This article is part of the Anatomy of a pandemic series. Click here for the first part.)
By Avinash Pandey
The World sent India millions in Covid Aid. Why it is not reaching those who need it most screams the headline of a CNN report.
A reporter in the daily press briefing of the United States’ Department of State raised the same question. A reporter, Tejinder Singh asked Jalina Porter, the Principal Deputy Spokesperson of the department about accountability of Indian government over how it is handling aid by the US taxpayers’ money. He asked.
“Thank you. I have just two short questions. One is: We are sending these planeloads of material to India. But our journalist in Delhi is reporting that even after trying for two days he’s been unable to find out who is taking away the oxygen concentration, medicines, or how much is arriving. There’s no website or transparent system where people can apply to get this. So this accountability for the U.S. taxpayers’ money being sent, is there anything being done to check on how it is being distributed, the aid that we are sending?”
Unfortunately, the government of India seems to have no answers to both. Despite its claim otherwise, reports expose that it took a whopping 7 days merely to make a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for distributing the foreign aid. India received its first foreign aid consignment on 25 April, 2021, the government issued the first SOP only on 2 May 201. All this while, the aid kept lying at the airports, oxygen concentrators remained stuck with the customs.
This happened as Indians, actually even foreigners in India, gasped for oxygen. The death toll stayed over 3,000 meaning at least 21,000 died for the lack of essential supplies. All this as instead of treating the patients, hospitals after hospitals had to run to courts as “last resort” for oxygen supply warning that they had thousands of patients needing oxygen support while supply would not last for more than a few hours.
The cluelessness of the government on fighting the pandemic can be gauged by the fact that forget Indians, ordinary or Very Important Person (VIP) as they are known in country, even the members of foreign missions started seeking help of Indian National Congress, the main opposition party for their oxygen and other needs. The embassy of the Philippines was the first to tag the president of INC’s youth wing for help. The High Commission of New Zealand soon followed suit. Embarrassed Ministry of external affairs of India, of course, tried to deny this but in the era of internet and screenshots, truth can hardly ever be hidden.
Further, by confirming that the High Commission of the New Zealand did indeed seek help from the Youth Congress, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern nailed the lies of the government of India.
The government of India was only further exposed by the fact that it had to reactivate the Covid cell in the Ministry of External Affairs, the nodal body to take care of covid cases in the diplomatic community, only after the embarrassment. The ministry reactivated the cell, formed in March 2020 to coordinate the Covid help for the members of the diplomatic community on May 1, 2021 by assigning a joint secretary level officer to it- after the fiasco.
One may wonder what the government of India was so busy with as to take a whole week merely to put up a SOP for the distribution of foreign aid, especially oxygen, as people were dying for the lack of. Well it was doing what it has been known for last 7 years- exercises to manage headlines and build a narrative boosting its image, fighting opposition governments of several states in high courts over oxygen quota, and arm-twisting a newly elected opposition government of Bengal over law and order often with fake news from its leaders and party. The most embarrassing among them was sharing a picture of a journalist as its worker killed in political violence 1000s of kilometres away.
Even as the pandemic raged and killed thousands, the foreign minister of India, S Jaishanker held a virtual meeting of Indian envoys across the world asking them to counter ‘one-sided’ world media narrative on govt’s pandemic ‘failure’. The meeting took place on 27 April, 2021 as the foreign aid, securing which was the other thing on agenda, kept lying on airport tarmacs and/or remained stuck with the customs.
The government of India also organized yet another meeting with over 350 top officials of the country on May 4, 2021. The main agenda of the meeting, led by the Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javdekar, was to “create a positive image of the government”, manage “perception through effectively highlighting positive stories and achievements”, and making the government “be seen to be sensitive, bold, quick, responsive, hard-working, etc”.
To put this meeting in context, it came in the middle of the worst pandemic in the country, the worst across the world. With 36,110 deaths, the country has now surpassed the United States which witnessed 34,798 in ten days, and Brazil which recorded 32,692. The meeting also came on a day when India reported over 4 lakh cases yet again, worsening its own record, and 16th straight day of more than 3 lakh cases.
Yet the priority of the government remains to boost its image, not the decision making, forget the health infrastructure that is in ruins now.
The Government of India may very well hide its failures, as it has been doing for a while now, by hiding data from its own citizenry. How would it hide the same from the world community demanding accountability for the aid given by the money of the taxpayers?
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About the Author: Mr. Avinash Pandey, alias Samar is Programme Coordinator, Right to
Food Programme, AHRC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.