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India and COVID: Needless Chest-Thumping

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
06 May 2024

When one of the authors, Dr. Joseph M. Chalil, of the book "India Beyond the Pandemic: A Sustainable Path towards Global Quality Healthcare," and the publisher, KPR Nair of Konark, invited me to attend the book release at the India International Centre, I deemed it my duty to attend. Dr. Chalil was kind enough to send me a copy of the Kindle version of the book.

So, I was not unfamiliar with the theme of the book, the release of which was attended online and offline by many. Another attraction for me was the presence of MD Nalapat, a co-author whose oratorical skill had dazzled me a few years ago, incidentally, at the same venue.

The book dealt with how India managed COVID-19 and its aftermath, with an emphasis on the role India can play in the future. It is well-known that though America is the most resourceful country in the world with state-of-the-art hospitals that attract patients from all over the world, including Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, it has a creaking public healthcare system.

In comparison, Cuba is a resource-starving nation, but it has an excellent healthcare system, which is both free and efficient. Recently, while travelling to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, I saw at least half a dozen patients, some with bandages, returning after treatment in Delhi on the same flight. You can find such patients at Ayurvedic centres in Kerala, not to mention hospitals in Mumbai, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, and Bengaluru.

There is no doubt that India is a formidable player in the health sector, and it can indeed become the global leader in this field if it plays its cards well. It was inspiring to hear Dr. Chalil making a prophecy.

There will come a time when about 2,000 doctors will sit with monitors in front of them through which they will hear cases of patients all over the world and prescribe medicines or give medical advice. They will be like call centres, where employees address specific issues of a particular company. The doctors can get instant reports about patients' blood pressure, heartbeat, and body temperature from the wristwatches they wear.

When Dr. Chalil visualised such a scenario, I remembered the time when my wife and I consulted a doctor when we were down with COVID-19. She came online to talk to us only after her consultation fee was paid online. In fact, even before COVID-19, I had consulted a dermatologist who wanted me to take a close-up picture of the problematic skin area and send it to her.

I did not have to travel about 30 km to meet the doctor, and she did not have to pay for the facility where she met her patients. It was a win-win situation for both. Nalapat, who edited the Mathrubhumi daily, had the distinction of reporting India's first case of AIDS. He said that when he went to the US, he used to be looked down upon by the immigration authorities there.

But when the same authorities saw many Indian medical doctors arriving in the US, their respect for Indians increased. It is a different matter that such feelings are mostly perceptional. I never felt that I was looked down upon in the US, but I know for sure how Indians treat visitors from Europe and visitors from Africa and some countries in Asia.

Be that as it may, the point is that India has the potential to provide doctors like the ones in Britain who manage the public health system there. I have a relative who is a surgeon in the Gulf. He did his MBBS from a government medical college in Jaipur, paying a monthly fee of Rs 35. Today, I want to help a poor girl get admission to a four-year B.Sc. (Nursing) course. I consulted many nursing schools where the fees range between Rs 6.5 lakh and Rs 10 lakh.

It has become impossible for a poor person to make his son or daughter a medical practitioner. The profession is now reserved for the rich. Even government medical colleges levy heavy fees if the student does not belong to a scheduled caste or a scheduled tribe. We also have a government led by people who do not believe in affirmative action.

Small wonder that some of the speakers mentioned that doctors are not willing to work in rural areas. Why should they, who spent Rs 1 crore and more on their medical education, work in a village where the hospital may not even have any medicines to dispense or nursing and paramedical staff to support them?

One suggestion heard was that they should be forced to do one or more years of service in a rural area before they get their medical degree. India is a country where the privileged do not go to jail, even when sportspersons accuse an official of moral turpitude inviting action under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). I am sorry for the digression here.

It was Hardeep Singh Puri, Union minister and former diplomat, who set the ball rolling when he made fantastic claims about how India managed COIVID-19. Of course, he did not forget to mention his boss's name a few times which is now the mandatory duty of all ministers, no matter what they speak. He had a claim to speak because he had written the Foreword to the book. He merely repeated what he wrote.

The chief guest was the former NITI Aayog head Amitabh Kant, who serves as India's G-20 Sherpa. He wrote the Preface to the book. He is a Kerala cadre IAS officer who had the onerous task of managing the COVID-19 situation at the policy level. It is a different matter that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not have consulted him when he announced a countrywide lockdown with just a five-hour notice. The PM wanted everyone to remain wherever he or she was when the lockdown began. It could have been the toilet!

