The India Cable: Officials Undercount and Indians Pay the Price; ‘System’ Blocks Critics on Internet

Plus: World offers aid to India, pharma cos could make Rs 1.11 lakh crore from differential pricing, Kolkata braces for surge, ‘Kappan chained like an animal’, newspaper group suspends IPL coverage

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 26, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

To begin with, the most important news: CSK beat RCB by 69 runs and Delhi Capitals defeated Sunrisers Hyderabad in a super-over. This is the state of play in the Indian Premier League, run by the BCCI, which in turn is run by Jay Shah, son of Home Minister Amit Shah. The league runs unabated while India ‘officially’ reported 352,091 new coronavirus infections and 2,812 deaths this morning. Opinion is divided on its propriety. Most find it jarring. A minority think that in hard times, people need bread and circuses, or at least circuses. Indian cricketers are notably silent on the issue, though Ashwin Ravi dropped out of the IPL last night, citing the pandemic. But across the border, the usually rough and ready Rawalpindi Express says that in a pandemic, we’re all in it together.

The press overseas grimly watches the public health disaster unfolding in India.

Over the weekend, the Guardian said that “political hubris met pandemic reality in India”. The top problem: “The Indian prime minister suffers from overconfidence in his own instincts and pooh-poohs expert advice.” The Sunday Times also took note of the “human tragedy”. With powerful images of funeral pyres brightly arrayed, the New York Times notes that the underlying tragedy is the death of credible data. The UK Telegraph suggests that the crisis in India foretells a Covid divide between the world’s nations. Those which successfully conduct vaccination and containment will boom very soon, while the rest reel repeatedly under fresh waves of the pandemic, and continue to face travel curbs. ‘Modi leads India into viral apocalypse’, is The Australian’s headline.

After the government tried to blame India’s vaccine shortage on the US, for not allowing the export of critical vaccine inputs until their own population is covered (the real reasons for the shortage, as Neeta Sanghi explains, lie elsewhere), President Joe Biden reached out to India, offering aid in return for Indian support last year, and his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke to Indian NSA Ajit Doval and offered solidarity, and the “deploying of more supplies and resources”.

In India, the usual suspects demand ‘positivity’ from the media, while the government, with a little help from Twitter, is doing its best to scrape social media clean of negativity, which is properly known as criticism. At least one critic has taken up cudgels to secure the right to free speech.

Former PM Manmohan Singh was crassly rebuffed by the government when he offered suggestions to deal with the pandemic. Undeterred, another former PM, HD Deve Gowda, has now offered 16 suggestions to the Prime Minister. The rebuff is awaited. 

This is the most useful infographic for managing Covid-19 at home, when hospital or medical care is not accessible. It was endorsed by Atul Gawande, incisive writer and professor at Harvard Medical School. 

While the Centre failed to plan for the future, Kerala has a surplus of oxygen, having increased its availability by 58% over the last year. Madurai does too, and the MP who made this happen is asking Union health minister Harsh Vardhan why he didn’t do this at the all-India level. Assam’s Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma ― who said it was not necessary to wear masks this month, since the pandemic was “over” and businesses like beauty parlours needed to functio ― has announced that the state will import oxygen from Bhutan. The Centre’s contribution: having done nothing for more than a year, the Ministry of Home Affairs has imposed a total ban on the use of liquid oxygen in industry, without exception. Earlier, it was announced that 551 PSA oxygen generation plants would be set up in public health facilities across India, through PM CARES. But as reported earlier, it took the Centre eight months after the pandemic began to float a tender for PSA oxygen plants and of the 162 plants commissioned by the Centre, only 33 are up and running.

A gurudwara in Delhi has innovated an oxygen langar. Patients can drive in and hook up to an oxygen mask while sitting in their car, until they find a hospital bed. The Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib Management Trust has announced that the Sri Hemkunt Sahib Yatra, an important date in the Sikh calendar, has been postponed. But headlined by the Prime Minister, the Mahakumbh in Haridwar continues belligerently, with the Chaitra Purnima Shahi snan scheduled tomorrow. Reflecting the severity of the Covid-19 crisis in Delhi, a public park has been converted into a cremation ground in southeast Delhi, to relieve pressure on crematoriums.

