TOPIC – Disease politics

“My crowd versus your crowd, BJP versus Congress — parties should fight the virus, not each other”

As the Covid second wave continues its treacherous climb and governments start moving towards localised lockdowns hoping that will bend the curve, the fight against the pandemic threatens to be overshadowed by a political slugfest. Sharpened by a long and a very bitter election campaign in five states, it has reached a stage where Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan — a soft-spoken politician by all accounts — shoots off a letter to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that reads more like a partisan rant than a response from the strongest Centre in over three decades. Singh had suggested ways to ramp up vaccination and the Health Minister accused him and his party of being ungrateful, incompetent, dangerous and what have you. Just a day ago, Rahul Gandhi cancelled his rallies in West Bengal asking other politicians to rethink their campaign plans. A little rich, few have a guilt-free conscience when it comes to crowds since last January when the first testing for COVID began. The Trump rally last February in Ahmedabad, the tail-end of the anti-CAA protests, the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi in March, Onam celebrations in Kerala in late August, farm protests and rail rokos across Punjab, then the standoff in Singhu and Tikri, Assembly elections in Bihar, multiple festivals across India, most recently the Kumbh, and, of course, the polls in the five states now. Each of these events was, by its very nature, a violation of COVID protocol but each was framed — and was sought to be justified — as per a political script. Science doesn’t make these distinctions. It dictates that Covid protocol and vaccination are the only two weapons in the arsenal against the virus. Monday’s decision to open vaccination to everyone above 18 couldn’t have come a day too soon. This, along with better and wider gene studies of the variants and more serosurveys — as a series in this newspaper is reporting — are the tools that got blunted during the lull and need to be redeployed. Localised lockdowns are harsh and the most vulnerable will need a safety net. Indeed, all of this calls for good governance by states at the local level helped by the Centre’s guiding hand. One feature of India’s fightback last year was the political unity on display. The Centre and state governments pooled in their resources, shared best practices, and were together in formulating and enforcing the protocols they jointly devised. Besides the alarm, there is also rancour in the air. Perhaps, an all-party meeting will break the sudden ice? On May 2, the election results will come in. By then, if the number of daily deaths doesn’t dip, 20,000 more would have died.