were not commemorated like other fallen soldiers, finds a new British review entitled ‘Review of Historical Inequalities in Commemoration’. It found that an estimated 45,000-54,000 casualties, predominantly Indian, East African, West African, Egyptian and Somali personnel, were commemorated unequally. A further 116,000 casualties, or perhaps as many as 350,000, were not commemorated by name, or possibly not commemorated at all. 


Prime number: Rs 67,193 crore

That is the cost of vaccinating all citizens above the age of 18 against Covid-19, as per Ind-Ra. Of this, all the states put together would incur Rs 46,323 crore and the Centre only Rs 20,870 crore. Incidentally, the central government had allocated Rs 35,000 crore for vaccination in the Budget presented in February ― just over half the required outlay.


Kerala journalists’ union pleads for Kappan

Citing a medical emergency, the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) has moved the Supreme Court seeking the transfer of Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) or Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi. In its plea, the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) has submitted that on April 20, 2021, Kappan collapsed in the bathroom, suffered serious injuries and later tested positive for Covid-19 and is now in a Mathura hospital. Considering his deteriorating health status, he should be moved.


Deep Dive

Why oxygen

India’s pace of adding dedicated facilities and oxygen-supported beds for severe Covid-19 cases slowed after the first wave peaked, and dipped by the second wave, data show. This study investigates the implications amid oxygen shortages across the country, and draws lessons for future surges. India’s oxygen reserves are fast depleting. Based on current demand, it may run out of stocks in a few weeks, even if all of oxygen production is diverted to medical use.


‘Love jihad’ myth strikes at foundations of India 

Delving into her colourful personal history of moving from Pakistan to India as a refugee at a young age, senior advocate and human rights activist Indira Jaising poignantly describes why secularism is such an integral component of the idea of India. She warns that the recent spate of state laws outlawing interfaith marriages whittle away at this foundational principle.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • India doesn’t have many arrows left in its quiver as the US leaves Afghanistan, so close to its borders, effectively in Taliban control, reminding New Delhi of the real limits of its power, writes Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) in Foreign Policy.

  • Asking state governments to compete in the open market for vaccine procurement, while the Centre keeps an assured quota for itself, is manifestly arbitrary and discriminatory, writes Manu Sebastian.

  • Apoorvanand writes that history will remember that the Modi government used the pandemic to fragment Indian society, turn sections of people against each other, and left people to fend for themselves.

  • India’s 1.6 million new Covid-19 cases in the past week have overwhelmed the country and are breaking its health system, write Suparna Chaudhry and Shubha Kamala Prasad in Washington Post.

  • The endeavour of the unofficial spokesperson(s) of the government is to obfuscate the reality and shape public opinion, possibly for an ‘unfavourable disengagement’ in Depsang Plains and Gogra-Hot Springs, writes Lt Gen HS Panag (retd).

Listen up

“This is a tragedy for India, but it risks becoming a tragedy for the wider world.” This is what The Economist’s The Intelligence podcast discusses, because mass gatherings and in-person voting continue, even as new case numbers smash records and fatalities spiral in public view. It asks how a seeming pandemic success has turned so suddenly tragic. 

Watch Out

Yahoo! News medical contributor Dr Kavita Patel explains what could be behind the recent surge of coronavirus infections in India, and why the US should worry about it.

Over and out

A thief who had fled with a bag containing over 1,700 doses of Covid-19 vaccine in Haryana’s Jind later had a change of heart. The unknown accused returned the haul with a note of apology, saying that he hadn’t known what the contents of the bag were. He displayed a healthier conscience than some of the people at the helm of the country.

That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.