Over the weekend, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Odisha announced free vaccines for all adults in their states. Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi made the same commitent on Monday. This should put immense pressure on the Modi government to announce free shots nationally, which has been the tradition in India’s vaccination programmes for over 70 years. The BJP is announcing the shot as a sop in the West Bengal elections. It made the same promise in Bihar last year, but then forgot about it. 

UP and Bihar, which form more than 4.5% of the world population, present the biggest worry during the pandemic. UP CM Adityanath invoked the Ramcharitmanas to remind people that their patience will get tested as this was a time of crisis. But he is also ready to invoke the National Security Act to arrest those “spreading rumours” about the lack of critical care. 

Justice NV Ramana took the oath of office on Saturday as the 48th Chief Justice of India. He will be in the saddle till August 26, 2022. Justice MM Shantanagoudar of the Supreme Court passed away on Saturday due to Covid-19, though the cause of death was not formally declared.

Bangladesh has closed land routes from India today. The travel ban is for 14 days to begin with, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said yesterday.

Some current and former employees of the government’s favoured TV channel Times Now have reportedly written to their top editors and anchors slamming the pro-Modi whitewash of the pandemic. A senior editor and noted reporter, who is not very critical of the current political dispensation, has acknowledged, “This is our biggest post-Partition crisis and never has India seen a government missing in action like this.” 

And in other media, no matter which side of the Vindhyas you were born in, it’s easy to follow the burden of the argument.


Global aid for India

Several countries have offered support to India in grave crisis. The Ministry of Vishwaguru Politics is most displeased. At great cost to the security of its own citizens, the government had gone out of its way to project itself as global saviour, exporting 64 million doses of vaccines last year. Now, India has had to renege on all commitments, including commercial contracts. 

The UK will give India oxygen concentrators and ventilators, announced High Commissioner Alex Ellis, in Hindi. Pakistan has volunteered help with ventilators, oxygen and Bi-PAP machines, and so has China. Singapore has shipped four cryogenic oxygen tanks (under a private contract). “We stand with India in its fight against Covid-19,” Singapore’s embassy in New Delhi said in a statement. 

The United Arab Emirates is also coordinating with Indian embassy officials for the transfer of oxygen tankers, and the European Union and Russia are expected to send oxygen-related and pharmaceutical supplies. Environmental activist Greta Thunberg, demonised for speaking up for protesting farmers, has called for the world to help India. Saudi Arabia is shipping 80 MTs of liquid oxygen to India.


Modi govt blocks critical social media posts

India is facing a health emergency but the Modi government still mistakes it for an internal Emergency, the provision for which was removed from the Constitution after Mrs Gandhi’s misadventure. It has blocked around 100 social media updates on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and censored 52 tweets critical of Narendra Modi, comparing him to Nero. The Internet Freedom Foundation has flagged the issue. These tweets, which are now inaccessible to Indian users, include posts by Revanth Reddy, MP, West Bengal minister Moloy Ghatak, Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera, actor Vineet Kumar Singh and two filmmakers, Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das. As Medianama notes, their tweets have no contentious hashtag in common, like the #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide hashtag that the government strongly objected to the last time it had tweets withheld. 

When Modi addressed the nation last Tuesday, it seemed from social media that he had failed to grasp the growing sense of panic among citizens. As he spoke, without providing any details on how his government would turn the situation around, a Hindi hashtag that translates into “Stop the speech, not the oxygen” was tweeted more than 108,000 times. Other hashtags, including #ModiMadeDisaster and #ModiResign, were also popular. 


Vaccine pricing and supply convoluted, controversial, profitable

Vaccine manufacturers met PM Modi on April 20 to decide the exorbitant differential prices they are charging state governments and private hospitals, which were shared with the Union government. Over the weekend, Bharat Biotech announced the price of Covaxin, which has been developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research, through state funding. It will be more expensive than Covishield, with 50% of production reserved for the Centre at Rs 150 per dose while the state governments will be charged Rs 600 per dose and private hospitals, Rs 1,200 per dose. The Union health minister has rebutted the Serum Institute’s claim that it will henceforth sell Covishield to the Centre at Rs 400 per dose, the rate it will charge state governments. The minister said that the Centre will conntinnuue to pay only Rs 150 per dose for the vaccine, which was developed at the University of Oxford in the UK with public funding. Finding the vaccine policy complicated and politicised, former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian has said the Centre, and not the states, should bear the full cost of vaccines.

