Prioritise pandemic, not politics

Geetartha Pathak

The Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently said that too many countries are headed in the wrong direction even as Covid cases are rising. “If the basics aren’t followed, there is only one way this pandemic is going to go. It’s going to get worse and worse and worse,” he said. Although he did not name any country, it is clear which countries he pointed his finger at.

After the death of nearly 1,35,000 Americans and cases of Covid-19 in the United States crossing over 3.2 million, the US President finally wore a mask on July 13. Donald Trump defied the recommendation of his own administration to wear a mask. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it,” he stressed. During a May 26 press conference, he publicly ridiculed a reporter for wearing a mask, stating he was only doing so “to be politically correct.”

Dean Obeidallah, an opinion writer in CNN, wrote: “Masks are only part of a containment strategy, but Trump’s undermining of the recommendation on face coverings only made the consequences of this deadly pandemic worse. And this may very well turn out to be Trump’s most reprehensible and unforgivable act as President.”

Bolsonaro’s U-Turn

After months of downplaying the severity of Covid-19 in Brazil, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was himself infected. Bolsonaro, who has often appeared in public to shake hands with supporters and mingle with crowds without covering his face, came wearing a mask after he was tested positive. He has said that his history as an athlete would protect him from the virus and that it would be nothing more than a “little flu” if he were to contract it.

Brazil’s confirmed death toll from Covid-19 is the second only to the United States. Bolsonaro recommended anti-malarial drug chloroquine for treatment of Covid-19 notwithstanding findings of many medical studies world over, including Britain and the United States, that said the drug is ineffective and sometimes deadly because of its effects on the heart. Trump also promoted hydroxychloroquine for treating Covid-19. Both the leaders politicided the pandemic for their own advantage.

Other world leaders who have had bouts with Covid-19 for their political advantages, as indirectly hinted by the WHO Director-General, include British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Britain’s Prince Charles, Prince Albert II of Monaco and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.

India’s Admission

India, now the third most coronavirus affected country, has failed to flatten the infection curve in spite of the prolonged countrywide lockdown, promotion of wearing mask and other measures. India, like its other failing counterparts, affirmed on March 13 that the coronavirus is not a health emergency. The politicisation of the pandemic began with banging of utensils and switching off lights. Declaration of complete lockdown from March 25 with only a notice of four hours created a chaotic situation and did more harm than preventing it.

We all know that the lockdown was implemented when the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in India was approximately 500. India started unlock 1.0 from June 1 when the Covid-19 tally crossed over 1.9 lakh and death toll increased to 5,400. Thereafter, came unlock 2.0 from July 1 to July 31. However, these national unlockings have been accompanied by a large number of local lockdowns.

From June 28, Guwahati went into total lockdown after the cases spiralled in the city. Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram was locked down from July 6. Patna locked down from June 10 while Pune started three days later. Lockdown was imposed in Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru from July 14. Kolkata, meanwhile, declared a strict but partial lockdown for containment zones.

According to estimates, around a third of the Indian population is now affected by these local lockdowns. In spite of all these lockdowns and other restrictive measures, India is witnessing a significant rise in the number of infections. The country now has over 13 lakh cases and more than 32,000 people have lost their lives.

The critical component for checking the spread of the infection is contact tracing, which is not being followed by many States. The contacts are classified as high risk and low risk, depending on the direct or indirect proximity of contacts. They are then isolated as they could be infected too and be possible carriers of the disease.



Politics Overtakes

The WHO chief pointed out that there are many examples from around the world, which have shown that even if the outbreak is very intense, it can still be brought under control. He cited examples of Italy, Spain and South Korea, and India’s Dharavi. Such success is possible with a strong focus on community engagement and the basics of testing, tracing, isolating and treating all those who are sick. These are key to breaking the chains of transmission and keeping the virus away.

In India, politics overtakes all other public emergencies, including the pandemic. Amid such an unprecedented socio-economic crisis, the ruling party at the Centre is busy destabilising opposition-governed States. The BJP toppled the Congress-led Madhya Pradesh government just before the lockdown. Now, it is trying the same in Rajasthan. As the Bihar election is nearing, the BJP is looking for opportunities to evoke nationalistic passions, as it did before the last general election by politically exploiting the Pulwama attack and Balakot strike. Any further escalation of tension, especially after 20 Indian soldiers were killed, on the Indo-China border may provide such an opportunity to the BJP.

The key lesson that we get from the world’s three worst Covid-affected countries is that the populists policies cocktailed with nationalistic flavour at the time of a public emergency like the pandemic not only does irreparable damage to the country’s economy but also puts the lives of billions of people under threat.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)

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