Kant was quoting figures left and right when he claimed that India showed the way to combat a pandemic like COVID-19. Nowhere in the world did any government or party officials blame a community, as was done in India. A group of Muslims, mostly from Asian countries, came for a conference in Delhi. They came with visas on their passports, and the organisers had permission to hold the conference. Yet, they were blamed for spreading COVID-19. All kinds of fictitious stories were spread to target the community. But nobody complained when Kumbh Mela-type gatherings were permitted when the whole world was suffering from the pandemic.

Kant did not mention Modi's advice to the nation to use all the metallic vessels in one's house to make a cacophony of sound to drive away the Coronavirus. He also advised the nation to switch off all the electrical lights and equipment for a particular period during which only diyas should be lit. The poor electrical authorities had to make arrangements to ensure the power system did not collapse! Modi did not know that power cannot be stored but has to be used.

Again, he ordered all the naval ships to beam their lights to the sky to honour the health professionals, especially nurses, who sacrificed their lives fighting Corona. And when it came to paying them decent compensation, claims were made that they died of pre-existing diseases and not Corona!

Far from being apologetic, Kant claimed that the government did the right thing by not giving large sums of money to tide over unemployment and COVID-induced poverty, which would have caused inflation. While countries like the US gave huge payouts, India gave a few hundred rupees to each poor person with a bank account. Otherwise, the government did nothing for the poor.

Kant would have done well to read Barkha Dutt's "Humans of COVID: To Hell and Back" to know what really happened during those horrible days. Tens of thousands of people had to walk hundreds of miles to reach their native places from cities like Delhi and Mumbai. What did the government do for them, except that the police pounced upon them with their lathis for violating the lockdown?

Who has forgotten the people who slept on the railway tracks and who were driven over by a speeding train? Did any country witness such scenes? I know a nurse who was prevented from entering the housing society where she lived because she had returned from a hospital treating COVID patients.

One of my friends who served the President of India as a speechwriter could not get her father admitted to a hospital. She ran from hospital to hospital only to be rejected. Finally, he died for want of oxygen in front of a hospital.

Fantastic claims were made about vaccination. Even today the effectiveness of vaccines has not been proved. During that time, I attended two meetings organised by the disaster management authority to tackle COVID. In the first meeting, the main speaker was the head of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. I felt sad when he fell victim to COVID. The vaccines did not help.

Kant claimed that 25 million people were vaccinated on a single day. I wish he had spoken about the effectiveness of the vaccines, whether Indian or foreign. The government had been giving smallpox and polio vaccines free of cost. Here, people were compelled to use the vaccines. The protocols on vaccines changed as the weather changed in Delhi. First, it was said that the vaccines had to be taken within specified intervals.

When the Centre and the States bargained on the prices to be paid to the laboratories, nobody talked about the interval. Then, it was said that the interval period could vary. No protocols were followed before forcing millions to get vaccinated. My wife and I paid for the vaccines. I would have skipped them, but for foreign travel.

I, too, was given a certificate which had Narendra Modi's photograph. Did any political leader, including the ruler of North Korea, use his picture on vaccination certificates? The WHO mandates a follow-up study of the post-vaccination scenario. Is the government doing it? Even medical doctors admit in private that the vaccines had their side effects. Nobody mentioned it there. Worse, thousands of NGOs chipped in to give relief to the poor. There was no mention of them.

I was amused to listen to co-author Pradeep K. Kapur, a career diplomat, who addressed the gathering from his office in Washington. He talked about how India has already become a Vishwa Guru. Like an RSS pracharak, he went on praising vegetarianism and yoga. He said his health was good because he ate sattvic food.

I don't know how he could reach such positions as ambassador when he holds such silly opinions. Are the Chinese, who eat everything that moves, non-healthy? How come they win Olympic medals by the hundreds? I am also a vegetarian in the sense that I eat a small piece of fish or an egg once in a while. Food is a personal choice. If Kapur were born a Pakistani Muslim or a Mongolian Buddhist, he would have eaten meat.

Does the government have any count of the vegetarians and non-vegetarians who died of COVID-19? How can it have when bodies were thrown into the Ganga and the Yamuna, to mention just two rivers?

India's medical system is in terrible condition. While the government has been withdrawing from the health sector, the private sector has been thriving. I found it amusing to see a patient in a five-star hospital holding three remote controls: one to change TV channels, one to control the AC, and a third to control his own bed.

Tens of thousands of people die in India because they cannot afford to buy medicines or consult doctors, despite the plethora of government schemes named after the PM. Hospitalisation can lead to pauperisation. We need to increase our investments in public health before we can preach to the world about the benefits of vegetarianism. A nation would not become a Vishwa Guru when students are given 50 per cent marks for trying to write Jai Sri Ram in their answer papers.

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