The Congress reckons that this discriminatory pricing policy would allow these two private pharma companies to make a profit of Rs 1.11 lakh crore from the pandemic. “Aapda mein avsar” was Modi’s advice, it may be recalled. The Congress government in Rajasthan has said that the companies have refused to supply vaccines before May 15, though the third phase of vaccination begins on 1 May. Health ministers of all Congress-ruled states also objected to differential pricing, which is unacceptable at a time of massive economic distress. “There is no way in which vaccination can be given if the vaccine is not available,” said the Chhattisgarh health minister.


Backchannel talks backgrounder

According to the leading Pakistani daily, Dawn, India appro­ached Pakistan in December 2020, soon after Joe Biden was elected US President, with an offer to reduce tension and initiate backchannel talks on all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, and Pakistan reciprocated favourably. India proposed that the two countries start talking on all outstanding issues separately instead of lumping them together in a composite dialogue. Pakistan’s “primary interest at this initial stage”, as Dawn puts it, is that what it calls ‘Occupied Kashmir’, i.e. the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, “gets back its statehood and India agrees not to bring about any demographic changes in the disputed territory.”


The Long Cable

Undercount and pay the price

Siddharth Varadarajan

The undercounting of the actual numbers of infections and deaths has made it to the front page of the New York Times. Among others, it has also been highlighted by Bloomberg and Reuters

Many assume that suppressing these numbers is as cost-free as making extravagant claims about those killed by aerial strikes at Balakot or in ‘surgical strikes’ across the LoC: it protects the image of the Modi government. But the misleading data of a pandemic is taking a huge toll on Indians. It has led to wrong estimation and poor planning for the second wave of the pandemic, be it medical supplies and emergency help, from oxygen to ICU beds to emergency medicines to overcrowded crematoriums, and caused deaths that were easily preventable. 

The data problem begins at the very first stage – testing. There is mounting evidence, including on-the-record statements by companies running tests, that they have been urged by some states to fudge their numbers. "Laboratories sending too many positive COVID results get calls from above," Velumani Aroikasamy of Thyrocare told MoJo Story. Even in states with caseloads they have not bothered to hide – such as Maharashtra and Delhi – getting a test done and receiving its results can now take days as the system is overwhelmed. Whether deliberate or not, the testing mess-up doesn’t just lead to erroneous data; it jeopardises lives and has a cascading effect on other pandemic metrics which, in turn, then also need to be fudged.

Let us understand the process. Hospitals do not treat patients for Covid without a test result that shows them positive. But if patients showing symptoms of Covid have to wait 5-6 days or longer  for a test result to confirm they are positive, chances are that a larger proportion of those whose condition requires hospitalisation will be admitted with complications than if their results were available within 48 hours of a test. This is why there is an oxygen crisis. And this is why the number of deaths has been steadily rising. 

India’s fatality rate is still low in comparison with countries like Brazil, Mexico and the United States, and the assumption has been that this is because of the country’s younger age profile. But as evidence mounts of chronic and massive undercounting, it is clear that the fatality rate is, and perhaps always was, a fiction. Official data will never tell us the truth. But for the families who have lost loved ones, the datum which matters most to them cannot be hidden. The number of those families is steadily climbing, and their collective anger will likely find expression in data like vote shares, which hopefully cannot be fudged that easily.


Reportedly

After attempting to follow the PMO’s WhatsApp instructions and blame the Opposition for the public health disaster, the government’s outsourced PR apparatus popularly known as ‘godi media’ (lapdog press) has pilloried the ‘system’. It was done to shield from blame the men at the helm, who must not be named: Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Ironically Noida, where most godi channels are headquartered, has become hell on earth. The buck stops right at the top, with the man whose picture is on the vaccination certificate. But to safeguard the image of an evasive and gaslighting Narendra, it became all about the ‘system’, a euphemism for Narendra Modi, the entity which has unleashed policy pandemonium.


Kappan ill, in chains

Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan who is accused of offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and sedition, has been “chained like an animal” to a hospital bed in Mathura, a plea on behalf of Kappan’s wife, Raihanth Kappan to Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana said. Kappan's wife stated that after he had suffered a fall in the bathroom and was diagnosed with Covid-19, he was taken to KM Medical College, Mathura, where he is being ill-treated. She wants him back in the jail. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has written to his counterpart in UP, Adityanath, to secure proper care. Eleven MPs from Kerala have also written in. 


Modi’s photo on death certificates, too?

Is PM Narendra Modi’s photo being put on the death certificates of the pandemic’s victims? AltNews does a fact check and finds it is not true. The PM takes credit for vaccination, Yamraj for the rest. 


Prime Number: 1 in 2
One of two persons undergoing RT-PCR tests in Kolkata and its suburbs is diagnosed Covid-positive. In the rest of the state, one of four RT-PCR reports is positive. That is a five-fold jump from the beginning of the month, when only one in 20 tests was positive. Home Minister Amit Shah, who has made numerous super-spreader rally trips to Bengal, denied the chronology of election rallies and the surge in West Bengal last week. 

Deep Dive

Satellite images have picked up fires burning in north India’s crematoriums (in orange) in the shortwave infrared bands. “In most cases, this is the first time this has been detected, or of ten times the intensity as those detected in the past,” says remote sensing enthusiast and engineer Raj Bhagat, about images from four cities in Uttar Pradesh. 


When IPL stands for Indian People’s Lives 

The New Indian Express group suspended coverage of the Indian Premier League yesterday, calling the glitzy cricket tournament “commercialism gone crass” and “incongruous” as the record-breaking pandemic surged. Wasim Jaffer, the Bombay cricketer hounded out of Uttarakhand under ridiculous charges of being “communal” spoke about helping those reeling under Covid. But other cricketers, who spoke up when protesting farmers had to be silenced, are as quiet as the empty stadia where the games are being played. Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar and Australia’s Adam Gilchrist had things to say, though.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • A lead edit in the Sunday Times (London), calls out the “the hubris and errors that led India into its current mess” and asks the world to help. 

  • The argument that India doesn’t have the money to administer a mass and free vaccination programme simply doesn’t wash. Rs 35,000 crore was set aside in the Budget for vaccination. Why wasn’t it used, asks Karan Thapar.

  • The narrative has moved somewhat from “we have it all” to “we are working on it”. The nature of the problem cannot be overestimated. It is colossal and all-pervasive, writes Devalina Chakravarty.

  • Bodies are stacking up in morgues and crematoriums but governments hide the numbers, writes TJS George. The system has collapsed primarily because, as the president of the Public Health Foundation put it, “Leadership did not adequately convey that this was an epidemic which had not gone away.”

  • Is the Election Commission (EC) free to cancel or postpone elections? As EC draws ire over holding Assembly polls in West Bengal, along with superpreader rallies by the BJP, FactChecker concludes that the Election Commission has issued guidelines but has not implemented its own instructions.

  • In India – a country with a fragile health system and even weaker surveillance – there is a huge possibility for harm locally and globally, perhaps on a scale not yet seen in the pandemic, writes Peter Beaumont in The Guardian.

  • If the government of the day exposes the nation to the danger of being complicit in genocide, the least that is expected of the Supreme Court is to hear, consider, examine, evaluate and decide, writes Chander Uday Singh on the Rohingya order. 

  • Ajaz Ashraf writes that we need to realise that a narrative can never be a substitute for good governance, that not to be too trusting about leaders is an essential condition to ensure democratic accountability, and that a safer — even if staid — present is infinitely preferable to the psychedelic dreams that Modi conceives for the future.


Listen Up

The English version of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Italian novel Whereabouts releases tomorrow. It’s a good time to hear this podcast from 2020, on why she found it necessary to write in Italian at all. 


Watch Out

A meticulous and incisive account by The Quint’s Rohit Khanna of why the Modi government has blood on its hands in the second surge. Policy paralysis has cost thousands of lives. 


Over and Out

So, you went on a pandemic vacation anyway. Now should you Instagram it? No, is the short answer, says this feature in VICE, on the tone-deafness of people flaunting holiday pictures amidst the gravest crisis faced by independent India.

Last week saw the first case of Covid-19 at the Mount Everest base camp. Outside magazine scooped the news on the pandemic continuing to complicate hopes for a normal season on the world’s highest mountain.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, 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.